Saturday, December 3, 2011

James-less Cavs face first true attendance test

The NBA lockout is over. Cavaliers players are working out in Cleveland as the league hammers out the last details of its newly minted collective bargaining agreement. The team is not expected to make many moves once free agency begins on Dec. 9, but fans will get to see a whole lot of top draft choice Kyrie Irving once the foreshortened season finally tips off at Christmas.

The question is, how many folks will be in the stands to watch Irving, fellow first-rounder Tristan Thompson and swing man Omri Casspi play for a squad that is unquestionably peering up from the bottom of a deep well where serious playoff contention is, at minimum, three years away?

This season will be Cleveland fans' first true loyalty test of the post-LeBron era. The Cavaliers finished third in average attendance last year (20,112 fans per game) in large part due to the team requiring season-ticket renewals in March 2010, a carefree time when there was no such thing as "The Decision" and many of us beautiful, naive fools still believed that James would sign long-term with the franchise.

Now, LeBron is long gone and there's no sly season-ticket shenanigans to buffer the damage of his departure. Will The Q revert to the mausoleum-like quiet of the 2003 season, when James was merely driving ostentatious military-style vehicles and accepting throwback jerseys as gifts during his senior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School?

That year, then-Gund Arena was averaging a league-last 11,496 per game. This season's Cavs shouldn't approach anywhere near those depths - the potential of an exciting rookie point guard leading the rebuild should bring a contingent of fans downtown for awhile- but the prospect of starting over again sans the homegrown superstar who made The Q a dynamic place to be during the oughts is going to be a difficult sell for casual fans.

This will be the year we find out if Cleveland is a basketball town or just a superstar fixated "LeBron town." There is a certain fading nostalgia for the rare pro hoops' successes of Cleveland's past, but before the ping-pong ball that brought Cavaliers' basketball instant gravitas and fan interest, all we really had was the "Miracle of Richfield" year and the Price-Daugherty-Nance seasons.

Then there are people like CST's own Ryan, a Richfield Coliseum-era Cavs' fan who perceives the "new NBA" as bastardized and boring, run by fickle, unlikeable stars wanting to buddy up with their boys in glamour cities and leaving supposed mid-markets like Cleveland in the non-competitive dirt. One can point to the Dallas Mavericks as a team that won with a single star surrounded by a perfect complement of role-playing pieces, but the recent Chris Paul-to-New York furor, which emphasized just how little the new CBA will bring the league in terms of competitive balance, has not warmed Ryan to the start of the new campaign.

There's probably a whole city, hell, a whole nation of fans carrying similar indifference toward the NBA. A night out at a Cleveland-area bar last weekend offered an odd sociological statement that supports this theory. (Bear with me, as this observation goes into some deep psychology.) Former Cavs' coach Mike Fratello was on the bar's dance floor this night, white-man overbiting arrhythmically to the stylings of a middling '80s rock/pop cover band.

The lead singer of the band gave Fratello a shout-out, then asked the crowd packed onto the cramped dance floor if they thought the Cavs were coming back now that the lockout appeared to be over. A few people clapped. The band leader, perhaps nonplussed by the tepid response, then trumpeted, "How many people don't care?!", and damned if three-quarters of the folks paying attention didn't break into a cheer.

My maths are not what you call "good," and this incident is obviously an extremely tiny sample size of the overall populace, but prorate the bar crowd's blasé attitude toward the Cavs out into the Greater Cleveland area and there's hundreds of thousands of people who won't give this LeBron-less franchise anything more than a passing glance until such time as they're competitive again, and maybe not even then.

Basketball has always been the third horse in this town, and the perceived state of the league isn't helping the old nag get much traction with fans. The Cavs are at the starting gate with a new season and a potential new star. No matter where they place, the true testament of their worth to Cleveland will be up to who shows.