Sunday, January 07, 2018

Streaks in the City (1): Believeland Or Grieveland

Happy New Year!

Today, I am introducing a new feature for 2018 on the Hot Hand blog, which I'm calling "Streaks and the City." Each entry will feature a different North American city and discuss famous streaks its teams and athletes have recorded over the years.

The first city to be featured is Cleveland, Ohio, a city associated in many people's minds with misfortune such as municipal bankruptcy, a lake catching on fire, and sports futility. Cleveland sports teams have actually exhibited two types of futility: near misses by pretty good teams when it looked like a title might be within reach, and horrible teams.

One example of the latter is this past season's Cleveland Browns football squad, which went 0-16, prompting yesterday's "perfect season" parade by the stadium.

Yet, on a more uplifting note, we had the May 14, 2016 ESPN documentary "Believeland," chronicling the efforts of Cleveland's teams to win the city's first championship in any major sport since the Browns in 1964, followed about a month later (June 19, 2016) by LeBron James and the Cavaliers bringing the NBA title to Cleveland. Before the Cavs' championship, Cleveland's 52-year title drought (1964-2016) had been the longest active streak of its kind among North American cities. (Milwaukee now tops the leaderboard at 46 years, the Bucks' 1971 NBA title being the city's last in any pro sport.)

It can be said about all three of Cleveland's major pro-sports franchises* (and about many other teams outside of Cleveland, as well) that they have experienced a lot of losing, but have periodically had some title-contenders.


The Cavs were part of the NBA's 1970-71 expansion, going 15-67 that first season (season-by-season log). If a team's nearly 50-year history can be conveyed in a single sentence, Cleveland has alternated every few years between rock-bottom and being a playoff club. The Cavs improved over their first few years to where they made the postseason three straight years (1975-76 to 1977-78). A nine-year dry spell ensued from 1978-79 to 1986-87, in which the team only made the playoffs once, in 1984-85, with a 36-46 record. Other lowlights during this stretch included another 15-67 record in 1981-82, a parade of coaches around this time that included Don Delaney, whose coaching experience included pro softball and small-college basketball, and imposition by the NBA of a rule prohibiting teams from trading away their first-round draft-pick two years in a row, after the Cavs did so to disastrous effect.

A productive era followed from 1987-88 to 1997-98, with nine playoff appearances in 11 years. Early on in this timeframe, the Cavs benefited from up-and-coming players such as Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Larry Nance. A 57-25 Cleveland squad was ousted in the first round of the 1988-89 playoffs on what's famously known as "The Shot" by the Bulls' Michael Jordan in the deciding game of a 3-out-of-5 series (YouTube video), but the Cavs were unlikely to make the NBA finals that year, anyway, as Detroit was at the peak of its "Bad Boys" dynasty, winning the title in 1989 and 1990.

Next came seven straight non-playoff years from 1998-99 to 2004-05. A 17-65 record in 2002-03 put the Cavs in a position to draft a local hero from nearby Akron, LeBron James, out of high school. In James's third season, 2005-06, Cleveland was back in the playoffs, and the next year, 2006-07, the Cavs made their first-ever NBA final, losing to San Antonio. James helped Cleveland win the 2007 Eastern Conference finals by scoring the team's last 25 points in a key game of that series.

After three more successful years in Cleveland -- in terms of win-loss records, but without a return to the NBA finals -- James left after the 2009-10 season, famously "tak[ing] my talents to South Beach" via free-agency, to play for the Miami Heat (YouTube video). While James was making the NBA finals with the Heat each of the next four years and capturing two titles, Cleveland averaged 24 wins per season over the same four years.

Almost as stunningly, James returned to Cleveland via free agency for the 2014-15 season. In his three complete seasons back in Ohio, the Cavs have made the NBA finals every year (always against the Golden State Warriors), winning in 2016, but losing in 2015 and 2017.

Now, at age 33, James is still going strong. Earlier in the current 2017-18 season, he led the Cavs to a franchise-record-tying 13-game winning streak. James can't play forever and when he either retires or leaves for another team, the Cavs will probably go through a multiple-year slump, if past is indeed prologue.


Among MLB franchises that have won the World Series at least once -- which Cleveland did in 1948 and 1920 -- the Indians hold the longest currently active drought, 69 straight years, without a World Series title.

Still the Indians have been excellent in recent years -- even record-setting in a good way -- narrowly missing a World Series title in 2016 and compiling an American League-record** 22-game winning streak in 2017. During the latter, a new hashtag appeared on Twitter celebrating the streak: #windians. A run to a slump-ending World Series win seemed likely, especially after Cleveland took a 2-0 lead in games over the Yankees in a 3-out-of-5 series. But then, days later, it was over, as New York went on a three-game winning streak.

A look at the Indians' season-by-season log shows that, in the 11 years following the 1948 championship (1949-1959), Cleveland finished above .500 -- sometimes well above it -- 10 times. This stretch included a 111-43 record in 1954, en route to the World Series, which Cleveland lost to the New York Giants. However, in the 34 years from 1960-1993, the Indians reached or exceeded .500 only seven times.

Things have turned around in the 24 following years (1994-2017), with 16 .500-or-better seasons and three World Series appearances. These occurred in 1995 (a six-game loss to the Braves), 1997 (a seven-game loss to the Marlins, in which the Indians couldn't hold a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7) and 2016 (a seven-game loss to the Cubs).

As good as the Indians have been the last two seasons, it will probably take a drought-ending World Series title to really earn the moniker Windians in many fans' view.


A team named the Cleveland Browns has never appeared in a Super Bowl, the pro-football championship game that launched on January 15, 1967. However, a team that once was the Cleveland Browns has not only made it to, but also won, a Super Bowl. The explanation, of course, is that then-Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season (becoming the Ravens) and the Ravens won the Super after the 2000 season. In some ways, however, the connection between the 1995 Browns and 2000 Ravens is not that strong, as only two players were on both squads. The Ravens also won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season.

Prior to the 1995 move, the Browns, like the Cavaliers and Indians, enjoyed some sporadic success. Cleveland made five straight NFL playoff appearances from 1985-1989, with particularly devastating postseason losses occurring in 1985, 1987, and 1988. These are summarized here.

After the Modell move, the NFL granted Cleveland a replacement franchise, also to be known as the Browns, which would begin play in 1999. The "new" Browns have made the playoffs only once (in 2002) in their 19 years of existence, and have gone a combined 1-31 in 2016 and '17. Since 1999, the Browns have had eight general managers and nine head coaches.

Some may cite the "Cleveland Curse" for the misfortunes of the new Browns. However, as argued by Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist and prolific book author Terry Pluto, in False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail, structural barriers imposed by the NFL are to blame. The team faced a compressed start-up time, a weakened expansion draft, and other hindrances, which they still haven't overcome, approaching 20 years.


Cleveland has had a lot of streaks in the last roughly 70 years, most of them involving losing and droughts. The city has had some nice within-season winning streaks (such as the 2017 Indians), but in our championship-minded society, mere winning streaks aren't enough. I would expect continued shuffling between Believeland and Grieveland in the coming years, with more time spent in the latter. I don't know how much more time remains in the LeBron-led Cavaliers' championship window, especially with the Warriors being so good. The Indians should be good for a while, but the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and others aren't going anywhere. That leaves the Browns...

If the city's teams all start struggling around the same time, it will not be good for the health of Clevelanders. The 2013 (pre-Cavs' title) book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, by Eric Simons, devotes an entire chapter to Cleveland. One former resident of the city suggests that "the miserable winter weather and the lack of other [cultural, entertainment, or recreational] options" have driven Clevelanders toward an intense fandom of sports (p. 101). Another transplant from Cleveland says, "There is a bitterness, a frustration with Cleveland that cannot be matched anywhere else"  (p. 100).


*The city had an NHL team, the Cleveland Barons, in the 1970s, but it went defunct after only two seasons.

**The MLB-record winning streak is usually credited at 26, by the 1916 New York Giants. However, a tie in a darkness-shortened game has led to a controversy over the Giants' streak.