Last night, the Cleveland Cavaliers fell 117–90 to the much-despised Miami Heat. With the loss, their 21st in a row, the Cavaliers became the NBA’s first 40-loss team. When I saw last night’s score, I thought to myself, “Things can’t get much worse in Cleveland.” Over the years, however, I’ve come to learn that this is really never the case. Things can always get worse in Cleveland. Over the past 46 years, the city has firmly established its reputation as the most miserable sports city in America.
I’ve heard wild claims from residents of Seattle, Buffalo, Chicago, Washington and even Atlanta that the title doesn’t rest in Cleveland. Frankly, I think such allegations are insulting to the misery long suffered by Clevelanders. Perhaps Seattle lost a once-proud NBA franchise. Perhaps the Cubs have been waiting oh-so-long for their next Series title. Perhaps the Redskins and Wizards have had a few rough years. But these are trifles when held next to the heartbreak Cleveland fans have long endured. No other city has come so close to success in so many different sports over so many years, only to have its heart broken in such a gut-wrenching manner over and over again. As a New York sports fan, I could never empathize. I can, however, sympathize. So here’s to you, Cleveland — the goblet of American sports misery is truly filled with your tears.
If you’re still not convinced, join me for a sad, sad journey down memory lane. If you’re from Cleveland, I suggest you avert your eyes.
Our journey begins in 1980. It had been 14 years since the last Cleveland championship (a Browns win over the Baltimore Colts in 1964). The city had seen the coming and going of the short-lived NHL Cleveland Barons (1976-1978). New hope, however, arrived in the form of the 1980 Browns, whose penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks earned them the nickname “The Kardiac Kids.” The thrilling squad found themselves down 14–12 with minutes left against the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the playoffs. The Browns orchestrated a beautiful 72-yard drive and found themselves on the Raiders’ 13-yard line with seconds left in the game. Fearing that the icy conditions would throw off his kicker, Browns coach Sam Rutigliano decided to go for the endzone on second down. “Red Right 88,” as the play was called, saw MVP quarterback Brian Sipe throw a heartbreaking interception into the arms of Raiders’ cornerback Mike Davis, ending the Browns’ season.
The Browns misery continued as the decade rolled on. The Browns found themselves pitted against John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the 1986 AFC Championship game. The Browns were leading 20–13 with 5:11 left to play. Pinned against his own 2-yard line with a whipping wind in his face, Elway engineered a remarkable 98-yard touchdown march now known simply as “The Drive.” After tying the game, the Broncos went on to win 23–20 in overtime en route to the Super Bowl.
The 1987 Browns returned to the AFC championship game, but once again found themselves facing against Elway’s Broncos. This time, the Broncos came out firing and led the game 21–3 after the first half. A furious third-quarter Browns comeback, however, tied the game at 31 apiece late in the game. After another Broncos touchdown, the Browns found themselves driving to tie the game with less than five minutes to go. On the 8-yard line with 1:12 remaining, the Browns handed the ball off to running back Earnest Byner, who appeared to have a clear path to the end zone. True to form, however, the ensuing miscue now known as “The Fumble” cost the Browns a trip to the Super Bowl.
After a disappointing loss to the Houston Oilers in the 1988 divisional round, the Browns found themselves once again matched up against the Broncos in the 1989 AFC Championship game. This time, however, there would be no heartbreaking theatrics. The Browns would lose once again, this time by a score of 37–21, ushering in a decade of mediocrity.
As the Browns faded into misery, Cleveland saw the rise of its historically laughable Cavaliers franchise. A series of savvy trades and draft picks gave coach Lenny Wilkins a dominant squad in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The team’s success culminated in a dramatic first-round playoff series in 1989 against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. A game four overtime win by the favored Cavs tied the series at two, bringing the teams back to Cleveland for the fifth and final game. After a hotly contested match, Cleveland managed to score with just three seconds left, giving them a one-point lead. After an inbound pass, Jordan shot over the outstretched arm of Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo and “The Shot” swished through the net as time expired. After another playoff exit against the Bulls in 1992 (a year that saw Cleveland compile a 57–25 record), the Cavs entered a decade of misery.
With the demise of the Cavs came more bad news from the Browns. On Nov. 6, 1995, owner Art Modell announced his decision to relocate the proud Browns franchise to the city of Baltimore. Hysteria ensued. The next few months saw a string of protests, law suits and ballot measures against Modell. After fans ripped sinks from the restrooms and threw seats onto the field during the final home game of the season, “The Move” was finalized and Cleveland lost the Browns. While a new Browns expansion team would return in 1999, fans would never forget Modell’s treason. The team has had only one playoff game since.
New hope, however, was born in the form of a talented Indians club in the mid-to-late 1990s. From 1960 to 1993, the Indians had managed just one third-place finish, missing the playoffs for 33 consecutive years. After a strike-shortened 1994, however, the Tribe sprinted to its first even division title with a 100–44 record. A talented core including Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray and Charles Nagy led the squad to the World Series in 1995, where the Indians suffered a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Braves.
After another disappointing playoff exit in 1996, the Indians found themselves back in the World Series in 1997, this time against the upstart Florida Marlins. After six hotly-contested matches, Cleveland carried a 2–1 lead into the bottom of the ninth in the decisive game seven. True to form, however, Cleveland fans were heartbroken when closer Jose Mesa blew the lead on a sacrifice fly, tying the score 2–2. A ground ball error and an Edgar Renteria single gave the Marlins a 3–2 victory, crushing the Indians’ championship dreams. The Indians would put together a number of good teams in the following decade, but wouldn’t return to the Fall Classic.
Indeed, the outlook was grim in Cleveland in 2003 when the league-worst Cavaliers were awarded the first pick in the NBA draft. Sadly, we all know how this story ends. The team drafted phenom LeBron James, who promised the city a championship. For seven years, the Cavs were the class of the NBA, leading the league in wins in both 2009 and 2010. Sadly, despite a finals appearance in 2007, James and the Cavaliers couldn’t muster a championship, falling twice in the playoffs to the Boston Celtics. In June of 2010, LeBron announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach, leaving the Cavaliers in shambles.
And that’s where things sit today. After nearly five decades of heartbreak, the outlook has never been worse in Cleveland. The Indians are the laughing stock of baseball and have entered into full-fledged rebuilding mode. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, and with the firing of head coach Eric Mangini, appear headed for dark days. Then there’s the Cavs, who have experienced the greatest fall from grace in NBA history. After going a league-best 61–21 in LeBron’s final year, the Cavs are a league-worst 8–40 and are two losses away from tying the single-season losing streak record at 23.
I wish I had something hopeful to say to Cleveland fans, but there’s no gentle way to spin it. At least Cleveland fans can revel in one victory — no other city holds a candle to them in the contest for most miserable sports city in America.
John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.