Andrew Unterberger, our traveling hoops correspondent, is making his way across the country slowly but surely. Here’s his latest missive…
After saying my goodbye to the Jonesers, I spent the last night of my stay in Toronto at a bar observing the finest that Canada had to offer in two of my favorite cultural institutions — sports television and karaoke. I caught the last couple hours of Court Surfing on TBJ’s very own The Score, which I found brilliant in concept — basically the Canadian, NBA-oriented equivalent of the NFL Network’s Red Zone, showing a number of different games intermittently depending on which are in the thick of action — but questionable in execution, especially considering that it neglected to show the fourth quarter and OT of a Heat-Jazz game that will likely go down as the best regular-season game of this NBA season. And after a Canuck-heavy beginning (Alanis and Barenaked Ladies, and not the super-obvious songs either), Canadian karaoke proved to be much like its American equivalent, overwhelmed by thoroughly unremarkable US-bred pop/rock (including Poison, Garth Brooks and back-to-back Matchbox Twenty songs). Alternately disturbing and strangely comforting, I suppose.
Anyway, the Canadian leg of my tour done with, I headed back to Cleveland for a Wednesday night game between the Cavaliers and Nets. On the Overdose last week, I expressed my excitement at the prospect of going to Quicken Loans Arena to witness a true NBA ghost town, shell-shocked by the loss of the player who had defined the franchise for most of the last decade, and whose departure took the team from title contender to lottery hopeful. But a funny thing happened in the week since — the Cavs won three straight games, posted ticket sales numbers that were among the best in the league, and became one of the feel-good stories of the young NBA season. Suddenly I wasn’t going to the Q to witness the walking wounded, but to cover a team one win away from being 5-3 — the very same record through eight games as those supposed title contenders, the Miami Heat.
The Stadium: The Q is a personable, impressively fan-interactive arena located in a general sporting complex across the street from the Indians’ Progressive Field and about a mile away from Browns Stadium. The most immediately noticeable thing about the stadium from approaching it is the marketing strategy currently being used by the Cavs brass to help team and fanbase transition from the LeBron James era. You can see it in the “One For All, All for One” banners lining the Q’s perimeter, or the shot of the Cleveland skyline (captioned with the message “Our Home Since 1866, Our Pride Forever”) that has replaced the iconic “We Are All Witnesses” banner on the side of the Sherwin-Williams building. The message is clear: Team and city over individual, loyalty over ego. Don Draper would be proud.
Inside the stadium, I have got to give it up first and foremost to the Cavs’ JumboTron operator and music director, who might very well be the two hardest-working men in the NBA. Not a single thing seemed to happen in the game that wasn’t given some sort of visual and/or musical accompaniment, with players getting their own specific bucket-made soundtracks (Ryan Hollins getting “Lose My Mind” on three straight slam dunks in the first half was my favorite) and just about every free throw-related situation getting it’s own appropriate movie or TV clip (with none repeated, somehow). It was all intense, but fell just short of being exhausting — it just did a good job of keeping the crowd involved. (Hype man Ahmaad Crump and mascot Moondog deserve some credit for this as well, both well above-average at their respective positions.)
The Game: The second of a home-and-home with the Nets, the Cavs took a fairly commanding first-half lead and looked well on the way to winning their fourth straight. J.J. Hickson was shredding the Nets’ interior defense, Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions were operating with relative impunity around the perimeter, and the team seemed to be moving the ball exceptionally well as a whole — going a long way towards explaining the team’s hot start. But that movement and the offense at large stagnated in the second half, resulting in a lot of drives into traffic and well-contested jumpers, as the Nets managed to crawl back into the game, largely thanks to a 2008-vintage Devin Harris performance (31 points, nine assists) and an oh-right-this-is-why-we-got-him night from beyond the arc for Anthony Morrow (21 points, 5-8 on 3s).
Of course, when I’m telling my grandkids about this game half a century from now, I’ll likely be referring to it as the Kris Humphries game. The career journeyman benchwarmer (and there are probably a couple other vaguely-insulting appellations you could throw in there) got the start at power forward on Wednesday in place of a gimpy Troy Murphy, and on a night when big men Brook Lopez and Derrick Favors were plagued with foul trouble and offensive ineffectiveness, Humphries played the game of his arguably-young life. 13 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds, and he was involved in just about every key play on both ends in the game’s final frame. My favorite sequence came when he was left wide-open for an elbow jumper, triple-dog-dared to shoot it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so explicitly measure a jumper before taking it in an actual NBA game — I half-expected him to take a ruler and protractor out of his shorts for assistance.
But to his credit, he drained it, and helped push the Nets over the top to their 95-87 victory. Considering I don’t think I’d ever once rooted for the Cavs during the LBJ era — nothing personal, Cleveland, I just didn’t care for the guy — I found myself surprisingly bummed out by the loss. Score one for the home team/stadium, I guess.
The Fans: Simply put, the fans were fantastic. The building wasn’t exactly standing room only — there were still a plenty of empty seats visible in the upper levels — but the attendance was still miles above those of my first four games, and those there were fully pot-committed. Clapping along with “O Fortuna” in the pre-game, yelling “THREEEEE” during first-half home-team three-point attempts, and most importantly (and impressively), answering just about every calling for standing, clapping, and generally getting “Cleveland Loud” with clear eyes and full hearts. It had been such a long time since I saw a well-attended NBA game with an enthusiastic, responsive home crowd that I’d almost forgotten what one looked and sounded like. Kudos, Cavaliers fans.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one surprised by the turnout, either — some of the fans I talked to after found it similarly unexpected. “I was impressed by tonight,” a fan named Mike told me at Harry Buffalo, the Cavs’ go-to post-game bar. “It looks like we didn’t miss a step.” Another fan named Dan said that the home opener, an upset win against the reigning conference-champ Celtics, was even better (“Like an NBA finals game,” he said.) Rather than desert the team in their post-Chosen One malaise, the fanbase (with an assist from the Cavs’ marketing department and a galvanizing Internet post by owner Dan Gilbert) appears to have rallied around it. “I think a lot of people are investing in this team in a positive way,” Brendan Bowers of Cavs blog Stepien Rules told me. “I think the city really wants to get behind this team.”
As for the 6’8″, 250-lb elephant in the room, everyone seems to have different theories about exactly what happened to LeBron James in game five of the Boston series last post-season. Theories seem to range from LeBron simply not having the mental fortitude to properly carry the team (“Overwhelmed by the situation” was how Brendan put it) to LeBron purposefully checking out ahead of schedule (“I think he had ulterior motives,” said Dan. “He didn’t want a long playoff run.”), although at least no one mentioned the name “Delonte West” by way of explanation. One thing everyone seems to agree on, though: There’s no homecoming in store for LeBron James. No one I asked even hesitated to say that Cavs fans would never accept LeBron back. “Not without a lot of expletives and some double-A batteries,” said Mike.
(Interestingly, despite the huge turnout for the Cavs, the hometown team of choice was still entirely unambigous — Cleveland was a Browns town, first and foremost. A fan wearing a jersey of recent Browns folk-hero running back Peyton Hillis was shown on the Jumbo, getting one of the biggest cheers of the night, and whenever Moondog or the Jumbo operator wanted to get a rise out of the crowd, they’d flash something with a Steelers logo, eliciting a hearty crowd-wide boo. And walking out of the arena after the game, the chant came from all corners — “HERE WE GO, BROW-NIES, HERE WE GO!” *clap clap*.)
Most Popular Jerseys: Pretty even spread for the current team, with Mo Williams’s #2 probably putting up the biggest numbers. Surprisingly few retros — I was hoping for some solid Larry Nance and Terrell Brandon repping — though I caught one or two Mark Prices in there. And naturally, not a single #23 to be found.
Also Worth Noting: My only real complaint about the Cavaliers home experience — the colors. I actually really like the blue-and-orange duds of the late-80s Cavs teams, but the team’s current scheme (generously described as wine and gold, more accurately described as ketchup and mustard) makes a pretty convincing case for being the least attractive in all the NBA. In fact, if LeBron had cited this as his primary reason for defecting from Cleveland — not wanting to look like a walking hot dog for the remaining prime years of his career seems like a pretty solid explanation to me — I doubt that anyone, inside the city or out, could really have blamed him.
Swag Acquired: Nothing in the gift shop was really grabbing me, but luckily for me, it was Cavs Silly Bandz giveaway night at the arena. Sadly (and inexplicably), an outline of Anderson Varejao’s spaghetti-fro was not included among them.
Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:
Psychedelic Furs – “The Ghost in You” (First Wave, XM 44). Later hit from 80s new wave greats, with one of the truly classic (and truly timestamped) synth riffs of the era. Wimpily covered by Counting Crows for the Clueless soundtrack.
Up next: Pacers take on the Rockets tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse, followed the next night by my stop at the United Center to see the Bulls and Wizards square off in a battle of top-pick Calipari point guards. Starting to really get into the good stuff here.