Why a Cleveland sports championship carried more significance to me than I ever realized, especially on my first Father’s Day.
I’m sitting down to write right now, three hours after the Cleveland Cavs won the NBA championship. The first title for my hometown of Cleveland in my lifetime (1.5 of my lifetimes, if “my lifetime” is a unit of measurement that can exist independent of me). Ever since Game 7 became a reality, I knew I was going to write something on my website, win or lose, but I had — and have — no plan. I wouldn’t allow myself to get my hopes up that they’d win; I couldn’t predict how I’d react if another Cleveland team came this close but didn’t pull it off. So I’m going to do something I never do — just aimlessly write and see what comes out.
The biggest question rattling around in my head this week (and, really, for years) has been: Why do I care so much? It’s genuinely illogical when you take a step back. I’ve now lived away from Cleveland longer than I lived in Cleveland. There’s nothing I can do to affect the outcome of a Cavs game (although that wouldn’t be true if they’d accepted my application to be head coach when I was in middle school). Why do sporting events happening hundreds or thousands of miles from me have such a profound, searing impact on my life? Why did I wake up the past three nights from honest-to-God nightmares over the Cavs losing? Why?
And then, during the second quarter, it finally clicked. I was transfixed on the game, crazy-eyed, from the edge of the couch. In between the TV and me was my nine-month-old son, Max, playing with his toys. (He’s amazingly not distracted by the TV. He loves picking up books and flipping through them. It’s like magic.)
I was living and dying with every possession. Jumping up and down, cheering, sighing, chastising, lamenting, deep breathing. And at one point, after a particularly bad sequence (shout out to Mo Williams — your ill-advised shooting made this moment of self-actualization possible), I jumped, screamed, and pounded the couch.
One of our dogs, Hugo, ran outside, scared. And Max looked at me and started crying.
It snapped me out of it completely. I turned off the TV, walked over and picked him up. I gave him a hug and he stopped crying. And then I just word vomited all over him. (Which, FYI, is more profound but less cute than the times he’s vomited all over me.) This is paraphrased, but basically, it was: “Daddy’s hometown is very close to doing something that’s never happened before. I don’t want you to know it as a place that always loses. And I don’t want you to think Daddy is a loser.”
I’d never framed it like that before. I didn’t even realize that was a thought in my head.
But that was it. As ridiculous as it sounds, at some point, the endless barrage of spectacular (and less spectacular) Cleveland failures had stopped disappointing me and started becoming a part of me. And as the championship drought went longer, more and more seeped in, insidiously reinforcing the pessimistic side of reality. Reinforcing the Sisyphean idea that failure, not success, is an inevitability.
I wasn’t from Cleveland or a fan of Cleveland — I was Cleveland. As things in my professional life ebbed and flowed (some decent failures, some decent successes, so many close calls to that ultimate success that JUST missed), I was Cleveland. I am Cleveland. I didn’t want to see a Cleveland victory, I needed to see a victory. I needed to know it was possible, not just for my hometown, but for myself. To know that, yes, if you keep doing the right things, you persevere, you get a modicum of luck, and you have the talent, success is attainable. It is the endgame. And it’s worth fighting for.
But rewinding back to the moment with my son, none of that “blah blah woe is me” bullshit came up.
Instead, after telling him, “I don’t want you to think Daddy is a loser,” I looked at him. At his (genetically random) blond hair. At his (randomer) blue eyes. At his two teeth. At the mashed sweet potato residue just under his nostril. And I smiled. Then he smiled.
“But don’t worry,” I told him, “I’m not.”
And I took him upstairs to feed him a bottle and get him ready for bed. Yes, I stopped watching in the middle of Game 7, the biggest game in Cleveland sports history. I think I just, finally, attained perspective.
Suddenly, I wasn’t stressed at all about the rest of the game. I’d be lying if I said I knew the Cavs would win, but I stopped being worried about what would happen if they lost. The Cleveland mentality was a fundamental part of me, but I was a fundamental part of Max. A healthy, growing, seemingly smart, off-the-charts happy baby. Regardless of any sports curse that I’d internalized, life was all good.
After he went to sleep I went back downstairs and resumed watching, just in time for the end of the third quarter. I was still watching with strong intensity, but without the lunatic-style yelling or couch pounding. (Still enough to scare Hugo, but not enough to keep my wife from wanting to watch with me.) And when the Cavs defied the odds and won, in spite of my one-hour-old sense of maturity and perspective, I felt an enormous weight lifted off of my shoulders. Yes, my personal shoulders. For a bunch of gigantic mercenary multimillionaires, none of whom I’d ever met, all of whom are younger than me, winning a bunch of basketball games. Suddenly, everything seems possible, maybe even more possible than it ever did before. A Cleveland championship meant THAT much to me. And I can imagine that every person from Cleveland has their own, individual reason why it means that much to them.
And sure, if the Cavs had lost, I would’ve been OK too. But they didn’t. They won. Today I got my cake and got to eat it too.
That’s a pretty good first Father’s Day.