Cavaliers as NBA champs still surreal for ND legend Austin Carr

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He was the face of the franchise decades before a certain someone from down the road in Akron arrived, took his talents to South Beach for four years and then proved that you indeed can go home again.

He was there during the leanest of seasons when the Cleveland Cavaliers played their home games on the outskirts of town in Richfield Coliseum, where there often were far more empty seats than fans and little hope of long playoff runs.

Notre Dame legend Austin Carr always dreamed of the day Cleveland might see an NBA championship. Those dreams of the all-time leading scorer in Notre Dame history and former No. 1 overall pick of the franchise in 1971 were buoyed when native son LeBron James announced two summers ago that he was coming back to Northeast Ohio, in part to bring a championship to “the Land.”

And when that happened in shocking fashion in Game 7 of the NBA Finals late Sunday in Oakland, Calif., the man still revered as “Mr. Cavalier” didn’t know what to think.

Still doesn’t.

“It’s been like a dream that you really haven’t realized the magnitude yet,” Carr said by cell phone Tuesday morning while waging a losing battle against a head cold that came calling, likely from his lack of sleep the previous two days. “I’ve been fighting my way through NBA cities since 1971 and to finally come out on top is just amazing.

“It’s a surreal feeling right now.”

It’s been that way since around 10:45 p.m. eastern time Sunday. A member of the Cavaliers’ television team who spent nine seasons with Cleveland as a player, Carr and play-by-play man Fred McLeod were perched halfway up in the Oracle Arena stands calling the game against Golden State on a television feed being beamed back home to a Cavs watch party.

When the final seconds ticked away on the 93-89 Cleveland win, Carr wanted to yell and scream and jump for the ultimate joy. But his headset wouldn’t let him.

“I had to stay professional with what I was saying, but believe me, it was an unbelievable feeling,” Carr said once the horn sounded and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love found James for the first of countless emotional embraces. “Golden State won the championship on our floor last year, and to win it on their floor was really important.”

To win it the way the Cavaliers did was even more so. The Warriors ripped off an NBA-record 73 regular-season wins by gashing opponent after opponent with lineups that could run and pass and shoot better than the league has ever seen. But when it was crunch time — the ultimate winning time — the Cleveland defense got the best of the Golden State offense. The high-octane shoot and score Warriors went the final 4:39 without a point.

“That was the signature defensive stance of our whole season," Carr said. “When it was over, it was like, ‘Well, what do we do next?’”

What Carr had to do was find a fast way to get from his broadcast location to the arena’s main floor as quickly as he could Sunday night. Fighting past the blue and gold of the dejected home fans wasn’t an easy task for a 68-year-old visitor bleeding wine and gold.

“Trying to get down the steps through those disgruntled Warriors fans was quite the experience,” Carr said.

Carr’s media responsibilities with Fox Sports Ohio kept him on the go until well after midnight Pacific time. He eventually left Oracle nearly eight hours after the game had tipped. While a charter flight whisked the newly-crowned champions to Las Vegas for an impromptu celebration on the Strip, Carr boarded a second charter flight carrying team personnel and the players’ families bound for Atlantic Aviation on the southeast end of Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland.

That flight left Northern California at 2:30 a.m. Pacific time Monday. Carr guessed he slept about an hour heading east. When that plane landed about two and half hours ahead of the Cavaliers, there were already thousands of fans waiting at the airport. And waiting to hear from Mr. Cavalier.

“That’s when I lost it,” Carr said of his emotions. “The last time I cried about a basketball game, wow, it had to be when we first went to the Finals in 2007 and got swept by San Antonio. That wasn’t a happy ending.”

This one was, which is why Carr spent the better part of Monday and Tuesday still fighting back tears.

“I just can’t hold it in because I know what this means to our fans; I know what this means to our city and our state,” he said.

What does it mean? Carr can’t put it into words. It’s just something you feel if you live in Northeast Ohio and have had festering inside since “The Drive” and “The Fumble” and “The Shot” and everything else that has gone against the city’s sports teams for over half a century.

“Trying to explain this is so hard because it means so much to this town,” Carr said. “People like to downplay what Cleveland is about and step on us. But now, the old people are happy, the young people are happy and everyone is just giddy right now.”

That giddiness hits another gear when Wednesday’s championship parade winds through the city streets. It ends at the Cleveland Convention Center, but for many, that’s just the beginning. Carr has fielded nearly two dozen calls the last two days from former Cleveland residents trying to find a way to get back for the celebration of a Cleveland sports team’s first title in 52 years.

“Oh, man,” Carr said. “It’s going to be unbelievable.”

Believe it.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lebron James, center, holds up the NBA Championship trophy alongside teammates Kyrie Irving, left, Kevin Love, rear right, J.R. Smith, right, and Tristan Thompson, front, at the airport in Cleveland, Monday, June 20, 2016.AP Photo/JOHN MINCHILLO