Changing Their Stripes
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NOT MILWAUKEE, Jan. 30, 2007 -- They sit a measly one game behind the Pistons in the Central and, if the season ended today, the Cleveland Cavaliers would be a fifth seed with the Nets as their first round opponents. That's an eminently winnable first round series.

Then again, after beating the Wizards in last year's first round and taking the Pistons to seven in the conference semis, third in the Central and fifth in the East ain't gonna cut it in Cleveland any longer. Expectations, including talk of championship aspirations, have filled the air since October.

"Hey, wait a minute, most of us Cavs fans are optimists, not necessarily Optimists."

I get that, but, psst, talk to No. 23 over there. The King himself started the championship talk.

"Last year making the playoffs was our main goal," James said before the season. "This year, it's about winning a championship."

Right now, however, the Cavs would do well to win a home game. Fans of the Wine and Gold, have seen their heroes go 3-7 in the last 10, which includes a jaw-dropping three-game home losing streak. According to CI's good friend and beat reporter Joe Gabriele, the Cavs have an identity crisis.

"Mike Brown believes his team’s identity is a defensive team, and that’s where the squad’s recent woes reside," writes our man in the Q. "But the mood in the locker room suggested that the Cavaliers – who are 6-0 when they score 19 or more fast break points – are a running team. And the sputtering offense is what ails them."

That, and it doesn't help that LeBron James will miss Tuesday's game against Golden State because of his injured right big toe.

"Long-term, it would be smart if I took some games off, took some practices off, to get better, honestly," James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But me being such a team guy, me wanting to be out there, and just not liking the feeling of sitting on the bench for 48 minutes ... I don't like that feeling. But right now I've got to be smart ... and just think about what's best for myself and best for the team."

So, I can understand why Cavs fans may be chewing their nails down to their cuticles much like their King does during games, but James' toe injury got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever snuck into: Stripes.

"And, Mr. Peterson, what does this have to do with our situation?"

Glad you asked. Let's put it this way, not only is James' big toe a problem for the Cavs right now, James is the Cavaliers' Sgt. Hulka, aka "The Big Toe." And if you know the movie, you know the Cavs will rally.

You see, in Stripes, Bill Murray (as John Winger) and Harold Ramis (as Russell Ziskey), who find themselves with no decent job prospects (it was the Reagan economy), plan on joining the Army as a lark. Of course, after they enlist they run into a hard as nails drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka, played by the late, great Warren Oates.

Winger, the ne'er do well, butts heads with the sarge, but recognizes -- kinda -- Sgt. Hulka's importance to the platoon:

Winger: "An army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe. And Sergeant Hulka is always gonna be here to be that big toe for us. I think that we owe a big round of applause to our newest, bestest buddy, and big toe... Sergeant Hulka."

But their big toe won't always be there for Winger and the boys. And here's where the Cavs situation begins to parallel Stripes. Later in the movie, Sgt. Hulka ends up in the hospital because of a misguided training mortar and his scruffy charges need to finish basic training themselves or they'd need to repeat it. (No one said the movie was realistic.)

After a few failed attempts at cohesion, with the prospect of another six weeks of basic training, Winger rallies the troops:

Winger: "We're all very different people. We're not Watusi, we're not Spartans, we're Americans. With a capital 'A', huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts."

This is precisely the attitude the Cavs need to adopt without their Big Toe. Forget the championship aspirations -- for now. While your big toe is resting his big toe, you are the underdogs. The mutts. The refuse. Right now, everyone is down on you. No one thinks you can survive, let alone thrive with James in street clothes.

But by the end, these mutts become a team, a team that can rely on each other, a team that thrives, a team that overcomes the odds. Of course, the platoon has Winger, the guy who by filling the void left by Sgt. Hulka, realizes that Hulka has taught him valuable lessons about toughness and discipline. In the time LeBron is out, the Cavs need to find their Winger, whether it's Larry Hughes or Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Damon Jones, to lead them through the tough times, which eventually comes because they have to invade Czechoslovakia. Seriously! (Meaning, I'm serious, the movie isn't.)

Winger: "C'mon, it's Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick 'em up, we zip right out again. We're not going to Moscow. It's Czechoslovakia. It's like we're going into Wisconsin."
Ziskey: "Well I got the [crap] kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it!"

Of course, Winger and Ziskey, though cunning, an exceptionally tricked out military RV and yes, a little help from the fully rehabbed Sgt. Hulka, save their platoon! So you see, Cavs fans, this season isn't too far gone to save or to even rekindle thoughts of a championship. After all, think of the Eastern Conference as like Czechoslovakia in the '80s -- you zip in and zip out, and it's ulitmately takable. You'll feel better.

(Though, watch out when you're in Wisconsin. We cheeseheads don't take no mess.)

Thoughts? Complaints? E-mail us. We'll try to work the mail in next week. Also, you can listen to Rob Peterson on NBA Radio, Sirius 127 every Monday at 7:30 a.m. ET, and every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.