THE FINE fans of Cleveland, where for decades the only certainty has been abject misery, are afraid to embrace hope, for they know what will happen if they allow it in their souls.

LeBron James, the city's latest hope, understands. He grew up 40 miles away, in Akron. He heard the weeping. And the other day, after leading the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA, he summarized Cleveland's bitter past.

"The thing is with the history of Cavaliers, you go to the last shot by Jordan,'' he told reporters, "... then you go the final drive by John Elway ... then you go to Jose Mesa, you know, the debacle in the bottom of the ninth. I mean, it's bad. And Cleveland fans know."

No matter the sport or the circumstances, agony looms.

Cleveland has not celebrated a championship since 1964, when Jim Brown was demolishing defenses for the NFL Browns. The ensuing 44 years have been a cruel joke.

Another cruel joke awaits.

The NBA playoffs begin today, and the Cavaliers went 39-2 in their arena to earn the home-court advantage throughout. Boston, the defending champion and No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, expects to be without star forward Kevin Garnett. Injuries have robbed No. 3 seed Orlando of its best squad. The path, then, is paved.

But the Cavs are not the best team in the league. Not yet. Not when Mo Williams is the closest thing LeBron has to a serious wing man. And not when the Los Angeles Lakers, coming out of the Western Conference, are deeper and better balanced.


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Having these teams in the NBA Finals pits the league's two best players against each other. Kobe Bryant vs. James is a worthy successor to Magic vs. Larry. Electricity is guaranteed.

Though Cleveland coach Mike Brown improved this season, thanks mostly to altering his staff, he's at a disadvantage against Phil Jackson, the L.A. coach who owns too many rings to wear.

Because James and Bryant practically nullify each other — though LeBron is on the verge of claiming a slight edge — the coaches and supporting casts swing it to the Lakers in six. Otherwise, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum have some explaining to do.

And neither team should have much of a problem making its way to a must-see TV finals.

With Garnett and Leon Powe limping, Boston can't win 12 postseason games. Forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are hobbling for No. 3 seed Orlando, which still misses point guard Jameer Nelson. As much as I respect Atlanta's athleticism and Miami's irrepressible Dwyane Wade, no other team in the East has a chance.

The Lakers have it easier in the West. Though No. 2 seed Denver improved dramatically when it swapped Allen Iverson for the classy, clutch Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets still have too many unreliables such as Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Nene.

San Antonio, the most consistent team in sports over the past decade, is dangerous mostly because of its professionalism. Age, however, has taken away a half step. That's deadly in the playoffs. And Portland, health permitting, is two years away from making a serious run for the trophy.

So it's Cleveland-L.A., blue-collar grit vs. Hollywood glitz. And no matter how they look through the initial rounds, the Cavs will feel like underdogs.

It's the way of Cleveland, where a fan's life includes Browns quarterback Brian Sipe, instructed to throw the ball away if the play wasn't wide open, getting picked off in the end zone by Raiders safety Mike Davis to end the 1980 season.

And Denver's John Elway, on frozen turf in January 1987, stealing your AFC Championship dreams.

And Earnest Byner, fumbling away your last chance in the AFC Championship game a year later.

And Michael Jordan, abusing poor Craig Ehlo, breaking your heart.

And Jose Mesa, two outs away from your first World Series win in 49 years, blowing the save in the ninth inning of Game 7 in 1997 against Florida.

Pieces of Cleveland's heart have been scattered all over Lake Erie. And here come Kobe and the Lakers, just good enough to add another layer of torment.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.