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Awake by the lake

CLEVELAND – A couple of years ago Jack Blake, now 12, had reached the age when boys begin having questions about exactly how and why things work. So his father, Keven, had to sit him down and have "The Talk."

"Part of the parenting process in Cleveland is to express to children the history of losing here," Keven said. "You have to let them know."

Yeah, forget the birds and the bees. In Northeast Ohio, first you have to explain the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indians and Browns; namely why none of them ever win anything – a title drought that extends 43 years and counting, all the way back to pre-Super Bowl 1964, when the Browns won the "NFL championship," as it was then called.

Since then it has been decades of futility, heartbreak and headaches, punctuated by so many gut-punch collapses – "The Drive," "The Shot" – that this arguably is the most tortured, championship-starved fan base in the nation.

And so Keven Blake, being a good father, tried to warn his son that while he could join his father as a lifelong Cleveland sports fan, perhaps, just for his young mental health, he might want to hedge his bets and choose another team to root for. And who did Keven recommend his son begin cheering for?

"The Cubs," he laughed.

The Cubs? The 99-years-and-counting-without-a-championship Cubs? The Billy Goat? Bartman? Those Cubs? Yeah, that's how bad it is here, fathers encouraging their sons to become Cubs fans.

"In Cleveland we haven't had anything in my lifetime," said Keven, 42. "We're so overdue to the point it's painful. I wanted my kids to root for anything, even the Cubs."

On Saturday night, though, hope sprung eternal as father and son polished off some chicken wings before the Cavs' 98-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons that put the franchise in its first NBA finals and gave the city its first championship-round appearance since the Indians in 1997.

Of course, the Tribe blew that series. In Game 7, Cleveland led the Marlins 2-1 with one out in the ninth only to lose the lead and eventually the game.

Want to get a debate going in New York? Ask which Yankees championship was most satisfying. In Boston, try choosing between the recent glory of the Patriots or Red Sox.

In Cleveland, ask which of the following was worst: the 1997 World Series collapse, "The Drive" (John Elway's 98-yard game-winning drive in the 1986 season's AFC title game) or "The Shot" (Michael Jordan's series winner over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs).

"The World Series," said Mark Miller, 54, of Ashland, Ohio, who attended the Cavs game with his daughter Morgan. "My son and I sat there and watched on TV and said, 'We're two outs away from winning the World Series.' He was 11 or 12 at the time, and when Jose Mesa blew it, I turned to him and said, 'Get used to it.' "

" 'The Drive,' " said John Taylor, 48, who was sipping beers Saturday at Flannery's Pub downtown with some friends. "This is football country. I mean, 98 yards? We had Elway 98 yards away. It was over."

He shakes his head at the mere memory.

"My coffee table got smashed on that one," he said.

"I'm a hoops guy, so 'The Shot,' " said T.K. Harrison, 50, who was at the Cavaliers game. "The Cavs were getting good. We felt we were finally building toward a title. But when Jordan hit that I turned to my friend (and said), 'It's over. We'll never beat this guy. Never.' "

The worst of all, of course, probably was the decision by the Browns to abandon their fiercely loyal fans after the 1995 season and relocate to Baltimore. The blow was crushing on so many levels, and despite getting a new Browns team in 1999, it only got worse when Baltimore – the natural progression of the franchise – won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season.

But that's Cleveland. It's why Ricky Vaughn, Jake Taylor and Pedro Cerrano are beloved names around here – and all they did was win a one-game playoff to beat the Yankees for the division. In "Major League."

Philadelphia, which hasn't won a pro sports title since 1983 (the 76ers), can make its own claim as most cursed because it also boasts a NHL team as well as a number of college basketball programs filled with Philly guys, coaches and players that routinely have fallen just short of the Final Four (since Villanova in 1985). Local racehorse Smarty Jones faded down the stretch in the third leg of the 2004 Triple Crown, and even Rocky Balboa lost at the end of the first movie.

But 1983 is 1983. Cleveland has had nothing since 1964. The Cavs never have won the NBA title. The Indians have just two World Series championships – 1920 and 1948.

Efforts to claim Ohio State football – 145 miles to the southwest in Columbus – are a reach.

Among those Northeast Ohio natives who never have experienced a title is a 22-year-old out of Akron (34 miles to the south) who currently has his likeness painted on the side of a huge downtown building claiming "we are all witnesses."

His name is LeBron James, and around here he was considered the "the Chosen One" long before he hung 48 on the Pistons last week.

"Finally," said Harrison. "Just finally. We haven't had a true superstar since Jim Brown (a member of those '64 Browns)."

Fan optimism about the series against the San Antonio Spurs is running high despite underdog status. But no matter what happens, there is a sense that James eventually will win one. He's too young, too good and too committed to Cleveland for him not to, eventually, deliver.

If nothing else he has helped spin the focus about Cleveland away from old jokes of burning rivers and the "Mistake by the Lake" and onto a renewed downtown and hopeful future.

James, for his part, is more than aware of the stakes. He has lived it, too. Not as long as some, but long enough. That's what makes this pursuit of a title so special. He is, in many ways, one of them, just another guy wondering what a victory parade might look like circling the square.

"They deserve it," James said. "The fans here deserve it more than any fans in the United States."

He paused for a moment. He knows the history. He understands the stakes. He has heard stories about "The Talk."

"And I'm going to try my best to give it to them," James said.

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