This is a quote widely attributed to Mark Twain: "There are only three great cities in the U.S.: New York, San Francisco and Washington. All the rest are Cleveland."
One problem – Twain didn't write it. But since it sounds like him and it's a hell of a zinger, people have been recycling it for nearly half a century. The "great cities" change. Sometimes it's New Orleans or Chicago instead of Washington. The Cleveland part stays the same.
In the fuzzy imagination of the wider world, Cleveland is the civic embodiment of everything that's gone wrong with the American Dream. It's an industrial ruin denuded of human life. It's Planet of the Apes, minus the apes.
More importantly, it is a born loser. If you do not know anything about Cleveland and try to summon it to mind, you'll think two things: burning river; cursed teams.
My pal Chris is a masochist who's spent a lifetime rooting for the various iterations of the Cleveland Browns. Every year, he makes a pilgrimage to Ohio for the express purpose of seeing them get beaten by someone new. When he talks about the Browns, he tilts his head up just slightly and gets a glassy, faraway look, like he's recalling a favourite cousin who died young in a gruesome barbecue accident. But over and over again.
Of course, Chris is from Toronto. He understands sports pain and, having grown used to the feeling, seeks it out wherever he can. (Lack of) game recognize (similar lack of) game.
No big-league Toronto team has ever played a Cleveland team in the postseason at anything. The simple explanation is that Cleveland doesn't have a hockey club and Toronto's never been much good at anything else. But I'd prefer to think that this is God's way of keeping two immensely powerful negative forces from interacting and thereby ripping a hole in the Earth's crust.
We'll begin risking that on Tuesday night, when the Raptors play the Cavaliers in the first game of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. Remember to put your emergency go-bag by the door before you hit the couch.
On its face, this isn't much of a matchup. Unless LeBron James steps on an ice cube and collides with a passing Kevin Love, who is sent careening like a cannonball into Channing Frye, breaking all their legs in the process, it is very close to impossible seeing how Toronto can win this series. Take a game on the back of monsoon-strength home-crowd support? Sure, that might happen. But sneak four by them? It would be a Leicester City-level upset.
On Monday, Raptors coach Dwane Casey conceded as much. Asked if the Raptors could win it, Casey said a lot of empowering things, but the word "yes" did not pass his lips.
At one point, Casey called the Cavs "the best team in the league right now." At another, "one of the top teams of all time." He called James "the best player in the league" – which he no longer is, but whatever.
This was more than a show of respect. Casey has seen the bear and, rather than poke it, decided to give it a long, sensuous, rhetorical back rub.
Cleveland, being Cleveland, was busy being offended that Kyle Lowry had referred to James as "probably one of the best players in the league, beside Steph [Curry]" during a chaotic courtside hit immediately following Toronto's Game 7 win over Miami.
That is a factually supportable statement based on recent available evidence. But God forbid anyone say anything sensible when they could have said something pandering instead.
However, it's hard to take offence at their offence at our unintentional offence since this is exactly the way Toronto would react. That is, if we'd ever had the best player in any sport. Since we haven't, I believe that gives us the right to be offended at their presumption. Seriously. How dare they?
In all likelihood, it won't be basketball that makes this series interesting. Instead, it will be that this is the inevitable collision between the two sad-sackingest sports towns in the entirety of the universe. If it turns out that they play games in distant galaxies, jokes about the Leafs and the Indians will have reached them before the Voyager space probe.
In many important ways, Toronto is Cleveland and vice versa.
They have not won a big-time championship in 52 years. And that was a grubby little pre-Super Bowl NFL title. That's a worse record than Buffalo, which is a distinction you would rather not have.
Like all Toronto teams, Cleveland clubs do not just lose. They implode. Once every three or four years, they start to give off a sizzling sound. It gets louder and louder. Someone punches someone else in the locker room. The best player is arrested. Eventually, they blow a 400-point lead in a game they were supposed to win easily and everything collapses in on itself.
The team is then reassembled from its faulty, constituent parts – like a zombie – and begins shuffling forward again. Or they send everyone to Toronto to run a different baseball team into the ground.
Like Toronto, Cleveland knows it sucks. That's what makes it charming instead of just sad. Also like Toronto, no one is allowed to point this out but people from Cleveland. Also also like Toronto, people complain that nothing changes and then get angry when it does. Regardless, they keep showing up in both cities no matter how hard the team is drilling toward the bottom, giving ownership limited incentive to change anything.
The only difference between us? LeBron James was born there.
In this case, that's the only one that will matter. One can only hope for some more creative cross-border sniping before it gets that far. If it takes one to know one, few opponents have ever been so well-matched.
When James screws his hometown over by leaving for a second time – because you know that is also inevitable – Toronto will be there to support Cleveland. By laughing at them hard, as only people who've been there can.