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NBA Finals Game 7 vs. Game of Thrones: The Ultimate Cultural Battle of My Heart

By  · Published on June 19th, 2016

The Big Idea

The Ultimate Cultural Battle of My Heart

The choice between Lebron James and Jon Snow is not an easy one.

Every new column we launch requires a feeling out period. Especially those written by yours truly, as my other day-to-day activities on the site usually end up getting in the way (to wit, I miss Movie News After Dark as much as the rest of you). With The Big Idea, I’m spending the latter part of my week searching for the topic that matters most. Among the many qualified candidates this week: tips for up-and-coming writers (we spent a lot of time reading applications for summer interns), fandom’s continued fragile state, Pride Month. All of these are worthy topics that will be addressed here on the site – some ad nauseum. But this weekend will be defined, at least for me, by what happens on Sunday evening. Because while the world swirls through an election, social unrest, and pop culture fluidity, two of my great recreational loves come crashing together. It’s created a bit of a pop culture Sophie’s Choice for yours truly.

First, a little talk about basketball. Sorry, movie friends, but this is relevant. In addition to my passion for film and television and nerd things, I grew up a child of Cleveland, Ohio. While this is the city where Superman was created, it’s also the sports world’s official home of heartbreak. As you can see in the video below – an excerpt from ESPN’s wonderful 30 for 30 documentary Believeland – Cleveland is a city that is known for its tough denizens and its propensity for being a punchline:

Not to mention the painfully true observations in this hastily made Cleveland tourism video.

To truly understand what it’s like being from Cleveland, you have to understand the city’s identity. It’s always been the little brother to cities like New York and Chicago, culturally and in sport. It’s a strange mix of hard working midwestern values and crushing realism. There’s an expectation that things probably won’t work out, but you fight on all the same. To understand what it’s like to be a Cleveland sports fan, you have to know the history. If you Google “Cleveland sports curse,” you’ll find numerous examples of videos running down the painful moments in Cleveland sports history. The Drive, The Fumble, The Catch.

There are two particular moments that resonate greatly with me, as they happened during my formative years. The first was The Shot in 1989. Right before the buzzer sounded in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan hit a series-winning shot for the Chicago Bulls against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even if you only loosely follow sports, you’ve seen the image of Jordan celebrating:

There’s Jordan in the foreground, celebrating his team’s victory with dejected Clevelanders in the background. The guy to the left in the photo was Craig Ehlo of the Cavs. He was six-year-old me’s favorite basketball player. Ehlo was an excellent basketball player, an all-around talent and a consummate professional. He will always be remembered as a footnote on Michael Jordan’s illustrious resume.

The second Cleveland sports moment that haunts me is Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. That’s a story for another day. But let’s say, for the sake of expediency, that I haven’t truly loved baseball since that night.

The Cleveland sports curse is very real. “There’s always next year,” we’d tell ourselves. It became a mantra for an entire city starved of reaching that glorious peak. In 159 seasons of professional sports between the Cleveland Browns (football), Cavaliers (basketball) and Indians (baseball), not one has yielded a championship. This run of failure is unprecedented.

Tomorrow night, after so many near misses, the Cavaliers have a chance to end the greatest civic-level drought in American sports history. Lebron James and the Cavs will play in a winner take all game 7 against the Golden State Warriors. This will be the first time since 1997 that any Cleveland sports team went into a game with the chance to win a championship. The fact that it’s Lebron and the Cavs has special meaning for me. Not only did I grow up playing basketball and idolizing the Cavs of the late ’80s and early ’90s – Ehlo, Mark Price, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty – I also grew up alongside Lebron James, 45-minutes away in Akron. I saw him play live once in high school, when we were both still gangly teenagers (although he looked like a 25-year-old). His career and the prophecy around his ascendance to the high throne of basketball was unavoidable. It was televised in Cleveland every night on the news, right after the weather report.

When Lebron was drafted #1 overall by the Cavs, I celebrated. When he led them to the NBA Finals and lost, I continued to believe. When he left Cleveland in 2010 to go join a superteam in Miami, I was crushed. I didn’t burn my Lebron James jersey, but you can bet that I donated it to Goodwill. When he returned to the Cavs two years ago, I was ready to forgive and embrace him with open arms. Perhaps the time had come to forgive and believe that one day he’d bring a championship to Cleveland. That day could be tomorrow night. The greatest game in the history of my sports fandom begins at 8 p.m. Eastern.

About an hour after the Cavs and Warriors tip off in The Basketball Game of My Lifetime, HBO will air season six, episode nine of Game of Thrones: the long-awaited “Battle of the Bastards.” This too is no small thing.

I’ve spent the last five-plus years of my life immersed in the worlds of Ice and Fire, from George R.R. Martin’s epic text to HBO’s monstrous adaptations. Since season two, I’ve been blogging it diligently – 10 Sunday nights per year – on this site. Like clockwork, I’ve been there for every episode. The result is some of the most popular content I’ve ever written. People love Game of Thrones and it’s been made clear to me that many of these people enjoy my take. It’s even led me to co-hosting a pretty popular podcast called A Storm of Spoilers. If there’s any one thing that rivals Cleveland Cavaliers basketball in my heart’s great power rankings, it’s Game of Thrones.

And this isn’t any episode of Game of Thrones. It’s being billed as the biggest and most ambitious battle in the history of television. Six seasons of popularity have built to this moment, when the show finally has the budget to give us a piece of medieval war that will rival any movie. This is not hyperbole: this is the most anticipated Game of Thrones episode ever. And perhaps one of the most anticipated episodes of television in the history of the medium.

What am I to watch: Game 7 or The Battle of the Bastards?

After much prayerful reflection, the answer is clear. There’s a six-year-old version of me buried somewhere in the deep recesses of my subconscious. He won’t stand for me watching a show that’s only been around for six years over an event we’ve been waiting our entire life to see. As Claire McNear explained in her piece over at The Ringer (which can count HBO among its initial investors), Game 7 wins the Game of Sunday Night.

The problem for me is the potential fallout. I see this going one of two ways:

  1. The Cavs fail to win the NBA Championship, continuing a lifetime of sports fan misery and gouging out my heart once again. Then I’m left – in what will no doubt be a mood – to watch the biggest Thrones episode of all-time with a sour disposition. The entire night will be tainted, leading to what I imagine will be a less than enthusiastic write-up of “The Battle of the Bastards.” Readers of this site will be overwhelmingly disappointed and flee the site. Eventually, the pall will fall over A Storm of Spoilers and my co-hosts will give me the boot, effectively ending my career as a Game of Thrones pundit. (This kind of logic is how you know I’m really from Cleveland and not some kind of pretender).
  2. The Cavs win Game 7 of the NBA Finals, wiping away a lifetime of hopeless sports fandom and disappointment. I am later arrested for streaking through the streets of Austin, Texas and lighting couches on fire (an Ohio celebratory tradition). I do not see “The Battle of the Bastards” until Monday and my column is late, but everyone is pretty understanding considering the story I have to tell. I lose 40-pounds over the summer, meet a nice Irish girl from Belfast(who also loves Game of Thrones), with whom I fall in love and travel back to her home town later in the year, just in time to party in a pub with Kit Harington and John Bradley while they are filming season 7.

As you can see, Sunday night has the potential to be either the greatest night of my pop culture-obsessed life or a tragic turn of events that leads to drugs and despair. The stakes (and the anxiety) have never been higher.

There are even parallels to the story. As Sean Freidlin explains in his piece about Lebron James being The Prince Who Was Promised, these are both stories about heroes who rose from humble stations in life. Both Jon Snow and Lebron James had to die (in Lebron’s case, it was dying in the eyes of Cleveland sports fans after The Decision). Both were resurrected with a purpose: to take back what is rightfully theirs. For Jon Snow, it’s his family home and the Stark rule of The North. For Lebron, it’s the NBA Championship, taken from him by a petulant team from the West. The storylines match almost too perfectly to be believed. And if the Lord of Light or the Seven or the Old Gods – whichever one will help at this point – are just, the battles will be won by the forces of good. Evil will be vanquished and darkness will be held back from one more day. It’s not really in the style of either Cleveland sports or Game of Thrones to see the light winning in the end, but for one more night, there’s hope.

I tell you that story so that I can tell you this: my apologies, in advance, as my Game of Thrones column will be a little late this week. But as you can see, it’s for a good reason – or at least a potentially good reason.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)