Before the NBA Finals began, writer and Cleveland native Scott Raab was feeling a lot of dread. In an interview before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the author of 2011’s The Whore of Akron told me it felt “very Cleveland” to see his beloved Cavs matched up against the greatest team of all time. But now LeBron James and the Cavaliers are just one win away from ending the city’s 52-year championship drought. When I checked in with Raab on Friday morning, he was feeling positively giddy, still high off the buzz of seeing the Cavs win Game 6 on Thursday night. In a special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, we discussed the vibe in the arena, the greatness of LeBron James, and how to talk to a Cleveland sports fan in the runup to one of the most important games in the city’s history. You can listen to our conversation by clicking on the player below and read a transcript of the podcast, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Levin: So what was your experience at the game? What are your feelings at this very moment?
Scott Raab: My feelings are of great joy, celebration, and hope, which I don’t need to tell you is exceedingly rare for a Cleveland fan. I felt, even driving to Cleveland yesterday, I’m not sure that I actually believed the series would be tied 3–3.
Levin: In the arena last night, it seemed just from watching it on television that there was exuberance and joy, not fatalism. I guess getting ahead at the very beginning of the game helped with that. Was the vibe there 100-percent celebratory?
Raab: The crowd certainly fed off the Cavs coming out the way they came out, but at one point it was 84–76, and I think there were moments where any Cleveland fan, certainly a fan of my vintage, felt “Uh oh, uh oh, here we go.” I don’t think I relaxed until there were about 2½ minutes left in the game.
Levin: To contextualize this for us, there have been a lot of close calls in Cleveland sports history in the last five decades. A winner-take-all game—we had that with the Indians in the mid-’90s. Where would you put this in terms of how close Cleveland is to a championship? And how important is Game 7 going to be on Sunday?
Raab: The only reason that this series between the Cavs and the Warriors isn’t already in first place is because the 1997 Cleveland Indians went into the ninth inning of Game 7 with a one-run lead. So absent that particular instance, I don’t think it’s an overstatement in any way: This is absolutely over the last 52 years, the most pressure-packed. To the extent that you can say it about any sporting event, this is a life-changing sporting event.
Levin: LeBron James has done so much in his career in Cleveland and in Miami, it’s absurd to say that any particular thing he does would overshadow or change the perception of him given how many miles are on his body and how many games he’s played. But I would guess that these two straight 41-point games in Game 5 and Game 6 must elevate him in your mind and in the mind of other Cleveland fans, with the caveat that anything that happens in Game 7 will instantly overshadow Games 5 and 6.
Raab: Whenever I say that LeBron James is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen, I get a ton of grief, like, “I’d like to smoke what you’ve been smoking” and “count the rings.” I have suffered through the entirety of Michael Jordan’s career, and I would never claim that anyone was a better NBA player than Michael Jordan. But anyone who knows anything about pro basketball, about the NBA, who doesn’t understand the greatness of LeBron James’ game, there’s no argument to be made there. What he has done the past two games—we don’t know what Game 7 will bring and you’re absolutely right, the body of work should not be significantly impacted by any one series or any one game at this point. But if they win Game 7, if the Cavaliers win Game 7, if they defeat the 73–9 golden boys, if he brings the first championship that Cleveland has had in any major sport for 52 years, I don’t think I need to say, “I rest my case.”
Levin: Well, you’re not talking to Skip Bayless here, I’m not going to disagree with you. I’m happy to validate your opinions.
Raab: LeBron James made two passes last night that Magic Johnson on his best day could not have made. LeBron James is doing things on the court right now, with all those miles on his body, in his 13th NBA season, that no one has ever seen an NBA player do before. That’s not my opinion, that’s actually what we’re watching unfold in front of our eyes. And in terms of analytics? There are only two players in the conversation for the greatest of all time, and it’s not based on how many rings they have. Anyone who thinks that Kobe Bryant somehow ranks above LeBron James, that rings are all that matters, they’re morons.
Levin: What are some individual moments you’ll take away from your trip to Game 6?
Raab: That block on Curry followed by whatever LeBron said, when he swatted the shot basically the nanosecond after it left Steph’s hands. That’s a moment in time that our children’s children’s children—assuming, you know, a lot—will remember. That was great.
I hate to focus on that rather than any particular basketball play, but the fact that the Warriors are so not themselves—not to trash-talk a historically great team, but we are seeing a historically great team implode and blame the referees and blame everyone but themselves for the fact that all the pressure is now on them. So in terms of particular moments, I gotta say, at the point at which I understood that I was there with my son at the age of 63 watching this Cleveland team do what they were doing, the whole experience was one of the best nights of my life.
Levin: Having this conversation with you, I’m getting worried for you. For all of us who have Cleveland fans in our lives, what is our role for the next few days? How can I best be of assistance?
Raab: Well, it’s always good to talk, especially with you, Josh—I’m not just saying that. But one of the things that I always hear from players, and it’s a wonderful thing, a Zen thing—no great psychotherapist would put it any differently—is that you have to be present in the moment. I’m not talking about just you, because the premise of the question is a little bit condescending, if you don’t mind my saying. I’m going to be fine win or lose Sunday, because my entire life has prepared me to lose on Sunday, as a fan. In this call, you might have noticed that I’m a little bit worked up. Thankfully, you haven’t said, “Hey, get ahold of yourself, it’s just sports,” or “Aren’t you smarter than this?” You don’t want to tell your Cleveland fan friend, “Hey, it’s not that big a deal. Hey, you’re going to be OK win or lose.” There are plenty of irrational things that we all do in our lives because, hey, it gives us pleasure to listen to opera, or to eat a Reuben sandwich that we know is clogging our arteries. I think this is in that category. Unless you yourself have something really important at stake, I think the best thing to do is to be in the moment and to love that Cleveland fan with all your heart.
Levin: So what are you going to do on Sunday night? You’re going to watch with your family presumably. Do you have any kind of particular setup? A place that you sit? A way that you cross your legs?
Raab: No, if anything that I did or didn’t do had any impact on any Cleveland sports teams, there’d be no need for us to have this conversation. We would have a shelf of trophies already. I think what we’ll do is we’ll go back to Cleveland, there’s a big watch party. There may be literally tens of thousands of people there. It’s prohibitive to go out to Oakland for Game 7. Someday I hope our son will go to college and I don’t want to spend all that money on a Game 7, so I think what we’ll do is go back to Cleveland, watch it in Cleveland with tens of thousands of our brethren and sisteren.
Levin: It would be a kind of a cool story for your son to say, “I didn’t go to college because the Cavs won a championship.”
Raab: Then someone who loves me would have to say, “Hey, Scott, maybe you need to get a grip on yourself.”
Levin: It is just a game after all.