Sports Fans, Be Careful What You Wish For

For Las Vegans dreaming of a big-time sports franchise, a cautionary tale from Cleveland

Is it truly better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? When it comes to your hometown sports team, I’m not so sure. Many Las Vegans have long held out hope for a big-league sports franchise, and as a transplant to the Valley, I probably ought to hop on that bandwagon. But my status as a lifelong fan of Cleveland’s teams gives me the duty to issue a warning: Where I come from, sports fans lead lives of quiet desperation.

The Browns, the Cavaliers, the Indians—the names alone invoke images of ineptitude, choking in pivotal moments and constant failure.

Cleveland has not won a major championship since the Browns won an NFL title in 1964, more than two years before the first Super Bowl. In fact, the Browns are one of only four teams to have never even reached the Super Bowl.

The NBA’s Cavaliers have only been to one championship series since they were founded in 1970—that came in 2007, when they were swept in four games by the San Antonio Spurs.

Major League Baseball’s Indians have the second-longest championship drought of any major sports team behind only the Chicago Cubs, last winning in 1948. They had chances to break the 63-year dry spell in 1995 and 1997, the latter of which was choked away after losing a Game 7, ninth-inning lead to the Florida Marlins.

Cleveland’s misfortunes have helped cement the legacies of some of the greatest icons in sports. In 1989, after defeating the Cavaliers in the playoffs the previous year, Michael Jordan began to build his legend as a clutch late-game performer with a game-winning mid-air shot over a double team as time expired. “The Shot” has become one of the NBA’s most historic images—it’s shown ad nauseum every year—much to the chagrin of Craig Ehlo and Larry Nance, the two Cavaliers defending Jordan on the play.

The closest the Browns ever came to the Super Bowl was in 1987. They had a seven-point lead in the AFC Championship Game with just 5:32 to go; Denver had the ball at its own two-yard line. That was when “The Drive” began. John Elway drove his team 98 yards down the field to tie the game with 37 seconds left before winning it in overtime. Once again, one of sport’s classic moments came at Cleveland’s expense. Every time I see Elway throw that ball, I dream that somehow Mark Jackson will drop it.

If Cleveland’s luck had been just a little bit different, maybe we’d be celebrating the legacy of Bernie Kosar instead. Maybe owner Art Modell would not have moved the Browns in 1996 to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. Certainly he would not be the hated man he has become today in Cleveland, especially since the Ravens won the Super Bowl five years later. Many Clevelanders feel the victory should have been theirs—and it would have made Modell a local hero.

But after all that, Cleveland had one more shot at glory—and it was embodied in the person of LeBron James. He was everything our city needed: a hometown kid whose talent immediately took us from the bottom to the top. He was to be Cleveland’s Michael Jordan, and for seven years he was just about everything Clevelanders could have hoped for—all that remained was to win an NBA title. But, as we all well know, he decided to take his talents to South Beach to assemble his Miami Heat dream team. We were hoping the NBA lockout would go on forever, but even that was denied us poor Clevelanders.

Cleveland nurtures talent, but it always loses it before it ripens. Bill Belichick coached the Browns from 1991 to 1995, when he was fired. Now he is the genius behind the New England Patriots dynasty. The Indians produced Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, both of whom moved on to other World Series teams.

So, Las Vegans, don’t lament that for a home team, you’ve got a college rather than a pro franchise. UNLV will never pull up stakes and move to Baltimore. The Runnin’ Rebels are former champions and perennial winners. And their players are, one hopes, less likely to bolt for the highest bidder. But if Las Vegas ever does get a major professional sports franchise, history tells us this: It will probably be able to count on beating some hapless team from Cleveland.