Hapless but Not Quite Hopeless

Jay Kelley bought into a season-ticket package for the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly a decade ago. He kept his fingers crossed that everything would fall into place for a star-crossed franchise. His commitment paid dividends when the Cavaliers drafted LeBron James, the local phenom, who restored the franchise to relevancy. Cavaliers

Now, Kelley is mulling whether to commit for another season.

Tony Houston bought into a season package three years ago, after the Cavaliers lost in the N.B.A. finals. During the height of James’s tenure, thoughts of a championship seemed not only probable, but likely.

Now, Houston is mulling whether to commit for another season.

On Friday, the Cavaliers ended a skid of 26 losses with an overtime victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. They had matched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost 26 games in row from September 1976 to December 1977, for the worst losing streak among the four major professional sports.

After being the No. 1 seed in last season’s playoffs, the Cavaliers are the N.B.A.’s worst team, at 9-45. No team has ever gone from the N.B.A.’s best record one season to the worst the next. They lost 36 times in 37 games, by margins as slim as 1 point and as vast as 55.

Since James’s departure, there is no one perfect way to view the Cavaliers, the growing piles of losses or one’s commitment to the team. There are only ways to measure varying levels of frustration, disappointment, acceptance, resilience and hope.

“We’re already talking about Ping-Pong balls again in Cleveland, the eternal optimists,” said Kelley, a lawyer, referring to the draft lottery.

Sounding like an N.B.A. general manager, he called for changes to the league’s labor agreement that would increase competitiveness among all teams. Houston is not so optimistic. In the fourth quarter of James’s return here with the Miami Heat on Dec. 2, with the Cavaliers trailing by 95-65, Houston tapped his father on the shoulder and they left Quicken Loans Arena.

“I haven’t been back since,” Houston said. “My little sister just graduated from college, so I give her the tickets and she goes with a friend. They don’t care about not winning.”

James’s departure is a primary ingredient in a blend of conspiring incidents. The Cavaliers also lost two centers, Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and a valuable backcourt player, Delonte West, over the summer. They fired their coach, Mike Brown, and General Manager Danny Ferry allowed his contract to expire.

In the N.B.A., replacing a star can be a particularly exhausting process. The Chicago Bulls, for example, have won only one playoff series since Michael Jordan left the franchise after the 1997-98 season.

But there were some predictions that the Cavaliers, with a healthy roster, would compete for one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots, expectations validated by a respectable 7-9 start.

Injuries, most notably a season-ending one to center Anderson Varejao, led to significant setbacks. The Cavaliers used 19 starting lineups, most in the league. On some nights, the roster resembled one from the N.B.A. Development League, and the Cavaliers have not been helped by playing an N.B.A.-high 30 road games.

“I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody to go through what we’re going through here,” forward Antawn Jamison said Friday before his 35 points and crucial 3-pointer paved the way for Cleveland’s victory.

Those close to Coach Byron Scott offer encouraging messages. Nearly all send him text messages, Scott said, instead of calling. To call may lead to an awkward situation where not much solace can be offered beyond “Keep your head up” and “Hang in there.”

“But that’s what I was going to do anyways,” said Scott, who guided excavation projects with the Nets and New Orleans. “That’s just me.”

People here offer Scott words of endorsement. Scott does the same. “My heart bleeds for them,” he said, “because I know this is not what they expected as well.”

Fans still watch and go to games, to support their team and support their city. SportsBusiness Daily reported that the Cavaliers had the league’s largest drop in local television ratings, but the numbers are somewhat misleading. Their games on Fox Sports Ohio dropped 53 percent, to an average rating of 4.07 through January, but that number still ranked as the league’s seventh highest.

Quicken Loans Arena hosted eight losses in the last two regular seasons. Even with this season’s struggles, the Cavaliers rank third in the league in home attendance, with an average of 20,375. Each game is sold out, continuing a streak that dates to the 2008-9 season. Much can be attributed, however, to the Cavaliers’ locking in season-ticket commitments for this season long before James made his decision to leave. The real test comes now. The Cavaliers have recently sent next season’s invoices, with a disappointing record and the threat of a lockout looming over the N.B.A.

“We kind of have the mind-set when we win, we don’t get too high, for fear of what’s happening now,” said Bob Madden, another lifelong resident here and devoted fan. “There’s always going to be the bottom side of the hill.”

He added, “But we walk it off better than anyone else in the country does.”

Indeed, Cleveland sports fans have been walking it off for decades. The last major professional team in town to win a championship was the Browns in 1964.

Obtained by: Jonathan Abrams

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