This sports city is far more cursed than Cleveland ever was
Lost in all the hullaballoo of Cleveland snapping its half-century of title-less existence by winning the NBA championship was the fact that the rest of America won just as big. For we no longer have to hear Clevelanders whine about their half-century of title-less existence, nor their overcompensation for it – namely, acting like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t suck. But there was another secret too: Cleveland never had it the worst of any sports city. There was another that hasn’t had nearly as much publicity that had, and continues to have, it far, far worse. (Try and guess. We’ll get to them in a minute.)
But first, let’s address the whole idea that Cleveland was the apex of sports frustration. This narrative happened after Boston finally won a World Series years before Cleveland experienced the Decision, a one-word metropolitan travesty that followed The Drive, The Fumble and The Modell and was incontrovertible proof of some sort of Cleveland jinx.
Never mind that The Decision was far easier for LeBron than anyone lets on. Would you have wanted to stay in Cleveland while everybody called you a loser because you couldn’t win an NBA title with Mo Williams as your No. 2? Never mind that The Fumble is overrated in lore too. Earnest Byner’s touchdown would have only tied the game at 38 and you know John Elway was going to get Denver in field position with 1:12 left on the clock anyway. The Drive? If you can’t stop a team from going 98 yards in 15 plays over five minutes to tie a game, that’s pathetic, not cause for decades of weeping.
(In reality, the only pitiable part of Cleveland’s recent sports existence was Art Modell doing the reverse-Irsay and taking the Browns to Baltimore. That was some unforgivable stuff, but at least it was quickly made right by Cleveland getting an expansion team that took on the history of the old Browns, as if no one remembered Modell leaving and that team ending up winning two Super Bowls in Maryland.)
Oh, and by the way, if Cleveland had happened to win both The Drive and The Fumble, they were going to get rocked by the Giants and Redskins in the Super Bowl, just as badly as Denver did. So, cry me a river.
And that’s what Cleveland wanted. That’s what they begged for. They presented themselves as a citywide existential crisis rather than a city with some poorly run sports franchises. When championships don’t allow you to form a sports identity, being pathetic, lovable losers is the next resort. Cubs fans have perfected this. No one mocks Cubs fans for having lost for 108 years because Cubs fans are plenty good at laughing at themselves. Cleveland was never in on the joke. They weren’t lovable even though they wanted to be. It’s because you can’t have it both ways – burning LeBron jerseys and begging for people to feel sorry for you are at fundamental odds with each other. (Not that it stopped people from acting like Cleveland was a Shakespearean tragedy.) Look at this and try not to gag.
But now that seven-year-olds in Cleveland will never remember a time in which their city wasn’t a title town, which sports town takes the mantle of the next Cleveland? It’s easy. It’s a town that had it worse before The Decision, after The Decision and continues to today. Buffalo isn’t your new Cleveland, it was your old one.
The city in upstate New York has always had it far worse than The Cleve, which could at least enjoy a history of Jim Brown and Bob Feller and Larry Doby and Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn. It was an old history, but there’s a definite honor in being the franchise of the greatest football player in history. Buffalo’s best player was O.J. Simpson.
The town loves its Bills and its Sabres and had the ultimate agony of losing four-straight Super Bowls in the early 90s. Therein lies the pain of Buffalo: If Scott Norwood makes that kick to win the 1990 NFL title (played in 1991) they’d still currently have the second longest streak among cities with two teams. But it wouldn’t matter. Buffalo would be living high off that Super Bowl for decades. It just takes one. Buffalo craves it. Buffalo needs it. But your pity? Buffalo wants none of it.
Some might disagree. Other towns can lay claim to some sports pain too. Buffalo, after all, only has two teams (Bills and Sabres). Others have four and have droughts that are getting to the quarter-century mark. Here are the longest droughts among teams with at least three major sports teams:
Minneapolis/St. Paul (4 teams) – Twins, 1991 World Series
The Twin Cities are just happy they have four sports teams. Yes, the area has the longest title drought among those in this category (it beats the next city on the list by a few months) but given that it’s considered a miracle every time the Twins do well, no one feels pity. Yes, the Vikings had one of the crueler conference title-game losses in recent history (Gary Anderson’s kick was far worse than anything Cleveland went through). That was rough. Then they went and got Brett Favre for a couple of years so they lost all right to complain. The Timberwolves had a decade of Kevin Garnett and have a bright future. Anything’s possible.
Washington (4 teams) – Redskins, 1991 Super Bowl
In theory, Washington might have the best case. As my buddy Dan Steinberg points out, the city doesn’t just have the second-longest title drought (and that’s only by like 100 days), it has, by far, the longest championship game drought, at 72 team seasons and counting. That’s not to even mention a drought for the equivalent of professional semifinals (the NFC championship, NLCS, Eastern Conference Finals, etc). The last team to make any sort of final was the 1998 Capitals, who went to the Stanley Cup Finals whereupon they were swept by the Red Wings.
But DC is too proud to whine. They think the Joe Gibbs glory days were yesterday and rationalize every hilarious Capitals playoff exit like the coach of a fourth-grade tee-ball team. ("Well, the important thing is that they tried.") It’s startling to look at the numbers, but Redskins fans are so delusional that winning Super Bowls XXVII, XXII and XXVI are still considered relatively fresh. Fans think that because they still get games on national TV and eat up a lot of national oxygen during the offseason that it somehow makes them on par with the Packers and Broncos of the world. It doesn’t.
Toronto (3 teams) – Blue Jays, 1993 World Series
It’s Canada. And you lay claim to Drake. NEXT.
Houston (3 teams) – Rockets, 1995 NBA Finals
With very, very few exceptions, the only thing that matters to a sports city is football. If the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, there’d be 30,000 people who’d be truly, madly happy. Then there’d be like 200,000 who’d say "cool, go Caps." The rest wouldn’t care. It’s a Redskins town. Houston is an Oilers/Texans town.
Atlanta (4 teams) – Braves, 1995 World Series
When you don’t sell out playoff games, your sports hurt is not worthy of anybody’s sympathy.
Okay, to be fair, each of those cities had expansion or relocated teams since their droughts began, so Houston wasn’t always playing with a full deck and Washington only recently had the Nationals give them a chance to win a World Series. But those droughts hurt nonetheless.
Still, looking at those teams, you didn’t see a natural Cleveland or a Buffalo successor. They have more opportunities for pain, but Buffalo’s singular focus on football makes it more difficult, in a way. Minnesota fans can move on from the Vikings to the Wolves to the Twins. In Buffalo, only the Sabres are the bridge to another NFL season.
Buffalo isn’t the only city with one or two teams though, so let’s check-in with other towns that might want to, regrettably, lay claim to this honorific.
San Diego (2 teams) – Chargers, 1963 AFL Title
San Diego doesn’t care about anything, except perhaps how early they can cut out from work on Friday. (Or Thursday. Or Wednesday. I’m not entirely sure anybody in San Diego does actual work.) This is why the Chargers might move and there’d be a bigger uproar if In-N-Out announced it was the one leaving town.
Cincinnati (2 teams) – Reds, 1990 World Series
For the Bengals, becoming a steady playoff team is the equivalent of another team winning a Super Bowl. Enjoy it.
Ottawa (1 team) – Senators, 1927 Stanley Cup
You’d have to be just knocking on the door of 100 to remember the last time Ottawa won a title. But with only one sport (and a team that didn’t even exist in the NHL from 1934 to 1992), it’s hard to compare. (Though the city’s CFL team hasn’t exactly been lighting it up of late. Ottawa hasn’t won a Grey Cup since 1976.)
Milwaukee (2 teams) – Bucks, 1971 NBA title
Yes, Green Bay is as far from Milwaukee as DC is from Philly, but separating Milwaukee from the Packers is as wrong as going up to a lifelong Wisconsiner and insulting cheese. The Packers are 100% part of the Milwaukee sports landscape, which is good, because five decades of the Bucks and Brewers alone would even make Bernie want to leave town.