Defining Sports Failure

and it bats a sterling .175

The Cavaliers failed to win a title with LeBron James.

The Cleveland Indians failed to win a title in the 90s.

The Cleveland Browns failed to make the playoffs in all but one season since returning in 1999.

What counts as a failure in sports? Is it simply not winning a title? That’s the goal, right? Winning a championship. That means that only one team succeeds during each season.

Did the Oklahoma City Thunder(Cavs!) fail last season when they lost in the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Miami Heat? Sure, Kevin Durant and a team full of 23 yr olds stormed through the playoffs, knocking out a number of the old guard (Dirk and Mavs, Kobe and the Lakers, Duncan and the Spurs) to make their first Finals appearance. But they lost. And since they didn’t win a title, they failed.

We’re all aware that no Cleveland team has won a title since 19641. Because of this prolonged drought, we’ve become obsessed with winning a title. We debate which of our three franchises are closest to that championship celebration2. We eschew short term goal for the long term outlook. And I’m as much to blame as anyone, as I spent last season arguing that the Cavs would be better set up for a future title run if they didn’t make the playoffs. We crave that title. We need that title.

But if it doesn’t happen, does that mean our teams failed?

I started thinking about this subject after I read this passage in Bill Simmon’s recent NBA/Game of Thrones column:

 To Danny Ferry, who became an immediate cult hero for dumping Marvin Williams (and his relatively offensive contract) and Joe Johnson (and his undeniably offensive contract) for expiring deals in a much-needed change of direction for Atlanta fans, who had felt nothing other than “lukewarm” about their Hawks for five solid years. Sadly, they don’t have quite enough left for a legitimate Dwight Howard run — it’s too bad Al Horford isn’t 22 percent better at basketball or they’d be right there. But if any team needed to be thrown in the washing machine for a few minutes, it was the Atlanta Hawks.

The best thing going in Atlanta’s favor: There’s a historical precedent for a much-ballyhooed hire eventually bombing in Cleveland, then making the most of his second chance and winning titles. (See: Belichick, Bill.) The second-best thing going in Atlanta’s favor: God hates Cleveland.

I know that the national consensus is that LeBron did everything here in Cleveland by himself. He had absolutely zero help. None. His teammates were the worst. The WORST, I say!3 Plus his coach was bad and his owner is a big jerk who stops Chris Paul from going to the Lakers or Dwight Howard from going the Nets4. It was LeBron, by himself. With no help. At all.

And Danny Ferry bombed. Really?

Yes, the Cavs failed to win a title on Ferry’s watch. We were all witnesses. But Danny Ferry built two 60+ win teams while LeBron playing playing was footsie with the entire league. If anyone thinks that is something easily done, take a look at Orlando’s record these last few years with Dwight Howard. And thanks to Jim Paxson, Ferry didn’t have many draft picks to work with and was forced to upgrade through trades and free agency. And for all the crap Ferry takes for his Hughes/Marshall/Jones signings,5 he eventually moved all of those players (who, you know, helped the Cavs make their only Finals appearance) and upgraded the roster on the fly (again, to two 60 win teams).

I happen to like the “Danny Ferry, GM” era (certainly more than “Danny Ferry, Guy We Got For Ron Harper” era). I like that Ferry didn’t overpay his own role players (both Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao held out to force better deals, Ferry let them sit) and that he made the most of his trades (like trading Joe Smith and Damon Jones for Mo Williams or basically netting Antawn Jamison for a late first round pick). The only real criticism I have is not trading Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring contract at the ’09 deadline for Shaq, but even that is somewhat defensible (you really want to disrupt a 60 win team so Mike Brown can incorporate Shaq into his offense on the fly?)6

The Cavs didn’t win a title, therefore Ferry “bombed” and the Cavs failed. But were those years not fun? Sure, the Orlando series was heart breaking and I still feel like they should’ve beaten Boston in 2008 but the Cavs were competing for a title, year-in, year-out. Sports are supposed to be fun and for all the ugliness at the end of the LeBron-era, those 8 years were f-u-n.

This “championship or bust” mentality has definitely affected this current Indians season. You have this chicken/egg scenario of the Dolans not spending til the fans show up vs the fans not showing up til the Dolans spend7. Meanwhile, the Tribe has been in contention for the division all season and the Indians are last in majors in attendance (whether they’re in contention simply because Detroit has under performed in a whole other matter). The Indians are fielding a solid, possibly playoff bound, team but no one is showing up because they’re not a championship contender8. We want a title contender! Not a .500 club!

One of my favorite quotes in sports is from the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto: “don’t let millionaires ruin your day”. I very much subscribe to this. Every so often I like to rag people on twitter who are complaining about ESPN’s latest slight to Cleveland. I’ll joke with them that if you’re mad that ESPN made a Cleveland joke, that’s your fault for watching ESPN. Stuff like that used to bug the hell out of me, but then I just stopped watching ESPN.9 You choose how much enjoyment you take out of sports. To me half of the fun is the journey itself, regardless of the final outcome.

Take the Indians of the 90s. They didn’t win a World Series, so they might be considered a failure. But man, did I love those teams (and I expect many of you feel the same). They were good. They were in contention year-in, year-out. That ’97 playoff run was absolutely magical and is something that I’ll never forget. Those years were fun.

When a professional sports team is making a title run, the sense of civic pride that envelopes a city is something I cherish. I love when buildings set up “Go Browns!” in office lights or when we see hokey bets made between the competing city’s mayors.  There’s nothing I love more than walking into a gas station during a playoff game to pick up beer snacks wearing a Tribe/Cavs/Browns/Buckeyes hat and having complete strangers ask me “hey man, do you know the score?” To me, that’s the best part of following sports, the camaraderie it can foster between strangers (let alone between family and friends).

Just because a team had a shot a title and missed doesn’t make them a failure in my mind. Winning a title is hard. A million little things have to go right. The refs have to make the right calls at the right time. You can’t have players break their foot in practice or miss a routine grounder10. And you certainly can’t run into Pedro Martinez or Michael Jordan in their prime. Ask LeBron. He spent a year in media hell because Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t miss for roughly a week and Jason Terry hit a few of those “nononononononoYES!” shots. Winning a title is hard.

To me, failure is when a team doesn’t make the playoffs for roughly a decade. Or when the fans stop caring enough to even complain. That’s failure. Losing in Finals? That’s unfortunate. That sucks. That’s heartbreaking. But that’s not failure. Losing in the championship round means that the previous four months were freaking amazing.

I want a championship as much as the next person but sometimes I feel we miss the forest for the trees. Sports (especially of the professional nature) are supposed to be fun, entertaining distractions. If this stops being fun, what’s the point? If you can’t have fun watching Kyrie Irving or Jason Kipnis or (I hope) Trent Richardson because their teams aren’t elite title contenders, that my friends, is failure.

Enjoy the ride.

  1. With apologies to Otto Orf and Hector Marinaro []
  2. if you would’ve asked me two months ago, I might’ve said the Indians. But now I think the Cavs and Browns are even, pending Brandon Weeden kicking major ass []
  3. Nevermind that playoff teams gladly picked off LeBron’s former teammates. Z followed him to Miami, Shaq and Delonte West ended up in Boston (West then landed in Dallas), the Lakers just signed Jamison (and have Mike Brown as their coach) and JJ Hickson… um, yeesh, let’s move on []
  4. Gilbert is such a jerk for not taking on Kris Humphries (a player they could’ve signed outright) in a sign-and-trade for four years, just to help Brooklyn land Howard []
  5. I’ll even defend these signings. When Gilbert hired Ferry, the Cavs had had LeBron for two seasons and missed the playoffs both times. LeBron had the option to extend his contract following the upcoming season and folks were rightfully worried. The Cavs had a ton of capspace and  had to use it; Cleveland couldn’t go into that season with Ira Newble as their starting SG. So Ferry settled for signed Larry Hughes (as Ray Allen and Michael Redd stayed home for more money, per NBA rules) and added two veteran outside shooters that the Cavs desperately needed. I feel that’s defensible []
  6. My best woulda-coulda-shoulda dream move would be the Cavs trading for Chris Bosh at the ’10 deadline, rather than testing the waters for Amar’e Stoudemire or trading for Jamison. Cleveland didn’t pursue Bosh because he said he wasn’t going to resign with the Cavs. I would’ve liked to see them call his bluff. Put Bosh on that roster with LeBron, Shaq, Varejao, Williams, etc and see what happens. If he and LeBron still bolt to Miami, you’re no worse off than you were anyways. The bonus of this totally fake-scenario is that LeBron would look like an even bigger a-hole and I wouldn’t have had to suffer two-plus seasons of watching Antawn Jamison not play defense []
  7. Although it’s not like they’ve made any moves, offseason or in-season, that have inspired much confidence. Grady Sizemore! Derek Lowe! Feel the Lowementum! []
  8. Also, poor pitching and an anemic offense make for not-very-entertaining baseball []
  9. I’ll get my sports news on the internet, thankyouverymuch! []
  10. or have that dirty cheater Rashard Lewis make every effing shot []

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    When there is as much money involved as there is now it’s no longer just a sport. It’s a business. That more then anything is the paradox a sports fan must face. I agree with Pluto but it should be changed from just millionaires to millionaires and billionaires.

    Now as far as having fun while losing and I say losing because at the end of the day if you aren’t holding that trophy I’m afraid you lost. I for one take no joy in losing so I cannot identify with enjoying the ride. This is something you do when you know your nothing but second best and you accept it. I think this is something that has overtaken Cleveland and how could it not with all of the losing the town has had to endure. The problem becomes when you choose to accept it. If people are happy just to see their teams play the game and play it badly while countless bad decisions are made by their repsective teams then I say good luck to you.

  • I don’t mind not getting a title so long as I feel the team is trying it’s hardest on the court/field, and the team off the court/field is making intelligent moves of which the primary intent is winning.

    I realize “intelligent” is subjective in this case, but to me the Cavs are the only franchise in town that has fulfilled these qualifications on a regular basis over the past 8-10 years, and they’re the only team I pay any regular attention to.

    It’s why new ownership is the first time I’m interested in the Browns at all since like 2001.

  • the_spivack

    Great article…those Crunch teams in the 90s were awesome to watch

  • Dinner

    Ben, since you wish to ignore the fact that the Cleveland Crunch did win a championship in 1999, this begs a interesting question. Let’s say MLS became just as popular as the NBA, NFL, MLB, & NHL. Let’s say a new Cleveland soccer team expanded into MLS. And let’s say a few years later, they win the MLS Cup, while no other Cleveland team wins anything. Are you going to ignore them too?

  • if it was “just as popular as the NBA, NFL, MLB & NHL” then no. But clearly indoor soccer is a “minor league” sport, no? This is coming from a guy who went to Crunch games and watched his dad play in weeknight indoor soccer leagues.

  • TSM

    It may be a business to those who make their living at it, but to the rest of us it is just entertainment. If Mesa had gotten that final out in 97, we may have celebrated, but our lives would remain unchanged……get up, go to work, take care of the family, enjoy your friends etc. I think championship or bust is the wrong mentality. While that is the goal, it can’t be the only enjoyment. I play golf, and long ago decided that I would enjoy each outing regardless of how I played that day. If I only had fun when I played well, then I was wasting my time playing.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It just depends on the person but I firmly believe most modern day professional athletes do not play for fun they play for $$$ and for championships. For competitors there is nothing like being the best fun is for everyone else. I’m a competitor nothing more certainly not an athlete but for me it’s all about WINNING regardless of the circumstance. I understand the “fun” aspect but it’s a very small part of modern day sports unfortunately.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Is indoor soccer still around? If it’s not then of course noone would remember but for me the Cleveland Force were more memorable then the Crunch even with a title.

  • Dinner

    Hard to say if I can agree if indoor soccer is a “minor league” unless the Indoor soccer leagues were affiliates to a major league that I didn’t know about.

  • Dinner

    On Wikipedia, I found a league called Major Indoor Soccer League that’s currently active with 6 (soon 7) teams. Alas, no Cleveland team is on that list 🙁

  • Petefranklin

    Kai Haaskivi vs the Baltimore Blast,Clevelands only shot at a title in the pre Bernie/Daugherty days. Good times in a sea of hopelessness.

  • Petefranklin

    It was pretty intelligent to make the season ticket holders re-up before the decision huh?

  • mgbode

    the OKC Thunder didn’t fail because they are keeping the corps together and will have more shots at it.

    in fact, you can argue that no individual season that ends with division titles, etc. is a failure in itself.

    however, the 90s Tribe (while wildly entertaining and great) also failed to deliver a championship as they were bypassed by the Yankees and Braves (though the Yankees were not the team knocking the Tribe out most years).

    just like the Kosar Browns failed to deliver the title and the LeBron Cavs. those were the best era’s for each team (in my lifetime) and they all came up empty. individual seasons may not be complete failures, but it all adds up over time.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Kai was killer I was more of a Bernie James fan of course I was a kid. I got to meet alot of them out at their indoor training camp which was fun. The dreaded Blast ah the good old days.

  • Petefranklin

    Been so long, the only other guy I can remember is garbage picking fat man Stan Stamenkovich, from memphis.