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52 of 54: Not quite a lifetime title drought

Cleveland sport historian Greg Popelka has been around for 54 years, but the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA championship is the first title he has seen since he was two years old.

Longtime WFNY contributor Greg Popelka offered his thoughts to what the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers breaking the dreaded title curse has meant to him.

Has my life changed? After the only major Cleveland sports championship I’ve experienced, it’s taking some time to process. After all, as I told my wife: I still get up every day, same as always. I make the coffee, I retrieve the newspaper from the driveway (yes), I shoo the cat from whatever trouble he’s getting into. (My wife was not surprised as I launched into my Monty Python serenade: “I cut down trees, I eat my lunch, I go to the lava- treee”).

Core Question

I guess the core question for me has always been: What are spectator sports purpose? They are for enjoyment, right? Young teams offer the promise of getting better; the “process” is sufficient entertainment, on a day-to-day basis. I appreciate glimpses of the camaraderie our teams display, and I love to explore the rich depths of our teams’ histories.

Until this year, I always maintained that the Ohio State Buckeyes football championships I’ve seen are enough for me.     1    Detractors scoffed at their conference. Their schedule. Their perceived team speed. During their 2014-season title run, they beat #1 (Alabama), #2 (Oregon), #6 (Michigan State), and #13 (Wisconsin). And they beat them at the end of the season, when the rankings meant the most. They won with power, and they won with speed. They beat the champions of the AAC, the SEC, and the PAC 12. Oregon had beaten ACC champ Florida State, so transitive math showed the Buckeyes had bested that conference as well, right? Right? Shoot, the B1G’s Wisconsin defeated the SEC’s Auburn on New Year’s Day. And since the B1G’s Michigan State also defeated Big12 co-champion Baylor, MSU might as well have been considered Big12 co-champ. How about THAT?

The Buckeyes were head and shoulders above everyone else at the end of the season. This… this was satisfying. I mean, God bless Urban Meyer. And, God bless Jim Tressel.

But admittedly, Cleveland teams failing to win titles, and failing in a crushing fashion, had become a growing burden.

The Anguish

Why can sports cause such anguish?

Because for one thing, Greg, ya knucklehead: we want them to WIN. Once in a while, at least. It had been so long since Cleveland had won a title that I had become indifferent to the 1948 and 1964 Indians and Browns stories. The law of averages holds the hope of a championship- right? If there are about thirty teams in a league, every team in that league should be expected to win a title every thirty seasons. And I believe most Northeast Ohio sports fans still root for the hometown teams, straight-ticket. So with three major league teams, the law of averages say we should be celebrating a champion every decade.

Ah, but one of sports’ great lessons is that they are inherently not fair. It doesn’t matter what we may “deserve.” From the incompetency of referees, to horrendous team management, to our squads just not being good enough, success is not guaranteed.

Many Cleveland fans have kept at arm’s length the misery of blowing title chances. Unfortunately, outsiders had managed to frame this as part of our identity. While this has been bothersome, what has troubled me the most has been the self-pitying, woe-is-me streak I’ve seen in us.    2   I am not a fan of much of anything about an east coast city like Boston, but I envy them in one way: when slighted, they aren’t super-defensive. They sneer and move on. This reaction is what I’ve hoped my fellow Cleveland fans would adopt when the inevitable misery montage-type moments have arisen.   3  I want it to be us that controls our narrative.

So what about these 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that has taken that monkey off our back?

This team has something for every fan. It has the all-time superstar, the class clowns, the families with the cute kids. It has the savvy veterans, the young studs who are still growing into their own. It is obvious that we appreciate all of the facets of this team. Watching that parade on my computer at work was incredible. I felt so great watching the crowd, just as much as the players. This was about US.

Choppy Ride

But it has been a very choppy ride for us- even just over the last two years. What have we been told by the critics? Off the top of my head:

  •       Kyrie Irving was going to leave after his rookie contract.

He re-signed at the earliest possible date- before anyone knew LeBron James was returning.

  •      LeBron James spent his prime years in Miami.

He’s still capable of THIS, though.

  •       The Cavaliers were going to pay for taking Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, Jared Cunningham, Bernard James, and Jae Crowder ahead of Draymond Green in the 2012 draft.

Actually, every team passed on Green in the first round. The Golden State Warrior selected Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli ahead of him. And anyway, whatever. Championship.

  •       Trading for Kevin Love was a mistake.

LeBron wanted him as he returned, from what I’ve heard . Anyway, whatever. Championship.

  •        LeBron James was running the team.

Maybe, somewhat. Whatever. Championship.

  •        What a ridiculous contract for Tristan Thompson.

No. Championship.

  •        Love was going to leave in 2015.

Boston. Lakers. This was a daily drama. Think it was blown out of proportion, perhaps?

  •        Chicago was going to be a better team than Cleveland.

Not so much.

  •        Atlanta might end up with all five of the starting All Stars in the East!

Good for them.

  •       The Cavaliers, in a typical, Cleveland-type “smh” move, fired the coach of the team that had won its conference the year before and was currently boasting the best conference record.

Yes they did. Championship.

  •       And how about this one, post-championship and pre-parade: LeBron is leaving! He’s going to form a new team with his banana boat friends! LeBron, Wade, Carmelo and CP3 together!

Not so much.

So we see winning a championship matters, and it does so in various ways.

We are the champions

After all, without a Super Bowl win, it’s tough to convince folks that Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield formed a better cornerback tandem than the Raiders’ Hayes and Haynes. Without a Series win, you won’t get a lot of nods outside of Cleveland when you talk about how historically good the late ‘90s Indians lineups were (with Manny and Thome at the bottom of the order).

These 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers will never need to convince anyone how good they were. Winning the title alone takes care of that- let alone doing it in historic comeback fashion.

Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers are the 2016 NBA Champions (yes, I’ll keep referring to them in this fashion for at least 12 months), my wish for my fellow Cleveland sports fans is still: disregard prevailing national opinions of you and your teams. Or take them with a grain of salt. Because after a short time, the sports media will not validate you. And we don’t need that from them.  4 

We are the champions, indeed. Our lives are buoyed by a shared joy, confidence, hope…

Maybe something fundamental is changed.

God bless LeBron James.


1                 No, I did not attend The Ohio State University. I have, however, followed their football program since I was a young child. Come to think of it, probably since their 1968 championship.

2                 “Big Dawg” crying during a session of Congress was the epitome of this excruciatingly wince-inducing activity.

3                 I also wince when outsiders show pity, like when Believeland first aired. I didn’t even watch it. I lived it, and I don’t want sympathy. I want my teams to be feared, even hated. Like the Buckeyes are, and the Browns were when they were good.

4                 Call it the John McCain effect. Before he won the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, he was a media darling. The Maverick. Afterward, it seemed clear he was surprised that their fondness for him had diminished.


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