With the way their season ended in mid-June — within a few lucky bounces and a bad performance from healthy eventual champion Golden State Warriors — it’s hard to remember where the Cleveland Cavaliers were in early January. That “where” was a bad psychological place, the figurative equivalent of the dark and foreboding forest through which you would see the innocent and frightened Disney princess wander, with witches and spiders and magic spells and all sorts of nasty stuff lurking behind every dark, gnarled tree limb. On January 14, the Cavaliers were 19-20 after losing to the Phoenix Suns on the road and were emanating some intensely bad vibes — some seriously radioactive toxic negative energy. They were emotionally lost.
The Cavs’ body language betrayed a lack of trust, an absence of joy, and major frustration. The media manufactured stories that coach David Blatt’s job was in danger, Kevin Loved looked astonishingly miserable, and LeBron James looked like he was second-ttessing this whole “return to Cleveland, win ringz, be a savior” plan. The team’s heart, Anderson Varejao, had been removed after tearing his Achilles tendon, leaving the Cavs with a vacant chest cavity and without an emotional center (pun intended). If there was any closeness among the players — anything resembling friendship between Cavaliers teammates — it wasn’t manifesting itself on the basketball court.
Surely I’m exaggerating how bleak things looked? But a snapshot from a Brian Windhorst story on January 14 shows that I may be underselling the situation.
For weeks now, the small talk when league personnel run into each other at college games, airports or pregame meals has frequently started with: “What the hell is going on in Cleveland?”
Griffin and the Cavs media relations staff have been run ragged attempting to manage all of it. Griffin has been slapping Band-Aids on everything from intrateam relationships to his roster while dealing with what now seem like impossible expectations. …
They are still a long way from having a lost season. But, wow, are they a long way off course.
Talk of a lost season? The Cavs were smack dab in the middle of a full-blown crisis.
It’s easy to forget where the Cavs were in early January once we saw where they eventually went, like a warm and vibrant summer day makes one quickly forget the bitter cold of winter. When the Cavs entered the playoffs as the prohibitive favorites in the Eastern Conference, it was so easy to feel that their ascension and cohesion was inevitable. But that would be doing a severe injustice to the journey that the team took this season to go from dysfunction to dominance, and the crucial, bold first steps they took to undertake that journey.
Instead of having an ordinary practice on UCLA’s campus the morning before their January 15 game against the Los Angeles Lakers, coach David Blatt interrupted the team’s regularly scheduled programming to redirect the team on a surprise bowling trip to Lucky Strike on Hollywood Blvd.
A professional basketball team isn’t exactly a group of ordinary bowling patrons, and Lucky Strike isn’t exactly an ordinary bowling alley. Located immediately around the corner from Hollywood’s iconic TCL Chinese theater, you won’t see the large, sprawling parking lots representative of the thousands of bowling alleys dotting the American suburban landscape upon your exit, but rather a dizzying tourist trap with flashing lights and imitation Chewbaccas and Elmos willing to pose for photos for a nominal fee. Lucky Strike is the progeny of the hip and the folksy, bringing the flashy appeal of Hollywood to a sport so inclusive that being athletic isn’t even a benefit, let alone a requirement. Old-timey magician posters adorn the walls.
Lucky Strike is 21-and-over after 8 p.m., and has replaced the tacky plastic stationary seats of 70s and 80s relic bowling alleys with deep, plush leather sofas. They still have a menu featuring corn dogs and nachos, but now they come alongside guacamole and a $13 cocktail. Lucky Strike’s flagship location has been featured on HBO’s Entourage, and inspired 18 other locations and affiliates, including Star Lanes at Polaris in Columbus, Ohio. At the Hollywood location, the primary draw isn’t even bowling anymore, but live musical acts featuring local bands and bygone rock stars from 80s metal bands like Quiet Riot. This is where the Cavaliers went to turn their season around on January 15.
Why on earth would the Cavaliers turn to bowling to rehabilitate their team chemistry? Why not softball or cribbage or Parcheesi? I think the answer is one part ambiance and one part accessibility. The sound of rolling balls and exploding pins — though jarring to the uninitiated — is weirdly soothing much in the same way the sound of thunderstorms can function as white noise on muggy summer nights in the midwest. There’s the smell of aerosol spray shoe deodorizer, the glossy look of ten or more immaculately shiny lanes, and the reassuring certainty that your ball will always find its way back to you; no matter how hard you throw it in the gutter.
Beyond the sights and sounds is bowling’s invitation for anyone to pick up a ball and chuck it down a lane with reckless abandon. It requires little physical exertion, practice, or even warming up to participate (if not thrive). It lacks the financial stakes of poker, the exclusivity of golf, and the injury risk of football. The destruction of neatly arranged pins excite and delight like a little kid smashing a freshly erected sand castle while imitating Godzilla (whose Hollywood Walk of Fame Star is never far from Lucky Strike). In short, bowling is a sport2 that begs not to be taken too seriously.
Prior to their arrival on January 15, someone from the Cavaliers (a coach or someone from the Cavs’ P.R. team) called to ask if Lucky Strike could accommodate the team that afternoon. As a Lucky Strike manager tells it, that’s when the alley staff leapt into action, prepping the sleepy bowling alley they had only opened minutes before. They drew curtains to afford the team some privacy and presumably pulled aside all the size 15-plus shoes. The way manager Ashley Aul had come to understand it, they “all got on the team bus, and coach [Blatt] said, ‘Screw practicing, we need a team outing.’”3 Most of the Cavs players were caught by surprise when the bus ride went from five minutes to 20 minutes, and when they arrived at a bowling alley and not a basketball court.4
Ashley speculated that bowling would help loosen the team up because of the lack of pressure and the focus on having fun and enjoying one another’s company. “I think they just needed to hang out …. and be normal people for a little bit.”
When asked if it was possible to tell if they were a little less tense later than when they arrived, Ashley remembered that the Cavs were “quiet coming in,” but became progressively louder and less subdued once the competition and thrill of smashing pins took over. The Cavs were at Lucky Strike for “three or four hours,” and enjoyed some food, some drinks,5 some bowling, and some watching-J.R.-Smith-throw-a-six-pound-bowling-ball.6
The Cavs players supported the theory that they just needed some “hang out” time in January. Kyrie Irving said that he had enjoyed the bowling and was happy the team went. “It just helped so much. We all needed a break from it all,” said Kevin Love. “Those events are fun. We were able to go out there and bowl, eat bad food and enjoy ourselves. It had us loose for the game.”
That looseness paid dividends, as the Cavaliers ended their six-game losing streak that evening over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs seemed to rally around Kevin Love’s refusal to leave the game after taking a charge in the fourth quarter kept him down for several moments.7
Despite the victory, a win over the then 12-win Lakers did little to inspire any hope that the Cavs could eventually make the Finals. But Ashley began to suspect Cavs fans had a legitimate team on their hands with their victory over the Los Angeles Clippers the next night, as they became only the sixth team to sweep the Los Angeles teams on back-to-back nights in 24 years. She entertained fantasies of James thanking Lucky Strike for saving their season had they won the Finals, presumably as confetti and champagne fell all around him.
Does she take credit for their season turning around?
“Of course I do.”
And turn around the season did. The Cavs did a 180 from their depressing December and early January play, going on a hot streak that lasted the remaining three months of the season. The win over the Lakers sparked a 12-game win streak that dissipated all the doom-and-gloom surrounding the team. The Cavs went a scorching 34-9 A.B. (After Bowling), sporting the most efficient offense in the NBA through the end of the season and outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per game. The Cavaliers looked every bit the super team advertised before the season against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs before losing Kevin Love to injury. Even after the loss of Love, the Cavs cohesiveness and team effort were able to carry them to the NBA Finals, where they lost 4-2 to the more fortunate, unsullied Golden State Warriors.
Now Kevin Love is re-signed for the next five years; LeBron James seems content spending the rest of his career in Northeast Ohio; and Irving, James, and Love seem intent on wreaking havoc on the Eastern Conference for years to come. The Cavaliers likely would have figured out the whole “basketball” thing at some point. The acquisition of a world-class rim protector like Timofey Mozgov to play alongside Kevin Love (allowing him to play his more natural position at power forward); the trade for Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith; and the return of James’ physical dominance after his two-week break all certainly made more of an impact on the Cavs season than a skipped practice at a bowling alley.
But it wasn’t inevitable that last season would end and this season would begin with so much hope. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which things unfolded differently. Suppose the Cavs have a normal practice and shootaround on January 15. The team brings the baggage and frustration that they’ve been experiencing for months into the practice — tensions mount, relationships fracture further. That night, when Kevin Love has his back spasms, he decides he’d rather sit on the bench in the fourth quarter than sacrifice his health for a group of people he doesn’t want to hang out with (or at least doesn’t think he wants to, anyway). The Cavs lose to the Lakers on January 15, and then again to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 16. The losing streak goes to 10 games, then balloons to 15. Desperate, owner Dan Gilbert fires David Blatt, and the the Cavs limp into the playoffs at 42-40, losing to the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Kevin Love signs with the Lakers, Cleveland fans bemoan their tragic existence, and the Cavaliers future becomes shrouded in uncertainty and doubt.
But luckily for Cavs fans, the team decided to go bowling on that Thursday morning in Los Angeles. The experience helped the team bond, taught them to enjoy one another’s company, loosened them up, and worked as a release valve for the pressure that had been building on them for months, suffocating them, and strangling their desire to play with another. Great basketball teams aren’t made in the gym — they’re made at matinees and Thanksgiving dinners, at swimming pools and bowling alleys.
At Lucky Strike, there’s little in the way of memorializing the day an NBA team rolled into the bowling alley like a field trip from the tallest elementary school in the world — no “J.R. wuz here” graffitied on the wall of the bathroom stall; no “K.L. <3 LBJ” engraved on a lane table. I wouldn’t even believe it had really happened, if not for the chalkboard recording for posterity the scores of Cavs players J.R. Smith and LeBron James.8 LeBron James’ score of 91 gives you an opportunity to prove that you can beat one of the world’s greatest athletes in at least one (semi-)athletic endeavor.9 According to the cashier/shoe wrangler on duty, the celebrity scoreboard has a special rule: If 10 people ask who a “celebrity” is, their name has to be removed from the board.10
When asked if she thought the Cavaliers should return to Lucky Strike the next time they visit Los Angeles, Lucky Strike manager Ashley said, “They better.” Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and Timofey Mozgov’s names are noticeably absent from the “Celeb High Scores.” I guess they’ll have to add their names next season.