Playoffs? Oh, Cleveland will be watching

Playoffs? Oh, Cleveland will be watching

Published Apr. 14, 2011 9:13 p.m. ET

CLEVELAND -- For the first time since 2005, there will not be playoff basketball here this spring.

Interest in the NBA playoffs in Cleveland, though, figures to still be pretty high. And from a strictly mathematical standpoint, the odds of this championship-starved city wearing a collective smile the morning after the last game of the NBA Finals have never been better.

This year, Cleveland's got 15 to one. Everybody but the Heat.

Nine months after LeBron James took to the airwaves to break up with the only franchise he'd ever known, ill feelings linger.  No major professional sports team from Cleveland has won a championship since 1964, and no athlete brought the excitement and promise of one (or more) that LeBron did.

Then, last July, he decided to take his talents to South Beach. The next night he was on stage in Miami at a rap concert/championship ceremony, counting the hypothetical titles he was going to win there.

Shockingly, Clevelanders didn't handle that very well. Perhaps you've read Dan Gilbert's letter?

I'm not here to speak for everyone in Northeast Ohio. Some folks have totally moved on; many more have chores to do, high gas prices to worry about and a baseball team that suddenly has a pulse to occupy their evenings. Besides, LeBron is still well-liked and well-regarded on at least four city blocks in his native Akron.

There are some stubborn and grizzled sports fans here who couldn't stomach the thought of rooting for the Celtics or the Bulls, let alone do it. There won't be any ticker-tape parades regardless of what happens, and Cleveland won't truly celebrate until Euclid Ave. gets its parade.

Cavs fans cheered Kevin Durant when the Thunder played here in March, partly because he's a really gifted player and partly because he quietly signed a five-year extension to stay in Oklahoma City last summer. Some folks gave up on the Cavs altogether when they laid down and played nice with LeBron during his first game back on Dec. 2, a day that joins a bunch of other days as days that made the loyal Cleveland sports fan die inside. Yep, a regular-season game lives in infamy.

Things were a little less vicious when the Heat returned in late March -- time heals wounds, and the Cavs losing 26 in a row gave folks reason to not watch again 'til next year. But the Cavs played out of their minds that night, the fans still showed up to hurl insults and the Cavs won the game. Revenge, even a tiny, off-the-radar bit of it, was good.

A local sports radio station spent the better part of two days last week holding discussions on whether it should sponsor "Hate The Heat" playoff viewing parties. The discussion evoked strong feelings on both sides. The station won't, but people will be watching. And hoping. And maybe even screaming at the television, just like they used to. This time, though, they won't be asking for foul calls on LeBron's barreling drives to the basket.

They'll be asking somebody to foul him.

Did time -- and especially that Cavs win over the Heat two weeks ago -- temper the sting and some of the obsession? Sure. But not all of it. Not even close. When LeBron's mother got arrested in Miami last week, it led newscasts and led to high-fives in sports bars here.

At a Cavs game last weekend, local high school boys and girls teams who had won state basketball championships were honored on the floor during a first-quarter timeout. When the boys team from LeBron's alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, was honored, there was a smattering of boos in the arena.

Yes, they booed the kids. For being associated with LeBron.

It really is like that.

If LeBron was going to leave Cleveland, it was going to hurt a lot of people here. There was going to be no easy way or no true high road. He had earned his free agency, but the events of Game 5 last May, the two months of silence that followed and the way he did "The Decision" ensured that the relationship between the guy who really was treated like The King here and Cleveland was going to be bitter. And ugly.

Then he showed up at American Airlines Arena, counting imaginary titles. And people in Cleveland will be watching these playoffs, hoping they don't need any fingers to help LeBron count how many he really has.

Until further notice, he's still The King of the Regular Season. And folks here are crossing those fingers that it stays that way.