The Night I Should’ve Met Fred McLeod
Written by Nolan Shumate on May 31, 2020
I was sixteen years old. Christmas had just passed and, as a gift to myself, was now heading up 77-N to the Q. One ticket. Primetime. Home, against the Celtics. I got to the arena early, grabbed a bite, and sat down to watch warm-ups. Fresh off the title, the Cavs still carried team-wide energy of “We did it, b*tches.” even some 30-odd games into the season. As a lifelong fan, as far as I was concerned, that energy could stay forever. My seats weren’t great, I was lucky to get them at all, but I knew I wanted to get the absolute maximum out of this experience that I possibly could. There were still almost two hours until tip, so I decided the rules didn’t matter and started sneaking my way to the lower bowl hoping to get as close as I could to the court for warm-ups hoping that, I don’t know, something cool could happen. I knew I wasn’t exactly supposed to be doing what I was doing and kept an eye on ushers and security as if I was low stakes Solid Snake trying to avoid that red exclamation point.
I got to the lower bowl, successfully completing my mission, and now found myself mere steps away from the empty bench. I’d never been this close to a game and, even if it was just warm-ups, was fixated on the court as if I was a desert journeyman who just found civilization. I couldn’t even pretend to focus on something else. Suddenly my years of analytic cynicism and NBA-nerdness faded into childlike joy seeing my favorite team jokingly chuck meaningless ball-boy fed corner threes. I kept moving around the court, trying to get to the exact spot I wanted to, when my ignorance to my surroundings suddenly struck back and I was met with, what was in hindsight, probably a shoulder.
“Sorry, kid. Didn’t see you there. You alright?”
“Yeah. You? Sorry about that, probably should’ve been paying more attention.”
“Happens to the best of us. Enjoy the game.”, he said with a laugh and a pat on the back.
Three sentences in and I hadn’t really registered whose shoulder it was I ran into. I saw a man who, honestly, I knew more by voice rather than face. Fred McLeod. He moved on after our bump to go sit down at the table and began shuffling through some papers, presumably notes on the game to come. I wandered around a little more but I found it hard to not think about McLeod for the rest of the night. Tip-off eventually came around, and the game got tight, but I found myself almost watching McLeod at the table more than I did the players on the court. His unrelenting energy and pure, genuine passion for the Cavaliers was apparent even when I couldn’t hear his voice. By the end of the game, a Cavalier win I might add, my bump with McLeod was still on my mind. When the buzzer sounded, I told myself I was waiting at the arena for traffic to clear, but I knew I was going to try to get to McLeod again.
I wanted to tell him how much I admired his work and how much I appreciate all he’s done for the organization.
McLeod, to me, was just as much of a Cav as anybody on the roster and knowing that I had the opportunity to talk to him and didn’t would’ve eaten at me. I, once again, made my way down to the lower bowl where their broadcast now had lights and chairs sitting somewhere near center court. I waited far off making myself look busy, hoping to avoid the whole “he knows I’m waiting for him” feeling.
Soon enough, the lights switched off, McLeod and Carr handed their mics to a nearby cameraman and I started to move closer to where I wanted to be. I found myself almost exactly where I was pre-game. McLeod started moving my way, flanked by crew members, and I began running through a script in my head so as to not embarrass myself when the moment finally came. McLeod now stood less than 30 feet in front of me, I turned to face his direction, sticking my hand out in an attempt to grab his attention. 30 feet turned to 25 feet and 15 feet soon became 15. I could hear my thoughts counting down the distance like I was Jim Donovan. Now, no less than 10 feet in front of me, McLeod still stood side by side with his crew and it was clear now that they were engulfed in conversation. They were laughing about something, for all I know, it could’ve been McLeod recalling the story of him bumping into some nerd pre-game.
Regardless, I started questioning if it was worth interrupting his night. I did a lot of thinking during that 10 feet. Who was I to interrupt this man who probably spends a lot of his time getting interrupted? Would I like it if somebody bugged me after I just worked for four hours? And, when McLeod was now right in front of me, I let him pass. “Next time”, I told myself. Next time.
Now, I’m 20 years old and basketball just doesn’t feel the same. Something I once looked forward to for entertainment and comfort now feels like a hollow imitation of what I once knew it to be. When the news broke, I was doleful and upset but, now, almost 9 months later, I’m sadder than I was at the time. McLeod’s passing, to me, is one of the darkest days in Cleveland history. He was the soundtrack to some of my most vivid memories in life. I can still hear his voice in my head when watching clips of plays that happened some 10 years ago. Phrases like “Right down Euclid!”, and “The bottom!”, and “Wine and Gold Winner!” became staples in my life (well sometimes that last one wasn’t all too common, but, y’know). His voice carried such passion for the game, and for his work, that I’m convinced you could sit someone down who had never seen a basketball game before in their life, make them watch McLeod call a game, and they’d walk away a Cavs fan. I swear McLeod was just as excited on the call for a Tuesday game in November as he was for a playoff game. For a team that has been in flux for as long as I’ve been alive, flipping between tanking and championship-or-bust, I was always ready for the success to come and go but I never expected for the Cavs to stop feeling like the Cavs. It wasn’t until I heard the silence left by McLeod that I realized he was always the soul of the franchise to me. If you ask me, he was just as much of a Cav as anyone who ever put on a jersey.
I truly never thought that the death of someone I only ever heard through speakers could have such a profound impact on my life. It feels odd to say that I miss someone who I never met but it’s hard for me to think of basketball the same way without him. I’ll always miss him. He was the sole constant in an organization plagued by constant change. From time to time I’ll find myself going back to old clips, watching his best calls, or even just rewatching old games longing for a time when he was so present in my life. There were times when it felt like he was one of the only people on Earth who liked the Cavs as much as I did and, looking back, I think a lot of my excitement came from him to begin with. I call myself a Cavs fan but I’m not sure I ever quite knew what that meant until McLeod was gone. Obviously I had my favorite players and my favorite moments, but it’s the personality of the various iterations of teams and the organization as a whole keeps us, and me specifically, occupied as fans and, for many, McLeod was the face that. He was a surrogate for every fan’s experience while watching the game. He’d get mad at calls, he’d never be certain of a win even when the Cavs were up big, he’d become absolutely elated when something pro-Cavs happened, and have the same reaction you would when something bad would happen. I’m pretty sure he also hated the Warriors. Which, really, is the number one thing you can identify a Cavs fan by.
It’s been so comforting to know that, since he’s passed, so many players and media members have shared their thoughts on what it was like to work with Fred, and that those thoughts were exactly what I always hoped them to be. I’m glad I know that he was the man who I hoped he would be, sharing his enthusiasm for the game and his work with all of those around him. I just wish he was here to share it some more. Sometimes it hurts knowing that I never took that opportunity to shake his hands and tell him what I meant, but other times I’m glad that I ever got to have an interaction with him at all. There will always be the night I should’ve met Fred McLeod, but there will also always be every memory I have of him. If nothing else, at least I’ll always know that McLeod got to see a title. If it’s the only one the Cavs ever win, I’m glad he was here to see it. At least I’ll always have this.