I was at a Christmas party. I got there a little late because I was fighting a pretty nasty flu and had stopped for some tea along the way. By the time I had arrived, everyone was in the living room and Christmas Vacation was playing on Netflix.
"Hey, could we turn on the Cavs game? They're playing the Knicks, it should be a pretty good game."
They all looked back with a look on their faces that screamed "of course Angelo was going to ask that". But, given that it was a party and sitting down to watch a movie sort of kills the mood, the television was switched over to the Cavs game.
I couldn't help but think back to the last time I was at a party at that house watching the Cavs. It had been a while. It was Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Celtics. The series was tied up 1-1 and tensions were high. While I was convinced that LeBron James wasn't going to the leave the Cavs in the offseason, there were still a few doubts quietly lingering in my head which gave every game in that series an uncomfortable edge. While pulling off the win in Game 1 at home, the Cavs hadn't looked great. Making matters worse, LeBron was suffering from a mysterious elbow injury that, two years later, still hasn't been diagnosed.
The opening quarter of Game 3 eased all doubts in my mind. LeBron came right out from the gate and totally dominated the Celtics, dropping 21 points in the first quarter alone. It was one of those nights where everything went the Cavs way. In the end, they handed the Celtics the worst home loss in franchise playoff history. It was one of the most dominant performances in Cavaliers history, coming against the team that always beat us down. For the first time ever in my experience as a Cleveland sports fan, I felt something that felt like destiny. Like it was finally the right time for the Cavs to go all the way and win it all. Like nothing was going to stand in their way, not the Celtics, not an injured elbow, nothing.
Of course, we all knew what happened shortly after, but we don't need to get into that here.
It had been a while since I had watched a Cavs game that felt anything like that. For the past two years, everything has been twinged with doubt. In that period, I've seen it all. Lost leads. Missed buzzer beaters. The worst losing streak in professional sports history. Injury after injury after injury. Sure, there were miraculous upsets here and there, but even then, in those final moments before the last buzzer sounded, I was waiting for the inevitable collapse. I was waiting for the defense to stumble, the offense to go cold.
I hadn't felt anything close to what I felt that night in two long years. And yet, here I was, sitting on that same couch, watching a drastically different team, when I began to feel that way again for the first time.
The Cavs had kept it close all night up until the fourth, when the Knicks began to pull away. And that's when Kyrie Irving, outfitted with a black face mask to protect his broken face, woke up and began to single-handedly annihilate the Knicks.
While the game had previously just been background noise to the real focal point of the night, a ridiculous amount of Christmas Ales and Egg Nog, by the time Kyrie started twisting and cutting his way through the Knicks for one ridiculous layup after another, we were all back in the living room crowded around the television. Not since that night two years ago had I seen so many people riveted by the Cavs, shouting and screaming with every basket, pumping their fists, sitting on the edge of their seats. When Kyrie crossed over Jason Kidd to land a three-pointer, the room exploded. We were going to pull it off. We were winning this one, we all knew it.
When it came down to two clutch Anderson Varejao free throws to send the game into overtime, we knew he was going to make them. He made the first. The Cavs were down by one point with a little over a second left. We were all silent, sitting with an intensity that shouldn't be reserved for a regular season game. He shot the second free throw. It rolled around the rim, looked like it was going to go in and ultimately rolled out. The Knicks got the rebound. The clock ran out. Knicks win. While I should have been disappointed, I wasn't. They fought hard all game and almost pulled off the upset. More importantly, I believed they'd pull off the upset.
While it was ultimately a loss, that was the first time I've felt anything even close to hope when watching this team. And that's why it's my favorite moment of the year.