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CLEVELAND – LeBron James had headphones covering his ears and a towel covering his head. He sat with his feet in a bucket of ice, two more ice packs wrapped around his knees and a third on his right hand, which he’d smashed in a fit of frustration after Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Ever since he punched a display board in the postgame locker room, he said he’d played with “pretty much … a broken hand.”
The Finals were effectively lost that night and officially lost on Friday, a 108-85 blowout to swiftly end the Golden State Warriors’ sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, it was a busted-up, beaten-down LeBron James slumped in a picture of depression trying to process it all. He carried his team to the Finals, and then promptly got destroyed.
“When you have a goal and you seek that goal out and you dream about that dream, and you put everything [into it] … ” he said, trying to explain about why it was so emotional, why he couldn’t consider a season that ends with a loss as much more than a lost season.
It’s not just another year that ended, of course. It might be his time here, too.
LeBron first started coming to Gund Arena – before it was renamed Quicken Loans Arena – when he was a high school sensation down in Akron, Ohio, the Cavs leaving tickets and all-access passes for him and his buddies. It was all so fresh and exciting. The possibilities were endless.
Now 33, some 15 years after Cleveland drafted him first overall, he had his own sons, one about to enter high school, sitting near him in the locker room. Now they bring their friends along for the ride. Time is suddenly precious.
This is the circle of life and, perhaps, the next stage of a career. This summer, for the third time in his career, LeBron James will enter free agency. In 2010, he left for Miami because he sought a more talented and more “cerebral”, as he put it, supporting cast. They won two NBA titles. In 2014, he returned to Cleveland due to some “unfinished business” and was able to deliver the 2016 title, the city’s first in over 50 years.
Now it’s 2018 and he’s making no promises.
“I have no idea at this point,” LeBron said.
There is no way the Cavs, as presently constructed, are capable of beating Golden State, as it is presently constructed. The teams split their first two NBA Finals matchups (2015, ’16), but since the Warriors added Kevin Durant for 2017, they’ve won eight of nine Finals games against Cleveland.
If LeBron wants to win, and there is no doubt he does, then something has to give. A new plan here or a new home for the King – Houston or Philadelphia or the Los Angeles Lakers or who knows where else.
What Cleveland can do is limited. Much of the Cavs’ plan (or hopes) rests on the idea no other team can really offer an ideal situation. That and LeBron not wanting to make his children move and find new schools, new friends, new basketball teams.
“Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age,” LeBron said. “They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I’ve got a teenage boy, a pre-teen and a little girl that wasn’t around.”
Since fatherly obligation is about the Cavs’ only shot, this felt like a funeral as much as a Finals game. The fans barely mustered any energy as their team sleepwalked through the loss. James was pulled with over four minutes remaining, and while he received a roar of applause, it wasn’t the kind of sustained outpouring he probably merited.
Everyone seemed too shell-shocked, effectively realizing that if LeBron leaves, so does the chance Cleveland will have a competitive team any time soon. These nightly must-watch games, these spectacular spring playoff runs, these citywide esteem-lifting victories are over. They’ve lived post-LeBron before. It wasn’t any fun.
Eventually LeBron showered, changed and left the Cavaliers’ locker room for perhaps the last time as an actual Cavalier. He was flanked by family and friends, Nike executives and his own security team. He carried a shaving kit and a container of fruit – grapes and orange slices.
He shook hands with the Quicken Loans security guards as walked through the halls to the media interview area.
All these years, all these games, all these walks and it’s clear this is more than just a team he plays on. This is business, and this is family, too. If he sometimes clashes with ownership or gets enraged at teammates for in-game mental errors, he’s different with the working people. He grew up around them. They bore witness to him. He won – and lost – with them.
“The way he treats the coaches, the assistants, the staff and anyone associated with the Cavs is incredible,” said Cleveland forward Larry Nance Jr.
“You can’t ask for a better teammate,” Kevin Love said.
“This guy is amazing,” Jeff Green said.
LeBron may not know if he’s gone for good. He may not know what will come from a planned meeting with his wife and kids. Maybe the pull of consistency in their life is enough for him to sacrifice some of his. He grew up without a father. He is driven to be the kind that every kid deserves.
He did know it was a possibility, though, which made everything so difficult. His hand hurt from “self-inflicted” anger. His pride hurt from another steamrolling by those Warriors. And his emotions swirled due to the possible finality of it all.
He and his crew eventually trudged out of the Q. He was in no hurry. His boys walked behind him. He greeted old faces. He nodded at workers. Many held cameras aloft and snapped photos. He ultimately ducked out of a loading-dock door and into a parking garage where an SUV was waiting to whisk him away, out into the downtown streets and then back toward Akron, where it all began.
The same old commute, perhaps for the final time.
As he climbed in the car, a security guard pushed a button and slowly lowered the big garage door.
As the door shut down tightly, as LeBron James officially left the building, it finished with a clunk.
More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Durant claims 2nd straight Finals MVP honor
• Warriors complete sweep to win championship
• NBA players are already recruiting LeBron
• LeBron: ‘I pretty much played the last 3 games with a broken hand’