The Rest Are Just Cleveland

“America has only three cities: New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. The rest are just Cleveland.”

- Tennessee Williams


As a disclaimer: I feel like the draft can’t please everyone, and as such, I don’t mess around with it too much on here. Like most of my basketblogging peers, I wrote a visceral piece reacting to conspiracy theorists (that is, Lakers fans) who feel that every aspect of the National Basketball Association is rigged, from the regular season to the playoffs to the offseason. But since then, there hasn’t been much to say. Some think the ping pong balls are fine. Others would prefer a wheel; like the NBA draft is a late-afternoon game show (and truth be told, it sort of is). Frankly, I could conjure up an argument why a Zoltar machine might produce draft lottery results that better align with our worldview. But frankly, I don’t care whether you think it’s fixed or not, whether you think it’s completely broken and in need of an overhaul, or simply needs a few tweaks to be a better system for all parties involved. You are entitled to your opinion — as strange and paranoid as your opinion about a weighted system that creates 14 new millionaires may seem — and I’m not here to legislate your behavior.

But the Cleveland-Cavaliers-winning-the-2014-draft-lottery-thing — a King Harvest draft that is projected to join 1986, 2003 and 2009 as all-time great bounties — really does throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation, no matter how hard I argue otherwise. It’s not just the fact that Cleveland won it again, bucking a 1.7% chance of winning the deal this year, and a mathematical chance of winning the draft two years in a row, and three out of the last four years, that is much smaller. Rather, it was that every person who had an opportunity to speak, whether they were a lofty pundit or a lowly plebeian, hated that Cleveland won. The vitriol was nearly universal; booming over the airwaves and bristling on social media.

Bill Simmons, the bombastic white liberal male who seems to symbolize the NBA’s target audience, went on a tirade on national television that even made me raise my eyebrows. The slow motion replay depicted The Artist Formerly Known As The Sports Guy mouthing “that’s bull!” as the top pick was announced, his head shaking slowly. Simmons spat that the Cavaliers had already received “too much karma” for losing LeBron James in 2010, and that the system was “broken.” Meanwhile, on social media, angry fingers pecked away, championing Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren’s draft wheel as the Golden Calf to save the draft which had fucked up again, and awarded the Cavaliers the chance to select Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker as the number one overall pick. One didn’t have to search too far to identify a general sentiment that the Cleveland Cavaliers did not deserve the top pick.

Of course, this is perplexing for several reasons. The primary reason, of course, is that, unlike other lottery participants — in fact, nearly every single one — Cleveland did not tank. No, they went for it this year, Dan Gilbert had ants in his pants. They weren’t the Sixers, who lost nearly 30 straight games and still had the audacity to say they had completed a “successful season.” They weren’t the Bucks, who boasted a point differential of -8.2 in their games, and had billboards in their cities with ping pong balls emblazoned on the front. They weren’t the Celtics or the Lakers, who proudly displayed their tank jobs to a national television audience throughout the year.

No, the Cavs went for it this year, rehiring successful former coach Mike Brown, and signing sought-after free agents like Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark in a push to qualify for the playoffs. When things didn’t go well for Brown or the Cavs, they took on more salary, adding Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes by trade, and jettisoning Bynum to the Pacers. They did everything they could to qualify for the playoffs, scraping with the Hawks and the Knicks for the final spot in a desperate effort to save face. And when the season ended, the organization behaved like the team had vastly under-performed — because, well, they had — and fired the coach, as well as all of his assistants. By all accounts, this was a team that attempted to win, and for a bevy of reasons, it didn’t come together. Assuredly, this is exactly the team that “deserves” to win the lottery; one that didn’t plan to be obsolete, it just didn’t work.

What was more interesting were the values others imparted onto Cleveland, the opinions of the place that were intimated by casual fans and caustic pundits. In these short, sarcastic bursts, we are able to figure out what Cleveland represents for others, but some definition behind a rather black-and-white state-of-mind. For the average fan, Cleveland represents ineptitude and irrelevance, created at the hands of countless misguided management teams, and perpetuated by a permanently negative fanbase. Regardless of whether we’re discussing the Cavaliers, Indians or Browns, the prevailing narrative always centers around a “lack” or something, and the seemingly blighted nature of the sports culture in that polity. In our minds, the Cleveland sports fan is always frowning, certain that things are going to go wrong, and for most, isn’t very likable. In our hearts, we feel those folks don’t deserve any more handouts. We assume they will misuse what we give them to work with, and will become dour when it goes wrong. That sentiment reared it’s ugly head on Tuesday, continued to scowl and snarl Wednesday, and is issuing its last vitriolic comments today, embodied in “fix the draft!” posts and eye-roll comments about how the Cavs are almost destined to take a 7-footer with a bad back, like it’s encoded in their DNA.

I think our struggle with Cleveland sports, and by extension, their seemingly unwarranted success in winning a weighted game of chance (which they didn’t have the best chance of winning) mirrors a deep conflict we carry in our national consciousness. As a people, Americans remain uncomfortable with the idea that those that struggle deserve any sort of hand out, any sort of unconditional favor which carries no guarantee of repayment. It is a fear that has no political leanings, and manifests itself in both major political parties. It is rooted in our pastoral championing of the ”yeoman farmer,” and is animated in our distinctly American values of “pluck and luck” and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”

It is this inner conflict that ensured that Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was going to fail before the first salvo was fired, and this pervasive fear that ushered Ronald Reagan into office in the 1980′s. It gives conservatives who hold archaic views that non-whites are inherently lazy the gumption they need to decry welfare, and liberals who feel that the superstructure of capitalism perverted the intentions of the New Deal the right to promote austere measures that reduce the impact of social programs. All of this is coded into the way we operate in the world, and it trickles down into nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we view sports, and the way new talent enters the league. We often need a strawman to knock down to make our deeply held beliefs seem more imposing, more real. For those who don’t have the language to express what they really feel — about Cleveland, the poor, the bedraggled — the draft can serve as a useful example.

Is the draft lottery broken? I’m not quite sure, myself, and I’m not that interested in figuring that out, especially when my team has no business collecting ping pong balls. But rest assured: the Cavaliers did wrong the right way. In a room where the rest were just Cleveland, they were the most Cleveland of them all. There is nothing broken here, except perhaps your view on who deserves a “hand out”, and what constitutes a “hand out” in the first place.

Editor’s Note: In the original draft of this piece, the author credited the “draft wheel” to Zach Lowe. This is incorrect. The idea was proposed by an NBA team official. The author regrets this error, and apologizes to both Mr. Lowe and the readers for lazy research. 

About Jacob Greenberg

Jacob is a behaviorist by day, blogger by night, and founded the Diss. Follow him on Twitter @jacobjbg
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6 Responses to The Rest Are Just Cleveland

  1. Boris says:

    Some of us just hate Gilbert because he’s a predatory loan shark whose manipulation of his fan base reflects his profession, and is prone to uniquely self-serving PR, even among the horrible PR of NBA ownership generally. But the broad outline of your argument about metropolitanism? I support.

  2. Andrew says:

    Why is there even a draft in the first place? The “hand out” really goes to the Spurs because they get the 30th pick,the most valuable pick of all. So if the player turns out to be good, great but not a big hit if he sucks as well.
    All of these restrictions in North American sports is pretty telling though.
    Do the Cavs “deserve” a top pick? Probably not. Better question is do players want to play in Cleveland? Yes if payed enough. In short, FREE EMBIID.

    • Anonymous says:

      What makes the final pick of the 1st round the most valuable? Thanks for reading. — JG

      • Levi Turner says:

        Absolutely nothing does. The Spurs must give a guaranteed contract to a player who was only selected one spot behind the first pick of the second round. It’s tom-foolery to claim that the last pick of the first round is somehow very valuable.

  3. Karl says:

    ‘It is a fear that has no political leanings, and manifests itself in both major political parties. It is rooted in our pastoral championing of the ”yeoman farmer,” and is animated in our distinctly American values of “pluck and luck” and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”

    Actually let’s call a duck a duck. This perspective of the yeoman farmer, of the rugged individualist is at heart a very conservative world-view. it is antithetical to community, to mutuality, to care for the vulnerable, to a strong social-welfare state etc etc.

    As the cultural commentator Stuart Hall observes, ‘Neoliberalism is grounded in the “free, possessive individual”, with the state cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch enemy of freedom. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth.’

    Now it’s true that this has become pervasive even in those purportedly leftist circles. Reagan on your side of the pond and Maggie on this side of the pond changed the common-sense assumptions of politics. Ronald drew on that enduring American individualism to advance his own neo-liberal agenda and too discredit, vilify and scare-monger about Socialism or Communism – the evil straw man opposites of free capitalist individuals.

    But it really incenses me when American individualism gets treated as politically neutral. It’s not and it’s used in political discourse all the time. See the Tea Party and they’re attack on the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats used it too with Welfare Reform. Individualism, let’s not forget is a social process that emerges with industrial capitalism. It comes from a particular historical moment and has it’s own assumptions built into it.

    Alright, sociology seminar over. Now let’s get back to the NBA. If Simmons is the imagined audience then we need to see how this ‘liberal white guy’ has opinions that are marbled through with unwitting conservative ideology. This notion of ‘deserving poor’ or ‘undeserving poor’ for example. Cleveland don’t deserve this. Shit I’m a Kings fan, I think our performances fulfill the deserving poor definition. But we’ve got a lottery – which ain’t fair by definition. it’s statistically weighted towards the worst but it’s not guaranteed. So if we want a more equal, more guaranteed system – we may have to consider introducing regulations (screams of ‘Communist!’). Like consider records from last 2-3 years, team injuries etc. Yeah something like ‘from each according to his need’.

  4. Michael in Augusta says:

    As a Cleveland fan and native I am aware of and disappointed by the vitriol and anger that my loved team has encited because of the lucky bounces of ping pong balls. Cleveland fans are as disgusted as anyone else by the mismanagement of our franchises and we hope that each new change will bring about stability and a inning culture. Does anyone really think that we enjoy losing annually and that being the kid stuffed into the locker is fun, but Cleveland fans are proud and loyal so no we will not go root for a winning team or betray our hometown for a “better” market (yes we are aware Cleveland fans are from greater Cleveland and virtually no where else). We will do as we have always done and stop watching ESPN, stop reading the hater blogs, and root like nobodies business for the teams we love and raise hell when and if they lose (to the local media of couse). We don’t want to be in the lottery or get high NFL draft picks or whatever it is baseball does (yes we root for the Indians but from a distance); but if those things happen we want to win it so we can have hope again for next year. In closing I know that somebody is going to be negative and comment on my improper use of punctuation or my failure to separate my comment into neat paragraphs, but so what I’m from Cleveland and you are gonna talk negatively anyway. To paraphrase Ohio native and future Cavalier (just kidding I don’t care if he ever comes back if we are winning) ‘To all people hoping that we fail at the end of the day you gotta wake up tomorrow with the same problems you had today and the same job you had today’ so I’m gonna continue to root for who I want to root for and if we (fandom is a group activity with the team included) are in the lottery wears gonna be in it to win it.’

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