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In Cleveland, heartache at Cavaliers loss, but also hope

After the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals Tuesday, the city still hasn't won a major pro sports title since 1964. But the Cavs' ride was a joyful one.

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    Darrion Jimenez of Lorain, Ohio, standing outside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, reacts near the end of the game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors Tuesday.
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Oakland, Calif., celebrated a professional sports title Tuesday night, something that had not happened in 26 years – not since the A’s won the earthquake-rocked Bay Area World Series in 1989.

With the Golden State Warriors ending that drought as newly-minted National Basketball Association champions, Oakland now vacates the slot of second-most-longsuffering American city with at least three major pro sports teams.

The top spot, of course, remains unchanged.

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Much has been written about Cleveland’s title drought. None of Cleveland’s football, baseball, or basketball teams has won a title since the Browns beat the then-Baltimore Colts in 1964 for the National Football League championship. Yes, that was before the invention of the Super Bowl.

On Tuesday, Clevelanders got a front-row seat to another season of misery as the Warriors clinched the title on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home court.

Surely, the despair ran through Cleveland as wide as the Cuyahoga River. Surely, seeing Cleveland’s nearest cousin in longsuffering clinch a title on the shores of Lake Erie added to the bitterness.

Right?

Maybe not, actually.

True, the Cavaliers’ loss to the Warriors brought heartache and extended Clevelanders’ record-breaking use of “wait ’til next year.” But not all losses are created equal. And for some Clevelanders, this one has come with no small amount of joy.

The joy of seeing local son LeBron James back in a Cavaliers uniform this year when it seemed he had left forever in 2010 to join the Miami Heat.

The joy of seeing him put together, by some measures, the most remarkable finals performance in basketball history.

The joy of simply making it this far despite season-ending injuries to three of the team’s five starters.

And, just maybe, the joy of thinking that “wait ’til next year,” actually might be true this time.

“For Cavs fans, these playoffs – and these finals in particular – have been the most joyous, raucous, and hopeful heartbreak a fanbase accustomed to such pain has ever endured,” wrote Slate’s Rachael Larimore.  

For the past half-century, Cleveland's sports history has been punctuated most prominently by moments of failure. “The Drive” and the “The Fumble” encapsulate improbable Browns losses in the 1987 and 1988 AFC Championship games. “The Shot” was Michael Jordan’s first indelible moment – and came at the expense of the Cavaliers in the 1989 NBA playoffs.

An analysis done by the website The 10 and 3, which looked at cities with teams in at least three of the big four professional leagues (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) and weighed playoff appearances, playoff series wins, and championship wins, put Cleveland at No. 1 on its “misery index.”

Other cities have teams that might rank higher on a misery index, like the Chicago Cubs not winning the World Series since 1908, or the Toronto Blue Jays not making the playoffs since 1993. But the cross-town Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005 (not to mention Chicago won six basketball titles in the 1990s under Jordan and has won three of the past six Stanley Cup hockey titles). And the last time the Blue Jays were in the playoffs, they were winning the second of back-to-back World Series titles.

Cleveland, frankly, hasn’t come very close to breaking its drought.

The Browns haven’t made it back to the NFL title game since 1965, when they lost to the Green Bay Packers, 23-12.

The Cavaliers' only other finals appearance in history was in 2007 – before Mr. James left for Miami – and they lost to the San Antonio Spurs, 4 games to 0.

Major League Baseball’s Indians came closest, losing to the Florida Marlins in extra innings of the seventh game of the 1997 World Series. In their only other trip to the World Series during the city’s title drought, the Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves, 4 games to 2, in 1995.

In that context, even the disappointment of the Cavs’ loss Tuesday comes as something as a high-water mark. To win two games against a loaded Warriors team with a cast of role players – and to be able to watch the best basketball player on the planet do his thing nightly – brightened the disappointment with no small drop of pride.

In the finals, James did something no player has ever done: He led both teams in scoring, rebounding, and assists. There was serious talk of him winning the Most Valuable Player award even in defeat.

Bring back James’s injured cast of supporting characters, and the result could have been very different.

Cleveland-area resident Jim Nichols says he has been a Cleveland sports fan for about 50 years. In other words, since about the last time anyone in his town won anything. But even on the morning after his latest loss, he is a bit buoyant.

"There's always the fear that it's not going to happen," Mr. Nichols says. "But I think that if Cleveland forgets about the curse and just goes about its business, then a championship will come our way.”

"I think if the Cavaliers are all healthy then they'll take the championship next year," he says, before adding with a chuckle:

"But I don't count on it."

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