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Protecting the Gund
by Bruce Meyer / January 14, 2005

Home court advantage is all about attitude.

And LeBron James, already the experienced leader of the Cavs at the ripe old age of 20, clearly understands that. Both James and coach Paul Silas are constantly harping on the importance of learning first to win at home before establishing yourself as a legitimate championship contender.

"We play well at home. We try to get as many wins as we can at home, and then try to split the games on the road," James said. "It's all about protecting your house."

Apparently, James and the rest of the Cavs are starting to pay attention. Whether it's a 30-plus point win against the Knicks on national television, or an overtime squeaker over Charlotte, it's clear the Cavs are slowly but surely showing that they simply refuse to lose at Gund Arena.

Heading out for a six-game Western swing, the Cavs held the best home record in the East at 14-3, leaving only San Antonio and Phoenix out west as the best defenders of home turf.

"We just come out and play well. We don't want to lose," said point guard Jeff McInnis. "We've got great fans and we don't want to let them down. We just feel like if we handle our home court, everything else will pretty much take care of itself."

And the crowd really is a part of the winning equation, McInnis said. "We love them. They're great," he said. "When we're up, they're alive, and when we're down they help us get back up."

It wasn't always that way at "The Gund." When the Cavs first moved to the downtown arena for the 1994-95 season, the Gund got a rap as being a "bad building." Fans were spoiled by the rural Coliseum, a fan-friendly arena where the seats didn't rise to the stratosphere and the loges were at the top.

But if the Cavs were winning or losing, it obviously wasn't the building's fault. It was the basketball being played there. While most of the games were sellouts that first year at the Gund, the crowds normally weren't a factor. They had been spoiled by the exciting brand of basketball played by Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance on teams that had only one downfall – they couldn't beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

Upon arriving at the Gund, however, coach Lenny Wilkens had given way to Mike Fratello and the boring brand of basketball he favored. Fratello played with the hand he was dealt and posted mostly winning records, but that didn't mean it was fun to watch. I have long held Fratello and Pat Riley in his Knicks and Heat days responsible for helping to make NBA basketball virtually unwatchable for a number of years.

Case in point. I attended one game in that 94-95 season where the Cavs and the Dallas Mavericks played a triple-overtime game. The following day, I heard legendary Cavs radio announcer Joe Tait chastise the crowd as the worst he had ever seen. I'm sorry, but in that game it took three full overtimes for just one of the teams to reach a paltry 90 points. I don't care how many OTs it went, it was (to that point) the worst game I'd ever seen.

Following the Fratello era, the Cavs just evolved into an awful team and it wouldn't have mattered what building they played in. It was during this time, however, that I realized the Gund wasn't a bad place at all. It was during Jordan's first year with the Wizards, and the crowd – albeit filled with lots of fans of the Great One – was alive from start to finish. Of course, as was often the case, Jordan ruined the night with one of his many buzzer-beaters against the Cavs.

Luckily for the Cavs, the teams got so bad and the lottery balls fell just right that the team literally was saved with the arrival of LeBron. Now the crowd has that same feeling of being alive, knowing that at any moment LBJ may do something spectacular.

And even with the non-stop, oftentimes ludicrous entertainment that is part of the NBA experience at every arena, once again the focus is on the team and the game. The Cavs and their young superstar play a brand of basketball the fans can truly enjoy.

Although LeBron is clearly the focal point, he's far from being the only player the fans are pulling for. They've also taken to McInnis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And their favorite new player is by far "Wild Thing – rookie Anderson Varejao – and his non-stop brand of basketball. Some fans already have taken to wearing wigs inspired by Varejao long, wavy locks.

McInnis, for one, knows that winning at home in the regular season is one thing, but he's got his eyes further on the horizon.

"We've got to get in the playoffs and see then," he said. "It always goes up a notch when you get in the playoffs. So right now we've got to get to the playoffs and get the fans going and get them enthusiastic about it."

Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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