Cleveland fans, as the Cavs enter Game 2 of the NBA Finals…
Are you worried that the Cavs will lose and then get swept in four games?
Are you worried that the real LeBron James never does show up?
Are you worried that the real reason the Cavs got to the ultimate stage is to perpetuate another cruel joke on Cleveland sports fans? Another set up for disaster?
If you’re a Cleveland sports fan and you aren’t at least secretly asking yourself those questions and more then, well, you’re not a Cleveland sports fan.
That same shovel of dirt need not be turned over again, here, as the national media are doing a good enough job of reminding the locals of all the wretched failures that sports fans of this city’s professional teams have had to endure. But perhaps there is another way to look at it. For example, have the fans of any team been as prepared as fans of Cleveland’s sports teams for failure? Probably not, which is what puts them a leg up and everyone else. As Carl Spackler might say, we’ve got that goin’ for us, which is nice.
But the whole truth that is that if you never know failure, you can never fully appreciate success. That’s why the Cavs just getting to the NBA Finals was so exhilarating. Years of failure had taught fans what it was like to finally scale the mountain. But remember this. Though the Cavs wait to get in the NBA Finals was the longest for any franchise, it was actually half a decade less than the drought suffered by their Gateway neighbors, the Indians, when they finally made it to the World Series in 1995. Looking back at that accomplishment, the feeling among the fans then and the fans when the Cavs finally broke through was nearly identical; an intense release from an overmatched pressure valve that had been building on the seeds of failure stretched over 41 years.
But despite the fact that the Indians team of 1995 was exceptionally strong and its appearance in the World Series, given how the baseball season plays out over its long season, was hardly a surprise, there was still a rather deep feeling of dread underlying the giddiness. The concern then, as now, was that having gotten to the big show the Indians would crap all over themselves. If you’re being honest, when the Indians lost the first two games of that series, you were worried. Not about winning the whole thing, but about whether the Tribe would be swept and how often the comparisons to the 1954 team would be thrown in your face.
Thus, as satisfying as it was when the Indians won the American League Championship, their victory in game three of the World Series was even bigger. Not only would the Indians not get swept, but suddenly they were only down two games to one and it was a series again.
Remember that as you turn to ABC Sunday evening. On the minds of most Cavs fans right now, conditioned as they are by the countless stories since game one describing the brilliant awesomeness of the Spurs and the overmatched awfulness of the Cavs, is that the Cavs will get swept. Of course, those same writers, just prior to game one were telling a slightly different story, but no matter. Even if the Cavs don’t find a way to solve Tim Duncan and, more importantly, the soon-to-be Desperate Husband, Tony Parker, the Cavs come home Tuesday with the opportunity to make it a series and a decent chance that they will do just that.
The cynic in most Cleveland sports fans will rightly point out that the Indians went on to lose in 1995 so it mattered little that they weren’t swept. True, of course, but not the whole story. For one thing, despite all the accomplishments of the Atlanta Braves, they lost the World Series in 1991 and 1992 before getting to the top in 1995. And even after beating Cleveland in 1995, they lost again in 1996 and 1999. In other words, winning the ultimate prize isn’t a matter of destiny. Often, it’s a matter of luck. But luck, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, is something you tend to find the harder you work. And, with all due regard to Yankee fan, nobody has worked harder in baseball than the Braves at staying at the top.
Which is something else to remember about the Cavs. In owner Dan Gilbert, they have one of the hardest working owners in sports. When Gilbert first arrived on the scene, there was great trepidation about whether he was to the NBA what Daniel Snyder is to the NFL, a self-made and self-absorbed multi-millionaire who figured because he watched a few games he knew everything about the sport. But some early public relations stumbles notwithstanding, Gilbert has proven the complete opposite, to the point that most fans are wondering why he can’t also own the Indians and the Browns.
What makes Gilbert such a great owner is that he understands that professional sports is, in many ways, just like any other multi-million dollar business. It needs structure and rigor and people with talent and vision to make it successful. The players, like employees in any business, tend to come and go, and thus it is imperative that a fundamentally solid structure striving always to continuously improve be put in place. Work hard enough and luck will inevitably follow. Indeed, in that vein Gilbert’s following the business model that has proven so successful for the business that made him his money in the first place, Quicken Loans.
When you enter the Q, there is a culture that Gilbert has put in place that is built not simply on customer satisfaction but customer loyalty, which is really the more important of the two attributes. One may quibble with all of the trappings that surround the game experience at the Q, but one cannot quibble with the intent. Gilbert wants to ensure that he is delivering value always, something not easily achieved given the ticket prices.
Compare that to either the Indians or the Browns. The Dolans have achieved some business success, to be sure, but not on the scale of Gilbert. Randy Lerner may have more money, but it’s inherited. Lerner’s best attribute, like the Dolans, is that he’s a fan first and truly understands the psyche of his fan base. But his struggle in building a successful franchise stems from the simple fact that he’s never had to build a business from the ground up. He’s still in the trial and mostly error phase. Gilbert, on the other hand, is the consummate entrepreneur. He scraped and scratched and tried and failed long before he got to Cleveland. He may not yet be a man in full, but he’s much further along the path and Cavs fans are the beneficiaries.
Sure, the fact that the Cavs are in the NBA Finals is a surprise to most, perhaps even to Gilbert. But there is no question, as we’ve said before, that if the Cavs didn’t get in the finals soon, they would do so sooner anyway. That prediction was borne initially out of the sheer brilliance of LeBron James, who is likely to be considered one of the all time greatest players when he retires, in a Cleveland uniform, a hundred years from now, but it also was a nod to the business acumen of Gilbert as well.
Cleveland fans will always have something to worry about. In the short-term, it’s whether or not the Cavs will get swept. But the real takeaway in all of this is that behind the scenes a successful franchise is beginning to emerge. And if “luck” isn’t on the side of the Cavs this time, it will be inevitably.