Like always, the ABC broadcast of last night’s Finals game repeatedly cut away to the visiting team’s watch party. And like always, Quicken Loans Arena was packed with Cleveland fans screaming their doughy Midwestern faces off. But it was even rowdier four miles east on Euclid Avenue, inside the Cleveland Clinic. I know because I was there—not last night, but nine years ago.
It was May 31, 2007. My mom had been in the Clinic since late September, transferred from a hospital in Akron after a massive heart attack that should’ve killed her. She was put into a medically induced coma for about a week, to let her heart and other vital organs rest. She finally came to at the Clinic, and a couple weeks later they did double bypass surgery. But there were complications. They had to do a tracheostomy and give her a breathing tube. They also had to give her a feeding tube because she couldn’t keep any solid food down. She was bedridden in the ICU for three months. Toward the end of that time the doctors discovered that, on top of everything else, she had lung cancer.
By late May, she was out of the ICU and starting radiation. But she was still struggling to get off the ventilator and still unable to eat. (The doctors finally took the tube out of her nose and sewed one into her stomach.) Her muscles had so atrophied from being bedridden that she couldn’t walk. Depending on what kind of day she was having, the physical therapist and I might be able to get her into a wheelchair, and I’d push her outside for a few minutes of fresh air. But those handful of trips were the only times she’d gotten outside of the hospital in over eight months.
One of the main things that kept us going throughout that time was the Cavs. I was born and raised in Akron, just like my parents. We were lifelong Cavs fans. Some of my greatest memories as a kid were going to games with them at the old Richfield Coliseum. I’d been living in New York for the last few years, but the couple times a week I’d talk to my mom on the phone, we’d talk Cavs—especially after they drafted LeBron in 2003. She was rooting for him extra hard because she and my dad—and her dad, plus all her brothers and sisters—had gone to his high school.
In 2006 I left New York and moved back to Ohio to be with her in the hospital. The one bright spot was that I got to sit beside her and watch every single Cavs game that season on her hospital room TV. No matter how much she struggled to stay off the ventilator for a few extra minutes, or how much she grimaced in pain from the urinary tract infection caused by her catheter—if the Cavs were on that night, there was always something to look forward to.
LeBron was in his fourth season, and the Cavs had won 50 games for the second year in a row. And for the second year in a row, they faced the Pistons in the playoffs. Just like then, both teams won their first two games at home. But holy shit: Game Five. Double overtime. LeBron with 48 points, including the Cavs’ last 25. I was jumping and screaming in the hospital room. You could hear the cheers up and down our hallway—not just the patients and their families, but the nurses and their assistants. As unlikely as I know it is, I’ll forever swear that when the final buzzer sounded and the Cavs won, the entire Cleveland Clinic shook. Being on the ventilator, my mom couldn’t talk. And she was doped up with a lot of pain meds that night, so she kept drifting in and out. But when we won, she smiled and mouthed, “Wow.” Just “wow,” over and over again.
The Cavs won the next game against Detroit and advanced to the Finals, where they got the absolute shit kicked out of them by San Antonio in four games. But, still, that was four more games that we had to distract us from the hell we were living.
That’s the first thing I thought of when the Cavs won last night: all those people in the Cleveland Clinic. All those people fighting for their lives. You often hear that sports aren’t a matter of life and death. LeBron said so himself on Sunday, when he addressed the Orlando nightclub killings. “It definitely puts things into perspective on basketball,” he said. “It’s just a small matter of what reality really is.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I see it differently. What he did nine years ago helped me and my mom survive. And what he and Kyrie did last night has no doubt helped others do the same. With their 41 points each—each!—they gave everyone in the Cleveland Clinic, and in Akron General Hospital where my mom was first taken, and in Lakewood Hospital where she was taken that October to try weaning her off the ventilator once and for all, and in the hospice back in Akron where she was taken when the cancer moved to her liver—they’ve given all those Cavs fans one more game to look forward to.