Hello darkness, our old friend.
How soon we ended up here, on the losing side of an epic NBA Finals. Less than one year after 1.3 million of us danced in the streets and stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of a abruptly planned but magical Championship parade, we’re drying our tears, hanging up our black, sleeved jerseys and turning our eyes to The Jake.
The 2017 NBA Finals presented an emotional roller coaster we Cavs fans weren’t quite accustomed to. The downside of cruising through the Eastern Conference Playoffs is… well, you cruised through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Sure, steamrolling everyone was fun, but our guys weren’t the only ones who went somewhat untested. We, as fans, weren’t quite tested, either.
We knew there was a buzzsaw waiting for us out West. We knew an incredible team got even stronger with the addition of KD. But we believed in our guys, and rightfully so. We’d watch them win with such ease over the Pacers, the Raptors and Celtics.
And now, after five games of exceptionally high highs and frustrating, painful lows, we’re back to that hollow, empty feeling of a season ended just a tiny bit too soon. As our team fought and faltered, and as the Larry O’Brien trophy slipped further and further away, I realized we Cavs fans were experiencing something significant: the five stages of NBA Finals grief.
Denial is the first stage in accepting an NBA Finals loss and, in my experience, it begins way before the end of the final Finals game. “Yeah but,” I found myself telling my friends after Game 2, “They can come back from this. Being down 0-2 is nothing. Nothing!”
I said the same thing after the heartbreaking loss of Game 3.
And toward the end of the third quarter of Game 5.
As the writing on the wall became more and more clear, I let my relentless optimism take the wheel. Is it denial, or is it hope? That, friends, is in the eye of the beholder.
I’ll be honest and tell you that this stage dominated my mood and mindset throughout pretty much all five Finals games. Except for Game 4, in which my mood was more tipsy and jubilant, but the Internet tells me neither of those are stages of grief.
I can’t tell you how many F-bombs were hurtled at my TV. How many “UGH I HATE HIM!” or “I CAN’T” texts I sent to friends, followed by the little knife emoji (sometimes about Steph, usually about Draymond, once about Zaza The Nut Puncher).
With each passing minute, America’s Most Unlikeable Team got even more unlikeable, and I got even angrier. During Game 5, I’d get so frustrated that I’d flip the channel to an episode of Friends that’s old enough to drive. A few minutes later, though, and I’d find myself screaming, once again, at my TV.
Though we’re now a few days removed from “The Loss,” it’s really easy to slip into the anger phase. One quick glimpse of Steph Curry chewing on his mouth guard, or of KD choking on his beer, and I anger-spiral quick. It’s been a rough week on Twitter.
I, like many Cleveland sports fans, am never more religious than I am when a big game is on the line. “If we could just make these free throws.” “Please, can we just, sink this shot.” “Please, oh please, don’t let this be the end…”
When seemingly insurmountable odds stacking rapidly against us, we often bow our collective heads and send a little wish up to the sky. And, whether you choose to pray to God or Woody Hayes or Buddha, it’s a way to cope with the feeling of powerlessness that slowly sinks in when, as a fan, a win you desperately need feels further and further away.
If I’m being honest, I’m currently straddling the line between this phase and the next. I’m not ready for basketball to be over, and I miss our guys already. I can’t bring myself to watch to watch anything related to our 2016 Championship, because I know I’d cry my eyes out (well honestly that always makes me cry, Finals loss or not).
If grief is a process of healing from something that hurt your heart, depression is a necessary and completely unavoidable step along the way.
Oh boy. I just started thinking about Steph chewing on that mouth guard, and I’m feeling closer to anger than acceptance.
But here’s the thing. Accepting an NBA Finals loss isn’t about feeling “alright” or “OK” with the outcome, it’s about accepting that what we didn’t want to happen did, in fact, happen. It sucks and it’s sad, but it’s true. No matter how much we swear or how hard we pray or how relentlessly we deny, we can’t change what happened—we can only look forward.
We’ll never like the fact that the 2017 Cavs couldn’t come back from being down 0-3, but as time passes and new Championship opportunities come Cleveland’s way, I promise we’ll all feel a little better.1
Chins up, buttercups. Have a great Thursday.