OAKLAND, Calif. – When the improbable, seemingly impossible, was done, when Cleveland’s championship was, at long, long last, won, LeBron James simply went to his knees and wept. There was nothing else to do.
Wept for the accomplishment, his Cleveland Cavaliers defeating the Golden State Warriors here Sunday, 93-89 in Game 7 to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit. Wept for the performance, 27 more points, 11 more assists and 11 more rebounds to cap a three-game stretch (averaging 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 9.7 assists while facing elimination) as great as any player, ever.
Wept, too, because of Cleveland, because of Akron, because of The Decision and because of The Return, because of the Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, because of Jose Mesa and Rocky Colavito, because the people and places back home made this bigger than him, bigger than a single team, bigger than it even should be, a basketball game understandably meaning so much to so many.
“Just knowing what our city has been through, Northeast Ohio has been through,” James said. “You could go back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards …”
So many fans stuffed downtown Cleveland on Sunday to watch the game on outdoor televisions and street-side bars that clogged the whole joint up. The highway patrol eventually had to shut down the highway entrances into town. They had come because they believed that 52 years of losing in every sport in every imaginable way, might now, for once, end.
“Our fans, they ride or die,” James continued. “For us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.”
Spent physically, emotionally, mentally and historically, LeBron James wept because somehow, someway he led the Cavs through a pressure cooker here, fraught with tight nerves and tense moments, including a final quarter in the crucible, where the best basketball players in the world kept melting in the moment.
A little less than a week ago the Cavs came here for Game 5 with everyone expecting them to get closed out. Parade route planned, legacies written. Instead James started an epic run. He played nearly every minute of every game, point guard on offense, center on defense, delivering baskets and rebounds and passes … and blocks.
None was more epic or emphatic than a wipeout of an Andre Iguodala layup with 1:50 left, with the Warriors set to take the lead. It was a soaring, surging leap through time and space and generations of failure.
Not now, not ever, LeBron was saying, nearly slamming his forehead off the backboard. It was equal parts virtuoso and violent and reminded the wilting Warriors that nothing was coming easy, that Cleveland, capital of the sporting collapse, wouldn’t crumble. Bring it. Bring it on. No fear this time.
It was part of a legendary stretch of defense, shutting out the high-flying Warriors, completely scoreless, in the final 4:39 of the game. It was Cleveland forcing the NBA’s glory team into a rock fight to the finish.
“Such a force physically,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr marveled. “So powerful.”
Afterward, LeBron got hold of a clipped-down net, a college basketball tradition. He turned it into a nylon necklace, sporting it around his neck to accessorize an oversized cigar in his mouth as he walked with his children in tow this Father’s Day. To the victors go the smoking ordinances, and LeBron James was so dominant in this series, not even an Oakland cop would dare cite him.
James rose up from Akron as the Chosen One, so big, so fast, so talented that championships were believed inevitable. Cleveland took him straight out of high school as the No. 1 pick in 2003, but he couldn’t lead the Cavs to a title. He then bolted, unceremoniously, for Miami, where he won two championships in four years.
There is a burden to early greatness, a weight to the expectations. LeBron James was supposed to win, and like other megastars like him, when that is finally accomplished, a feeling of relief as much as excitement can overtake them. Winning gets a million pounds off their shoulders.
Yet James, after escaping that, decided to put it right back on himself by returning home, by making right, by taking on the burden of Cleveland sports history by choice, not draft pick. He always tried to push it aside, to say he didn’t think of it, but no one believed him.
It’s always there in Cleveland, always the punch line, never the champ. The Mistake by the Lake. The Cuyahoga on Fire. The abandoned factories and warehouses and forever promises of urban renewal that never quite make it. It’s a narrative that belies so much success and hope and family, but for a stretch there, he was part of Cleveland’s chief export – young talent. For generations it’s seen its born-and-raised feel the need to go elsewhere to pursue their dreams, to achieve greatness.
James was one of them, heading to Miami, winning along with Dwyane Wade, learning from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. Only then he decided to give up on the glamor and come home to replant the flag, the prodigal son.
“I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. Knew what I learned the last couple of years that I was gone. And I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place we’ve never been.”
Before Miami, James couldn’t engineer this kind of a comeback, against this kind of an opponent. Now he could. Now he did.
If nothing else, LeBron James seized control of this series and said with his back to the brink he would simply ball up his fists. No one could be sure it would work, not until that final Steph Curry three was hopelessly wide as the clock spun toward zeroes. What James understood was this was about taking every possession, every practice, every moment and pushing to get here, to get that chance.
To deliver, to be the player to unburden the pressure of winning at last, to be the kid from Akron, Ohio, who ended a half-century-plus of losing, to walk alone with Jim Brown among the local legends, and to do it in the manner he did, up from the canvas, overwhelming Curry and his record win total, defending champions, was grander than he ever could’ve imagined.
“It’s just excitement,” he said. “It’s not even relief. It’s just excitement.”
And he wept perhaps, because after all these glorious NBA seasons and three Olympics, perhaps this, finally, will end whatever lingering criticism remains. Being blessed with such physical abilities meant his mental and emotional preparations are easily overlooked, mistakes are sharpened, losses less explainable. When LeBron won … it was why didn’t he win sooner. When he lost … it was always about him not doing enough.
What can they say now, after this, after this stretch of basketball genius?
“Throughout my 13-year career I’ve been nothing but true to the game, give everything I have to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat and tears into the game and people still want to doubt what I can do.
“So that was a little icing on the cake.”
There will be no more denying his all-time greatness. There will be no more questions about him in clutch games. There will be no more cackles of laughter at Cleveland’s expense, the forever loser having risen up.
“That’s yesterday’s newspaper,” James put it. “I don’t think anybody’s reading yesterday’s newspaper. They’ll be reading tomorrow that I’m coming home. I’m coming home with what I said I was going to do.”
He broke into a big smile, his kids and his cigar and his victory flight home awaiting. The tears were done now, done for Cleveland, done and gone and forgotten forever.