Courtesy of Leslie Sosnick
I’m jealous of Leslie Sosnick. I know this from the moment I meet her, four hours before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, standing in the foyer of her Berkeley Hills home, where she’s preparing for her traditional pregame walk and her never-missed pregame hug, about to grab her lucky beads and put on her “Strength in Numbers” shirt. I’m jealous because right now, this 5-foot, 61-year-old redheaded human smile emoji is more excited to watch the Golden State Warriors play basketball than I have ever been for anything in my life.
“When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is the Warriors,” she says. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I can’t go back to sleep because I’m thinking about the Warriors.” They are her anchor, the rotating collection of very tall men who define the rhythms of Leslie’s days, her years, even her decades.
She is, she believes, the team’s second-longest-running season-ticket holder. She remembers games at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and the Cow Palace in Daly City, at the Shark Tank in San Jose and at her favorite place, her second home, where she’ll be in just a couple of hours — Oracle Arena in East Oakland. She remembers the way Rick Barry shot his free throws underhanded and how Wilt Chamberlain seemed to stretch upward to infinity. She screamed for Manute Bol as he blocked shots and cranked 3s, for Monta Ellis as he gunned the Dubs into and out of games, and for her girlhood favorite, ’60s backup center Dale Schlueter. “He was kinda dorky, but he seemed so nice,” she says. She kept the faith as they drafted Purvis Short over Larry Bird, as they threw away lottery picks all through the new millennium, taking the likes of Ike Diogu, Anthony Randolph, and Patrick O’Bryant.
In all of this, after attending some 1,500 games over 52 years, Leslie has never quite felt the way she does right now. “I love them all,” she says of the 2014-15 roster. “And when I say I love them — I mean, I love them. I love them. In the truest sense of the word. I just love them so much. I feel like they’re my friends.”
On the court, this year’s Finals has been a contrast of styles: Golden State’s whirring, head-spinning collective of perfectly balanced pieces against Cleveland’s, well, Cleveland’s LeBron. The teams may be defined by their differences, but the fan bases are linked by what they share. Namely, suffering. Never in recent memory has so much embodied torment been present for a championship round of a major sport.
Here in the Bay Area, you have folks like Leslie, fans whose cheers have pushed the limits of sound even while watching mediocre teams. And over in Cleveland, you have a fan base defined almost exclusively by its misery, a bone-deep pain that stretches across all major sports. The Warriors haven’t won a championship since 1975. The Cavs have never won one, and no team from their city has won since 1964. Yet sometime very soon, one of these two fan bases will finally have their reward.
I wanted to watch both fan bases glimpse the triumphant conclusion (or the gut-wrenching extension) of their title-less winters, so I traveled to Oakland for Game 1 and Cleveland for Game 3, spending time with two of their longest-suffering fans. I found fans who root differently and teams that interact with their communities in different ways. But in both cities, I found people drawn to sports for the same reasons: their power to produce emotions reserved for the extremes of human experience; the way they anchor fans to the community around them; and how certain moments stamp memories into children’s minds, connecting them to older generations through shared experience and the simple act of being there.
Leslie feels all of this, hours later, as she walks through the concourse and into Oracle. The court is filled with TV crews, the stands packed with early-arriving fans. As Leslie and her husband, Ron Saxen, walk to their seats — Section 115, Row 2, Numbers 7 and 8 — she scans the arena, speechless for the first time since I met her, and begins to tremble.
“Oh my goodness,” she says, almost gasping. “Oh my goodness, look at this.”
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
“This is crazy!”
Tipoff is approaching and she’s settling in, which for Leslie means going from disbelief to pure joy: “I am in a state of glory.”
On the court, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are doing their pregame stand-ups. Not far from Leslie, Guy Fieri is inflicting his presence upon a group of fans. Somewhere in the bowels of this building, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and the rest of the Warriors are making their final preparations for the biggest game of their lives. And here, just a few rows from the court, Leslie is still stunned by the moment: “I can’t believe how I feel!”
Leslie’s parents took her to her first Warriors game in March 1963 as a gift for her ninth birthday. They sat in the balcony at the 7,000-seat San Francisco Civic Auditorium. They told her about Chamberlain, the giant who had once scored 100 points in a game. But from her seat, he looked just like any other man. “He’s not that tall!” she said, but then at halftime Leslie walked down to the court. She stood under the basket and craned her neck upward, taking in the scope of Chamberlain’s body and feeling wholly amazed.
Her family loved all of the Bay’s teams — Giants and A’s, Raiders and 49ers — but the Warriors were Leslie’s first and truest love. Her parents had season tickets that year, the Warriors’ first season in San Francisco, and she went to all weekend home games; sometimes, if it was the right team on the right night, her father even brought her during the school week. She fell in love with the beauty of the game, but also with its characters. Basketball felt more intimate than baseball and football. “I want to see players’ faces,” Leslie says. “I love to see how they react. You start to feel like you know them as people.”
She kept going throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, watching Barry and Nate Thurmond, enjoying a period of sustained excellence that the team’s younger fans have never known. Leslie was 21 in 1975, when she and her father attended Games 2 and 3 of the NBA World Championship Series — what is now called the Finals — and watched Barry carry the Warriors to back-to-back wins over the Bullets. The Warriors went up 3-0, and she watched Game 4, which was played in Washington, at her cousin’s house in Saratoga. After the Warriors won, 96-95, the family popped champagne and drank to the last championship their team would win for at least another 40 years.
She remembers her dad that day, sitting on an ottoman, just 2 feet away from the TV screen. She remembers how nervous he was, barely able to watch, looking away as his wife paced the room and the halls, and how he loved sharing that day with his only daughter. It wasn’t long before cancer ate up his lungs and chemotherapy treatments left him too weak to attend games. She was a woman now, in her early twenties, and she would lie at the foot of his bed while he napped, and one day when he lay with his eyes closed, death approaching, she asked if he knew who she was. He touched her face. “That,” he said, “is my beautiful daughter.”
After he died, Leslie’s mother stopped going to games. They were jarring reminders of the man she’d lost, sticks in an open wound. Leslie can’t remember when she returned to the arena. Maybe it was that season. Maybe it was the next. She can’t remember if her first game back was marked by trauma or comfort, whether the Warriors won or lost. All she knows is that she returned. She kept going. And over the years, Oracle Arena became a place where she felt she could go and watch and sit with her father for two and a half hours.
Even in death, he was witness to decades of mediocre basketball. And even in death, Leslie feels, her father is witness to all of this, right now. “This team is poetry,” she says. “It’s like watching a ballet. It’s the most beautiful basketball I’ve ever seen.” When the buzzer sounded after Game 5 of the conference finals against the Rockets, sending Golden State to the Finals for the first time since she and her dad attended in 1975, she stood at her seat and cried. She wanted to stay there forever. She watched the celebration on the court — Leandro Barbosa holding his infant, Andre Iguodala with his son, and Steph Curry with the now-famous Riley — and while it went on, tears kept falling from Leslie’s eyes. Most of us watch Riley at press conferences and have a simple reaction: Riley is adorable and her dad seems cool. Leslie sees something greater. “There’s nothing more special to me,” she says, “than seeing a daddy, involved in sports, with his little girl.”
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Just before tip, Leslie and Ron take a walk through the concourse. When they return to their seats they find their usher, a woman named Georgia, and they each give her a big hug. This is essential. In the second round, after the Warriors lost Game 2 to Memphis, Leslie and Ron stood at their seats, stunned. Georgia shot them a look. “You forgot to hug me!” she said. They made a vow: never again.
You know what happens once the game starts. LeBron carries the Cavs, but the Warriors stay close. Regulation ends with a missed jumper by LeBron and a missed putback by Iman Shumpert, sending the game to overtime, where Kyrie Irving goes down and Golden State assumes command.
Throughout the game, the building is — you guessed it — outrageously, impressively loud. The Warriors have an interesting fan base. When I reported a story about Oakland in 2013, I heard time and again that the Dubs don’t represent the city quite like the A’s and the Raiders do; there’s something missing when a team resides in a city but doesn’t carry its name. That’s not to say Oakland doesn’t love the Warriors. It’s just that the rest of the Bay Area loves them, too. And yet, if and when the team finally makes its planned move to San Francisco, an inevitable sense of loss will set in. “The people who make that place ‘Roaracle’ — the really true fans — they’re going to lose them,” Leslie says. “People will still go to games, but it will be more corporate. So many of the best fans are going to be priced out, and I might be one of them.”
Some arenas feel intertwined with the cities that host them. They’re built where people live and work, enmeshed in the fabric of the town. Oracle is not one of those arenas. It’s an island in a parking lot. And that isolation is part of what makes the scene there so impressive. Oracle may be in Oakland, but it’s a city-state unto its own, drawing not only from the surrounding neighborhoods but from San Francisco and the peninsula, from Marin County and the East Bay suburbs. Fans arrive from all across the Bay to form one of the most diverse crowds in sports, and then they proceed to spend four quarters screaming with such intensity that the sound can make you dizzy.
At the center of this is Curry. Oracle’s cacophony reaches its peak when Curry is going off, and that’s not only because of the direct relationship between great performances and ear-pummeling screams, but also because Curry is like the crowd’s conductor, turning the volume up and down with every play. He pauses after big shots, as if cuing the crowd in. Some athletes need crowd support to play their best. Some crowds need gobsmacking performances to rev themselves up. Curry and the Oracle fans interact as if they’re fully aware of their symbiosis — that together they can create an energy that no other player and crowd can match.
We catch a glimpse of this in Game 1, when Curry hits a pull-up jumper with 54 seconds left in regulation to put Golden State up, 98-96. After the shot, Curry stands still and stares into the stands, arms dangling by his side. This isn’t an act of humility. It’s a boast wrapped inside a salute, Curry’s way of telling the crowd, Yeah, I’m great, and if you wanna scream loud enough to let the whole world know it, now’s the time.
Yet there are moments when the clamor pauses. In the fourth quarter, the crowd deflates every time LeBron touches the ball. It’s as if the fans recognize that each time this happens, LeBron will control the next 20 seconds, and he will force the frenetic and fast small-ball Warriors to play at his pace, and by the end of the possession, there’s a good chance he will have scored. But in Game 1, before Cleveland has proved it can beat Golden State, it doesn’t feel as if the Oracle crowd is that alarmed: Let LeBron dominate. The Warriors will still pull away.
They’re right. Golden State outscores Cleveland 10-2 in overtime, and afterward Leslie sends me a text: “We are WARRIORS!!!” As the series progresses, we stay in touch. She tells me she became despondent, yet somehow hopeful, after the Warriors lost Game 3. She tells me that Game 4 was joyous and Game 5 was euphoric. Sunday night, after the Warriors win, Leslie and Ron lingered for a while, she says, with the hope that this was their last trip to the arena this season. Leslie doesn’t want a Game 7. The anxiety, the hope, all the possibilities — it’s too much.
So before she and Ron left Oracle, Leslie says, they hugged their seatmates and said, “See you in October.”
Quicken Loans Arena
“I think we’ll win it next year,” Larry Weiser says. We’re talking by phone, the day after Game 1, with the Cavs down 1-0 and Irving ruled out for the remainder of the series with a fractured kneecap. Larry knows this routine. Doom is familiar to him. Gut-punch losses are part of the relationship with his oldest and most loyal friend: Cleveland.
So it’s a little strange, Larry admits a few days later, walking through the lobby of downtown Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino, to all of a sudden feel something so different. After a Game 2 in which LeBron extended his dominance and Matthew Dellavedova emerged as Curry’s near-perfect defensive foil, Larry feels hopeful. Optimistic. Defiant, even.
“Can you believe we’re underdogs on our own home court?” he asks. He’s walking from the poker table to the counter to cash out. He’s up $650. Today, he feels, is already his day.
“Oh, I would take Tristan Thompson over Draymond Green in a heartbeat,” he says. “I don’t know why people say that’s even a question.” Now he’s riding down the escalator, pontificating on his way to the buffet.
“It’s unbelievable to me that people think Steve Kerr is a better coach than David Blatt,” he continues. He’s seated at a table, just after chatting up the waitress, rocking back and forth as he slices into prime rib.
For Larry, this series has been a long time coming. He scoffs at Golden State fans’ supposed misery: “They’re supposed to be tortured? Are you kidding? They have the Giants, the 49ers, the A’s. Even the Raiders! They all have championships. Those fans are not tortured. They have it all.”
This all started with a phone call in the fall of 1971. Professional basketball was coming to Cleveland, and Larry wanted to be involved. Fresh out of law school and armed with enough disposable income to buy season tickets, he called the Cavaliers’ offices in hopes of placing an order. When he got a call back, the voice on the other end identified himself as Bill Fitch. This was not a sales rep. Fitch was the team’s head coach. “Come on down to the arena,” Larry remembers Fitch telling him. “We should be able to get you some tickets.”
So it began. Larry sat courtside that year for most of the team’s 23 wins and 59 losses. He kept going over the years as they left the old Cleveland Arena, where games were often played before crowds of about 1,500, and moved into Richfield Coliseum. He watched Ted Stepien run the team into the ground. He watched Gordon Gund try to revive it. When the NBA tried to move the 1981 All-Star Game from Cleveland to L.A., he put his legal knowledge to use and filed suit on behalf of Cavs season-ticket holders. “We deserved that game,” he says. “We were not going to let them move it to some big market just for the media coverage.” It was, and remains, the only class-action suit he’s ever filed.
Larry drove through a blizzard to watch the franchise’s first playoff game in 1976. He watched as Brad Daugherty and Mark Price led the team to late-’80s competence, and if you watch the clip of Michael Jordan’s buzzer beater over Craig Ehlo, you can catch a glimpse of Larry, already late for his nephew’s bar mitzvah, about to have his heart ripped to shreds. Over time, his personal-injury practice grew. He bought a ranch home in the suburbs and purchased more season tickets. Some, he sold. Others, he kept. He took friends to games. He took clients to games. He took anyone he could convince to spend a few hours watching bad basketball. “I just wanted to share it with people,” he says. “This is something I care about. I wanted to show you — ‘Hey, look, this is pretty cool.’”
His joys were few, and they were muted. There was 1976, the Miracle at Richfield. There were the Austin Carr years, the Danny Ferry years, the Shawn Kemp years, eras with no real hope but with at least a few nice wins. “The bar for what counts as success was so low,” Larry says. “I think back to my best memories, and they’re first-round wins, or they’re games we won in series we lost. Never anything close to a championship.”
Then, in 2001, he heard about a kid down in Akron, a high school sophomore named LeBron James. He was the next Magic, maybe, or perhaps even the next Jordan, a singular talent who would someday bend the entire league to his will. Larry watched LeBron’s games on TV and rooted for him to make Northeast Ohio proud, never dreaming the kid from Akron would become a Cavalier. But when the 2003 draft lottery arrived, and when Russ Granik pulled their logo from an envelope and announced that they’d won the first pick, Larry stared at his television and cried. Now, as he tells me the story, sitting in his basement before Game 3, he doesn’t make it to the end before he starts crying again.
Larry loved LeBron. Loved him. As a longstanding season-ticket holder, he got to meet LeBron several times, and the prodigy was unfailingly gracious and kind. In 2009, when Larry had open-heart surgery and was left to watch the team’s games from his bed, the communications department put together a video for him. Several Cavs players — Booby Gibson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and others — said “hi” and encouraged him to get well soon. Most of them talked for about three seconds. LeBron spoke for 10, maybe 15. “He didn’t have to do that,” Larry says. “He didn’t have to do it at all. I think he’s just a really kindhearted young guy.”
Yet when the summer of 2010 arrived and LeBron became a free agent, Larry knew. “I just knew,” he says. He’d felt it from the moment LeBron walked off the court after losing to Boston in the second round. LeBron had outgrown Cleveland. He was gone. In fact, for years, Larry had owned a home in South Florida, and that summer, a couple of weeks before “The Decision,” he bought Miami Heat season tickets. He’d go to a few games, sure, but mostly they were an investment. He had a feeling the Heat were about to become the biggest show in sports.
None of this is to suggest that “The Decision” didn’t hurt. “It felt like an arrow through the heart,” he says. He watched it at a bar owned by his friend Mark Danford. They had the volume turned all the way up, every ear in the building listening as LeBron and Jim Gray teased them for about 30 minutes before delivering the fatal blow. Elsewhere in the city, there were boos, chants, jeers. Not there. Just silence. “I don’t think anyone knew how to respond,” Danford recalls. “It was somehow even worse than The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, and all the rest. Because for so long we’d believed that he cared. And then it seemed like we were so wrong.”
Cleveland famously came to loathe LeBron. But not Larry. While most of the city delighted in his failures in the 2011 Finals, Larry hurt for him. When Miami broke through and won the title the next season, Larry cheered the team on. “I wasn’t hurt by the fact that he left,” Larry says. “I was just hurt by the way that he did it. But pretty quickly, I just started to feel bad for him. I don’t think he ever understood what he was doing. I think he just got some really bad advice.”
None of that matters now. It was erased last summer when Larry, sitting in his downtown Cleveland office, got the alert on his phone: LeBron was coming back. Again, he’d had a feeling about what LeBron might do. “When you watch somebody day after day for 13 or 14 years,” Larry says, “you get a feeling for how their mind works. How he’s talking. His mannerisms. What he does say, and more importantly what he doesn’t say. He’s a thinking person. He’s not a god, but he’s a thoughtful guy. When he walked off the court after the  Finals, I just knew.” And now, Larry knew something else: “We’re going to win a championship. Maybe not right away, but someday, finally, we’re going to win a championship.”
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It’s jarring how different the setting outside of Quicken Loans Arena is compared to the scene at Oracle. In Oakland, the arena’s isolation makes you feel as if you’re surrounded by pilgrims — basketball druids who’ve come to worship from all corners of the Bay. Quicken Loans, however, feels embedded within the rest of Cleveland, as if you could happen across the House of LeBron on the way to CVS.
The pregame behavior inside the arena mirrors the commotion at Oracle before Game 1: Fans squeeze past media scrums and navigate security checkpoints on the way to their seats, where they get ready to scream as loud as their bodies will allow. The mood, however, is slightly different. In Golden State, the crowd had been jubilant and carefree, a firehose of Warriors-induced glee. At Quicken Loans, the fans are clearly thrilled to see their team back in the Finals (and not getting swept), but a grave undercurrent flows through the Cleveland crowd. Whereas the Warriors’ mantra, “Strength in Numbers,” is a straightforward reference to Oracle’s volume and energy, the Cavs’ slogan, “All In,” conjures images of sacrifice and struggle.
As Game 3 tips off, Cleveland’s sports desperation is converted into decibels. To my ears, from the moment Game 3 begins, Quicken Loans is louder than Oracle ever got during Game 1. The fans boom when LeBron drives by Harrison Barnes for a layup and they howl when Tristan Thompson dunks on Cleveland’s third possession. By the time Dellavedova joins Gary Neal and J.J. Barea in the pantheon of recent Finals folk heroes, the arena has detonated and re-detonated so many times that the game starts to feel less significant than the event: The Cavs’ lead is 20 points. Cleveland is back on top. Now let’s chant M-V-P for LeBron loud enough to move the building’s foundation.
And when Golden State’s fourth-quarter comeback happens, the full force of Cleveland’s suffering can be felt. It takes one 3 from Curry to knock the air out of nearly everyone in the arena. “Here it comes,” Larry tells himself. “Now is when the whole thing goes down the drain.” It’s an oversimplification to equate Cleveland’s sports angst with broader themes of Rust Belt decay. And yet, times like the fourth quarter of Game 3 can make you wonder. No basketball game should ever inspire such dread. The game operations crew, for their part, has figured this out. “All in,” the public address announcer bellows during a timeout, “is about using the pain of our past and the hurt of our present to push us toward our destiny.”
Likewise, in Cleveland you see the differences in how Curry and LeBron relate to their crowds. Curry’s connection with the fans feels intricate, like a dance. LeBron’s is blunter but no less powerful. He does something amazing, like dunking an off-target alley-oop from Dellavedova, and they scream. Then he does something more amazing, like reading the inbounder’s eyes to steal a pass and seal the game, and they scream louder. And occasionally, like when he hits a dagger 3 with less than two minutes to play, he turns downcourt and pauses for breath while their adoration washes over him. After the Cavs survive the Warriors’ comeback and Curry’s flurry of uncanny 3s, LeBron seems reflective. When the final buzzer sounds, he grips the ball and holds it to his head, looking down and listening to the cheers. This is why he came back. This is why they welcomed him.
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Larry Weiser, of course, is ecstatic after the game. This win means Cleveland will return home for Game 6 (unless they close it out in five, which Larry wouldn’t mind either). When Larry was a child, he went with his father to the 1964 NFL Championship Game, two years before the Super Bowl’s humble beginnings. He remembers shivering in the stands and watching the Browns and Colts play a scoreless first half before Gary Collins caught three touchdowns and pushed Cleveland to a 27-0 win. At the time, Larry couldn’t imagine that could be Cleveland’s last championship of the century. He stood with his father and watched the city celebrate, and his dad told him, “Someday, we’ll go together to watch the Indians win a World Series.”
They never did. Larry’s dad died in 1989, years before the Indians lost the only two World Series they managed to reach. But ever since Larry had a child of his own, he has dreamed of re-creating the moment he shared with his dad. He dragged his son, Sterling, to the World Series in 1997. But Sterling never loved sports the way Larry did. He grew up with a gift for languages and a curiosity about the world. He went to high school in China and now studies at Ohio State Law. Even now, he cares little for the Buckeyes and littler still for the Cavs.
But this spring, Sterling has been keeping tabs on Cleveland’s playoff run. He’s even watched a few games. And last week, as he prepared for a summer internship, he gave his father a call. If the Cavs made it to Game 6, Sterling asked, would Larry mind taking him to the game?
Larry’s eyes get damp as he tells the story. “That’s all I’ve ever dreamed of,” he says. “Just to have that experience with my son.”
They will be there Tuesday, sitting right on the front row, Larry pleading with the team he loves to keep alive a dream he’s waited decades to witness. After everything in this series, he feels good. Most losses lead to sleepless nights, but after Game 5, Larry slept well. “What more can you ask for from these guys?” he says. “They played as hard as they possibly could.” And 2,000 miles away in California, while her Warriors try to close out the series on the road, Leslie Sosnick will sit on her couch wearing her Golden State T-shirt and her lucky beads.
“It’s destiny,” says Leslie.
“I believe these guys can do it,” says Larry.
Both are longing, optimistic, and even desperate. Yet for one, the series will end with a familiar thought: maybe next year.
This piece has been updated to correct the matchup in the 1964 NFL Championship Game.