Unless you're several years into your AARP eligibility, never in your lifetime has a Cleveland team been installed as the preseason favorite to win a championship both by the Las Vegas oddsmakers1 and by a solid majority of the analysts in the sport, the way the 2015-16 Cavaliers are.2
How's it feel to be rooting for the favorite, Cleveland?
Tough to cop to any emotions at all, right? Beyond hope, that is.
Maybe, just maybe, during Cleveland's 146 consecutive championship-free seasons3 — by far the longest in the history of North American professional sports — there was a year or two when hopes were as high. Not since the halcyon early '60s heyday of Paul and Jim Brown, though, have such hopes seemed so realistic.
You've got LeBron James, about whom perhaps you've heard.
You've got two more of the league's top 20 players4 in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
You've got every important player coming back5 from a roster that had the best record in the NBA in the second half of the year, to which you're adding size (Russian center Sasha Kaun and healthy-for-now-anyway Anderson Varejao) and veteran scoring punch (Richard Jefferson and the returning Mo Williams).
There's no better team, on paper, in the league.
Yet — haunted as we all are by the sight of the injury-depleted Cavs in last season's NBA Finals6 — it's hard not to see the name of their practice facility — Cleveland Clinic Courts — as ominously on the nose.
Varejao (Achilles tendon) arrived at training camp 100 percent good to go, but the entire non-LeBron starting lineup — Timofey Mozgov (knee), Love (shoulder), Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) — was either slowed, iffy for opening day, or (in the case of the latter two) out for two or three more months. The latter three, for good measure, have been hurt off and on their whole careers. And that's before even considering the health of LeBron, who will turn 31 this season and who, in the past five years, has played 2,000-plus more minutes than anyone else in the NBA.
"Hope springs eternal on media day," said Cavs general manager David Griffin, speaking of the event — a fluffy press release come to life — that marks the official opening of training camp, "for everybody but us."
He was chuckling as he said this last part, the way you do at unexpected bad fortune (such as the news of the ruptured tendons in Shumpert's wrist) that you somehow half-expected.7
The players set an even darker, fiery tone.
James spoke not of hope (or patience, as he did before last season) but of being "very, very angry" about losing in the Finals last summer.
Irving said he'd be displaying "a lot more rage," adding that, "there won't be too much smiling or anything like that from our team."
"When I return," tweeted Shumpert, "it will be for blood."
For us, the mere fans, things stand to be a bit less Game of Thrones-y.
Our sports teams have always had an uncanny mirror-and-lamp relationship with the zeitgeist of the city. Consider what the nadir of the mid-'70s represented for all (then-)four teams and the city itself. Or the superficial comeback that was the '90s, right in synch with Browns, Cavs and Indians teams that sniffed greatness but never won it all. In other cities (think the Boston Strong Red Sox or post-9/11 New York Yankees), the only times the majority of fans are wearing gear honoring the city itself rather than the team playing for a title is in the wake of a tragedy. Here, at least half the gear you saw at the Finals was Cleveland-related: The tragedy was our own dismal history.
Once (think Kardiac Kids), there was a time when a Cleveland championship might have been a rising (if sludgy) tide that could maybe lift all boats. Today, there's a realistic hope, maybe even optimism, that the foundations of the city really are getting better, that a title would simply be a wondrous capstone to all that.
Whether that means the 147th time will be the charm, who knows?
But as we gear up for a year of holding our breath, waiting for the Cavs' injuries to heal faster than new ones occur, let's not treat the regular season we've looked forward to for months as a glorified preseason, something we can't wait to end so that the playoffs can begin.
During a Cavs practice that was broadcast live on Facebook,8 coach David Blatt jogged over to Irving, who was watching on the bench. "Ky! Ky!" Blatt marveled. "Look how much bigger we are!"
Kyrie, yes, smiled. It was a big smile but a tiny moment.
For now, let's just seek and collect those moments. The huge, mythological narrative arc of LeBron's prodigal-son single-minded pursuit of a title is something an outsider can see from a distance. Cherish every up-close detail that makes it yours.
Don't think about next summer. Don't think about lining up along a reborn Euclid Avenue to watch the parade we've been waiting for all of our lives. Don't think about how it all might go wrong, because we all already know that, all too well.
Odds are, this season will be different. Cleveland! Look how much bigger we are.
1 Who, yes, had Cleveland as the favorite last year too, at least after the late-in-the-offseason consummation of the Kevin Love trade. For what it's worth, the odds are even shorter now. 2 Let's confine this to a footnote, but be honest: Didn't you have the same reservations last year many basketball experts did? New coach, total roster overhaul, no rim protection, nobody but LeBron James and a few old guys on the bench with even a single game of playoff experience — blah, blah, blah. It all proved pretty much correct, alas. But ... dare I say it? Aren't all those things more or less fixed now? 3 That'd be 51 by the Indians, 45 by the Cavaliers, 31 by the original Browns, 17 (including not-technically-over 2015) by their hapless successors, and two by the NHL's Cleveland Barons. 4 So says Slam magazine and, well, me. No other team has three players ranked so high. 5 As I write this, the Tristan Thompson holdout continues, but let's be optimistic.6 I'll always think of them as the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, limbs hacked off one at a time and gamely fighting on. I half expected them to disrupt the Golden State Warriors trophy ceremony by yelling, "You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you! I'll bite your legs off!" 7 He's only lived in Cleveland for five years, but dude's officially one of us now. 8 And, even more bafflingly, I spent two whole hours of my life watching.