Behind Enemy Lines: A Fan’s Story

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There’s a new NBA Store commercial where we’re shown a first-person POV of a man walking around the Bay Area eliciting quizzical, hateful stares from passers-by. After walking through the Embarcadero, Baker Street, Ghirardelli Pier, an unspecified street with a trolley, and the Warriors training facility in Oakland (!!), the protagonist meets his Warriors-fan friends at a sports bar that appears to be in central San Francisco. There, we learn two things about the man: first, that he is directionally challenged; and second, that he’s wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers hat and Lebron James jersey.

Minus the run-ins with Klay Thompson and the specific attire–grown men should no longer wear jerseys when they’re older than most of the league’s players–his perspective was eerily familiar to my own. Two months prior to this writing I lived in San Francisco; before that I spent the better part of a decade in New York. I went to college at the University of Richmond, a Virginia school oddly populated by a heavy concentration of tri-state and New England natives. I’ve been a fan behind enemy lines for my entire adult life.

At Richmond I was Sweden: an irrelevant observer to legendary Yankees/Red Sox postseason battles; a frat guy donning replica Lebron James and Larry Hughes jerseys at a time that most of the northeast–and certainly none of Virginia–really cared about the NBA. New York was simply a more intense version of the same. Minus sporadic run-ins with overserved fans at MetLife and Yankee stadiums, rooting for Cleveland teams put no target on my back. The Browns were then, as now and always, perpetually irrelevant. Once they lost out on Lebron, Knicks fans were actually sympathetic to the suddenly-barren Cavs. And outside of the Bronx bleachers, Yankees fans focused their hatred on the BoSox and other AL East foes.

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Coming off of the 2015 NBA Finals I knew living in San Francisco would be different. I would be more than a mild annoyance to the city’s sports enthusiasts. Our fates would be somewhat-more intertwined.

I had no idea what we were in for.

SPORTS ARE CENTRAL to a Clevelander’s existence and identity. While it’s middle of the road politically, culturally the city is very conservative. Group associations still remain a vital part of life there; people are active in churches, their neighborhoods, and recreational activities. Professional sports are simply another form of this.

In Cleveland, you don’t ask someone what they’re doing on a winter Sunday because the answer is self-evident. Saying you’re a big fan of the local teams is akin to saying you like to laugh; loyalty to and passion for the Browns, Indians and Cavs is nearly ubiquitous.

My first memory is of attending a Browns-Bears game with my dad and older brother in three feet of snow. Eight years later we witnessed the “new” Browns’ debut together late on a schoolnight. (Spoiler alert: Pittsburgh crushed us.) In my college years and early 20s I owned eight different replica Cavs jerseys. Weekend visits home were always centered around an Indians or Browns game, with perhaps a brief night in the suburbs to prevent my beloved parents from disowning me. To this day, sharing Browns/Cavs/Indians rumors and opinions is probably the only reason my best friends and I–spread between six different cities from Portland to NYC–actually contact each other on a regular basis.

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ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS that struck me about the culture in San Francisco is how unimportant college and professional sports are. Within an hour and half of the city there are venues for one MLB, NHL, and major D1 college football team. There are two NFL teams. All have been wildly successful, on balance, over the past decade. And yet no one in the Bay seemed to care…with one exception.

San Franciscans treat sports as one of many things to do, and a relatively unimportant one at that. Part of this is cultural; northern California is extremely liberal and secular. Group associations generally aren’t as important, and the concept of pronouncing one’s allegiance to a common cause–be it the American flag or a Giants pennant–strikes many as outdated. The other major factor is the combination of weather and scenery; the allure of watching a hapless team play a meaningless Week 11 game is far smaller when you can instead take a beautiful hike in 60-degree weather. Indeed, I was guilty of abandoning the Browns on a few Sundays.

Logically I knew that San Franciscans were no worse for this lack of sports fandom…they were just different. Had they displayed pure apathy, I probably wouldn’t have hated their teams so much. Alas, the aforementioned “exception” was that Bay denizens turned into diehard fans as soon as their teams were prohibitive favorites to win a title.

Unfortunately, I moved right when such a period was beginning. The 2014/15 Warriors had dismantled the Cavs in the previous year’s Finals and looked even better on paper for the following season. They sported a top-10 superstar, two additional All Stars, an intelligent, adaptive head coach, and a productive bench comprised largely of former Cavs castoffs.

The Dubs lived up to the hype, displaying no real weaknesses en route to a league-record 73 regular season victories. They led the NBA in scoring, 3-point percentage, offensive rating, margin of victory, effective field-goal percentage and more. Furthermore, they passed the “eyeball test”: it seemed to take a simultaneous Herculean effort from opponents and laziness from the Warriors for games to even be close.

As the win-record and playoffs approached, the Dubs bandwagon grew larger and louder. Neighborhood bars transformed into madhouses on game nights; in my 30 years I had never seen or heard such pandemonium when a team hit a 3-pointer to gain a 27-point lead in a meaningless contest. The office cafeteria was abuzz with passionate recollections of the previous night’s game. Engineers who otherwise lived in a world of math and dispassionate reason routinely remarked at how “freaking insane” Steph Curry was. Strangers on the BART train would giddily speak of the win record and how playoff opponents–especially the Cavs–had no chance. And ultimately, I believed them.

THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS were a breeze, both for the Cavs and me personally. The former swept its first two series and handled the Canadian Menace in six games. And I was aided in my personal quest to drink beer and watch the games in relative peace by NBA schedulers who mostly avoided having Cleveland and Golden State play on the same nights.

Thus, the inevitable Finals match-up materialized and initially played out as expected. For all of Lebron James’ singular greatness, the Warriors were simply too fast and too deep for the Cavs to make any sustained runs against. So I accepted a coworker’s invitation to attend a Giants game with clients even though it fell on the same night as Game 5. The Cavs were down 3-1 and there was little reason for hope; I figured I may as well take the opportunity to network and nab a free ticket to the most beautiful stadium in Major League Baseball.

Instead, we wound up missing the first seven innings to watch the Finals game at a nearby bar. The clients knew I was from Cleveland and rooting against their team, so I kept my mouth shut and took their grief with a smile. But as Lebron and Kyrie Irving hit shot after shot, I couldn’t contain myself; several emphatic white-dude fist bumps and even a few audible cheers followed.

Neither the bar’s patrons nor our clients were pleased…the series would not be a cakewalk. We left for the baseball game halfway through the 4th quarter.

GAME SEVEN FELL on a Sunday, and I wanted no part of being out in public. It seemed perfectly situated for an epic Monday hangover: no team in Finals history had ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit, and I was still convinced that Golden State was the better team. After clawing back into the series thanks to a fortuitous Draymond Green suspension, the Cavs would fall short. I’d be stuck amid crowds of giddy Warriors fans who had neither the loyalty nor appreciation for their team that I did, and I’d be saddled at work with the hangover of an aging frat-dog who can’t handle booze like he used to. So I decided to watch the game at home, even though my best friend in the city had a giant table reserved at a bar two blocks from my apartment.

Preemptively saddened by what I knew was about to transpire, I flipped on SportsCenter to kill a few minutes before tipoff. They were live in Cleveland, contrasting clips of past Cleveland sports failures with shots of present-day fans going bonkers. It was one of the most emotionally rousing pieces of television I’ve ever seen.

The clip snapped me into gear. This was my damn team, my damn city. If the price of supporting them was taking some crap from tech bros, so be it. I grabbed a fresh Cavs t-shirt and an oversized Browns foam hand/beer holder and sprinted to Mae’s Oyster Bar just in time for the start.

Waiting for me at the bar were my two best friends in the city, Josh and Brett, and a group of friendly but vocal girl-friends covered in blue and yellow.  I was the (non-hipster, better-looking) guy from the NBA Store commercial. Slowly, friends of friends also from suburban Cleveland joined us and gave us near-even numbers.

We couldn’t have asked for a better setup. Despite the dearth of sports bars in San Francisco, we almost had the back room–complete with giant HD projector–to ourselves. I resisted the temptation to calm my nerves with too much beer; razzling from ebullient enemy fans couldn’t be prevented, but an epic hangover could be. I settled into my seat and nursed my Stella Artois from the foam hand.

THE GAME WAS A SERIES of mini-runs; every time the Warriors started a trademark hot-streak, the Cavs mustered just enough to get back in it. No team had a clear advantage. As the fourth quarter approached the bar was nearly silent and there wasn’t an intact fingernail in sight. During brief TV timeouts I’d catch up with the Cavs-fan contingent. We all agreed that, hey…it was nice to have a game on our hands, but there was no way we’d be able to contain two of the best shooters in NBA history for another 12 minutes. It was fun while it lasted.

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This defeatist attitude intensified when the Cavs turned the ball over with two minutes left and the game tied. Warriors forward Andre Iguodala steamed towards the hoop with a clear path for a layup. In a split second I realized that -this- was the moment we’d blow the game. My brain filled with Monday’s newspaper headlines and SportsCenter clips…”Close, but so far away”, they’d say.

But then LeBron James made the most impressive play in the history of modern sports. Kyrie Irving followed it up with a tie-breaking, cold-blooded 3-pointer.

Ignoring the flow of the game, I still thought the Cavs were doomed. There was only a single Lebron James to defend Golden State’s four snipers.

With less than 30 seconds remaining, former Cav Mo Speights launched a three. It clanked off the front of the rim.

I wept.

The Cavs had done the impossible; something every part of my brain told me wouldn’t happen in my lifetime and sure as hell wouldn’t happen on this night. And they had done it on Father’s Day, reminding me of the amazing man that my dad was and what a central role that Cleveland sports had played in our relationship.

Half of the bar fell dead-silent while the other half burst into a raucous combination of cheering, shouting, and crying. I hugged acquaintances, new friends and still-strangers. After briefly processing their loss, the bar’s Warriors fans gave us sad but genuine felicitations. Almost tearing up himself, Josh, a native of nearby Marin County, looked me in the eye, gave me a bear hug, and told me “I’m really [expletive] happy for you, man. You guys deserve this.”

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My phone nearly exploded with texts from fraternity brothers; none were from Cleveland but all were pulling for me and my city. My boss, who had given me the aforementioned foam hand as a gift, texted me a congratulatory message and told me to take Monday off. I took him up on his offer and ordered two ridiculously-overpriced bottles of middling champagne, justifying the purchase by reminding myself I didn’t shell out $3K+ for game tickets.

From blocks away we could hear the roars of Cavs fans gathered at R-Bar, a Cleveland-aligned dive right below my apartment that my older sister happened to be at. As I took a second to get fresh air, I saw a squad of police heading towards the bar looking to arrest fans for public intoxication. I called my sister and, between tears, told her to get the hell out of dodge.

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur, and the next day was perhaps the worst hangover I’ve had in my life. I was subhuman for over 24 hours, and the crappy champagne wasn’t cheap. It was a minuscule price to pay.

I was behind enemy lines for the greatest comeback in professional sports history.

AS I WRITE this post in a Chicago coffee shop, I can’t help but tear up. While on balance my time in San Francisco wasn’t entirely positive, this was a series of moments I will never forget. Until I marry and have kids, it will likely remain the most incredible memory of my life. I can only hope that other sports fans are lucky enough to experience anything like it.

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