CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Browns won an NFL championship in 1964, 20 years before LeBron James was born. Now nearly 51 years later, Cleveland is still waiting to celebrate its next major sports title after decades of bitter disappointment that included James and the Cleveland Cavaliers being swept in the 2007 NBA Finals.
James earned another chance to finally improve Cleveland's sports legacy when the Cavaliers advanced to the 2015 NBA Finals on Tuesday night.
"We all here know how long it has been since a champion has been in this city," James said. "You can try and not focus on it. You can try to say, "OK, well, it's not about that.' But we all know it."
James and the Cavaliers advanced to the Finals by completing a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with a 118-88 victory in Game 4 of the East finals. James will be making his fifth straight appearance in the Finals and sixth total. The Cavaliers will play the winner of the Western Conference finals, where the Golden State Warriors hold a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets.
Two years ago, GQ ranked the 20 worst sports franchises of all time and listed, "Every sports franchise in Cleveland," as No. 1. James, however, can finally cure Cleveland's sports drought if he can deliver the Cavaliers' first NBA title.
"I'm just so happy for Cleveland," Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert told Yahoo Sports. "It's just been so many years in Cleveland here without a championship. We're hoping this is a second-from-last step. This city deserves it. Fifty-one years. I'm very happy, though.
"I'm not from Cleveland. But I could only imagine [that a title] would be one of the best things that happened to the city in a long, long time."
The Cavaliers' only previous appearance in the Finals was in 2007. James was only 22 at the time and didn't have any elite teammates with him. The San Antonio Spurs easily swept the young Cavaliers in a series that produced a record-low 6.2 television rating.
From 2003-10, James' top teammates included an injury-plagued Larry Hughes, a young Mo Williams and older Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Antawn Jamison. As good as James was, he couldn't get any superstars in their prime to come to Cleveland.
"I just didn't win nothing so nobody wanted to come with me," James said in October. "I recruited. I recruited Michael Redd. I recruited Joe Johnson. I recruited Chris Bosh. I recruited a lot of guys. I just didn't win. They didn't want to come to Cleveland."
In 2010, James left Cleveland to join fellow All-Stars Bosh and Dwyane Wade in signing with the Miami Heat. James was cursed by Cavaliers fans, some of whom burned his jerseys. Gilbert wrote a public email mocking him. He helped lead the Heat to four straight Finals while winning back-to-back championships in 2012 and '13.
James was often cast as a villain during his four seasons in Miami. He was quickly forgiven by his home state, however, after he announced in July he was leaving the Heat to sign with the Cavs.
James attempted to temper the excitement of his return by saying he was not promising a championship. Along with James, the Cavs' roster was initially expected to include All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, long-time center Anderson Varejao and talented youngsters Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and rookie draft pick Andrew Wiggins. Cavaliers general manager David Griffin quickly dealt Wiggins, the eventual 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year, for All-Star forward Kevin Love. Griffin also made key midseason trades by dealing Waiters and acquiring center Timofey Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
The Cavs overcame challenges, including injures to Varejao and later Love. James needed two weeks early in the season to recover from his own injuries. A 19-20 start earned first-year coach David Blatt criticism.
For all that early season angst, the Cavs are returning to the Finals – an accomplishment James called "very special."
"It's very emotional to get back in this setting," James said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. The toughest task for me was trying to get this team back to the Finals."
Not far from Quicken Loans Arena, a mural of James stands several stories high and shows him with his arms outstretched in a Cavaliers jersey as fans below gaze upward at him. When he left in 2010, stones were thrown at the mural, which was eventually taken down during his absence. Now, fans show James only love.
"They would build a bronze statue in front of every building in the city," said former Cavs All-Star guard Austin Carr, who played on a Cleveland team that lost to the Boston Celtics in the 1976 Eastern Conference finals. "For him to bring it back here, especially the first year back, he would rise above anybody that has ever played in any sport in this town."