Monday, March 30, 2009

The light at night

Following a winning Cleveland team is a sensory experience for me.

It's more than just flashes of pixel-color in the squared off world of the TV set. It's more than e-mail banter at the office or picking up the newspaper to see the day's headline after a big win.

To me, it's all five senses. The team colors visible around town, the music that marks the era, the smells and tastes on the air, how the air feels against your skin. Not just at the ballpark or arena, but in day to day life. It's more than just a season of dreams. It's a series of snapshots in time taken through all my senses. I want to drink it all in and hold it, so I can pull it back out and live it again in a future daydream.

When the Indians were a force in the 1990s, October would signal its arrival with shorter days and chilly nights that seemed to add to the electricity around town, particularly in the mid-'90s when winning was new and exciting. It did something to the air. It wasn't just the drop in temperature. The air felt different. It smelled different. Anticipation made it different.

Growing up as a Yankees fan in New York, Billy Crystal used to refer to it as "World Series weather." Of course, that was back in the days before playoffs decided the league pennants each year. Now, World Series weather is also the property of the ALCS and NLCS, maybe even a few divsion series games if a cold front hits the right area.

What is climatologically true in New York is also true in Cleveland or any other city in the country's northern tiers. Maybe we'd have the same feelings if we were all living in Florida as Marlins and Rays fans, and the baseball playoffs occurred in the same cloak of heat and humidity that drapes itself over most of the regular season. But I don't think it would. Maybe that's just my cold-weather upbringing talking.

The crisp nights and shorter days make cities like Cleveland snap to attention, out of the lazy late-summer doldrums and into the here-and-now of a championship run.

Following the Cavs through a couple of deep playoff runs, and gearing up for what might be the deepest run in team history, I've spent the past few springs looking for the same feelings that I used to get in the Octobers of my more formative years.

Can there be an October in May and June? It turns out, there can be.

The feeling is there, with a reversal of the weather. Just like the October chill brings something extra to a pennant chase, the spring thaw brings new excitement to a contending basketball season. Night basketball games with daylight starts mean something. It's spring. Your team is in the playoffs. If you're so fortunate, you team might still be playing when shorts and t-shirt weather arrives.

Basketball on the precipice of summer is the best kind. It the kind that fans in just two or four cities get a chance to experience each year. It's national-stage basketball -- heck, world-stage basketball. It's an experience just to touch the hem on its garment, especially in a city like Cleveland, where something that big can't possibly be ignored.

In 2007, on the off-day between Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, I made it a point to head downtown just to see the pomp and circumstance, the giant inflatable Larry O'Brien Trophy out on the plaza next to The Q, all the signage, the souvenir stands. I wanted to be a part of basketball's biggest stage on a warm June night. The Cavs were in an 0-3 hole and about to be swept, but I just wanted to take it all in. A lot of fans had the same idea. Hundreds stood, watched, took pictures, lapped the Q to take in the whole scene.

It was something of a pilgrimage by fans who had never experienced the NBA Finals before. They wanted to drink it all in, because who knows when the circus is going to come to town again.

This is basketball, away from winter's grasp, just like baseball removed from summer's embrace. Every time it comes around, it means something different. Something unpredictable. Something that rallies the whole city.

Something, we endlessly hope, will someday produce a title, a trophy, and a parade attended by thousands.

No comments: