Tonight’s NBA Finals match is the most important sports game of my life. As most Cleveland natives know, it’s been 52 years since a local team won a major national championship. Not to demean the efforts of the Lake Erie Monsters or the old Cleveland Crunch teams, but a win tonight would lift a weight off of the shoulders of a city that’s unfairly maligned by people from other regions as a “mistake on the lake” or a place that’s fated to be a perennial loser. I really don’t care how other people decide to label a city that many of them have never been to. I care more about how this win will finally provide some solace to the many families who have devoted themselves to the sports teams that represent this city.
That familial connection is why it’s so appropriate that tonight’s game is being held on Father’s Day. Now, I’ve never been a very sentimental person. Hell, I’m currently listening to a playlist I put together about horrible fathers on this holiday. Still, it’s hard not to think of my dad when I consider the connection of Game 7 of the NBA Finals and Father’s Day.
Like many Cleveland natives, my sports fandom originates from a fatherly place. I still remember when my dad took me to go see the very first preseason game at Browns Stadium when the team returned to the city. Like the majority of the 16 seasons since, it was a loss, an early warning of the ineptitude that will haunt the franchise and its fan base for the years to come.
Despite that foreshadowing, I was hooked. Not just because of the game, mind you, but because it was my dad who took me to the game. I was 11 years old during that preseason game, but it was the first big memory that I can remember about my dad.
Through a combination of his long workdays and my general youthful obliviousness, I don’t really have many go-to experiences that I can recall before my tweens. For one, my dad worked more 70-plus hour work weeks to his name than some people have total weeks lived in their lifetime. Two, I was kind of a dipshit that blanks when you ask me about my childhood. I don’t remember much of it, something that confuses my girlfriend to no end. Add those together, and the most I can recall about my dad is the obligatory holiday memories, an instance of him and I having to wash our Alaskan malamute in a big plastic tub, and the image of him coming home late so that he could provide for my family.
But on Aug. 21, 1999, things changed. Thanks to the Browns, I had something that could knock the obliviousness out of me (well, some of it) and allow me to really connect with my dad. I do recall cheering for the Indians in the ’90s, but that preseason game was different. This was a day that was meant for me, my dad, and the soon-to-be-incredibly-disappointing Browns. It was all so exciting for me. The walk up to the stadium with chanting fans. The first real kickoff at the new Browns stadium. The drive back home talking about the game. And all of it was spent by my father’s side.
While the past 16 years have been a roller coaster ride of some highs and many lows in Cleveland sports, I can’t help but be invested in everything thanks to Michael Bieler. Every game I get to attend with that man is a gift, which is why tonight’s Game 7 NBA Finals match up is such a special opportunity.
While tens of thousands of people congregate downtown to cheer on the Cavs at various watch parties, I’ll be at my parents place for Father’s Day, helping my dad and my grandfather grill out for the family. Football is his favorite sport, but he’s gotten really attached to the Cavs over the past 16 years. Like me, my dad is not a sentimental person, but I’ve seen him wear special t-shirts made for Cavs playoff runs over the years. Like me, he’s emotionally invested in this team, and I want this team to bring the title home for him.
When I went to college in Pennsylvania, I used to joke that I’d really appreciate it if Cleveland could win a championship before my grandfather died. Pretty soon, that request changed before my dad died. The scary thing is that it sometimes felt as if I’d need to swap in my death to make the plea more realistic. Now Cleveland has a chance for that elusive title while three generations of Bielers sit under the same roof.
I’ll be watching Game 7 with my dad tonight. I know that we’ll never suit up for the team, but there’s such an emotional connection that it’s hard not to use “we” when we refer to the Cavaliers. Years ago, I wanted a championship to get the monkey off of this city’s back. Now I want to be able to turn to my dad with tears in my eyes and say “we did it.”
Some people say that basketball is only a game. Game 7 is so much more than that for Cleveland. For some, it’s a chance to tell the world we’re the best. For me, it’s an opportunity to give my dad the championship he deserves. Go Cavs.