Sometime after the confetti stopped falling and the champagne stopped flowing, it was only LeBron James and the Larry O’Brien Trophy. And in his hands, he held the relief of millions of Clevelanders.
It was 62 long years the ‘Mistake by the Lake’ had suffered without a championship. But last night, James and his Cavaliers ended that drought, finally lifting the curse of what had been Cleveland sports. It’s been a long time coming for a city that became accustomed to so many heartbreaking losses, from ‘The Drive’ or close calls from the Indians, and even from these Cavaliers. Twice before James had these Cavaliers on this stage. He was overmatched the first time, and last season it was James on his own, with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sidelined due to injury.
But last night, in LeBron’s greatest test to date, the King delivered, and delivered big. With strong outings from Irving, JR Smith and the supporting cast around him, James and his teammates were able to climb the ladder and change the fate of the city, and enlighten an entire population, in one shining moment.
It wasn’t easy road for James, or the Cavaliers. Drafted out of high school, James was drafted to his hometown team to be the savior, a title that brought attention and criticism to the youngster. He made the Cavaliers relevant again, competing at the highest levels, even taking them to the NBA Finals. But veterans did him in time and again, forcing James to desperation. That desperation led to an exit, a moment where the prodigal son of Cleveland left his home for Miami.
In Miami, James flourished, winning his first and second NBA Championships with his two All-Star friends in Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. While LeBron won, the Cavaliers struggled. The Cavs won the lottery, drafting Kyrie Irving, the young Duke guard that quickly blossomed into one of the NBA’s brightest young guards. The team struggled, however, missing the playoffs each year that LeBron was gone. The team was lost, and looked to be stuck again in mediocrity. And then the pieces fell into place.
James came off an NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs with the Heat, and faced a decision heading into his first free agency period since leaving Cleveland. Should he return to Miami to compete yet again? Or start something anew? While the NBA world awaited his decision, the Cavaliers miraculously won the NBA lottery, resulting in the selection of the star wing Andrew Wiggins from Kansas. For two weeks, speculation ran rampant on James and where he could go, before ultimately revealing to the world his decision on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In a letter penned by James, he announced to the world that he would make his return to the Cavaliers, intent on “bringing a title back to Cleveland.” The Cavaliers got to work quickly, trading Wiggins away for Minnesota’s Kevin Love. The star forward, together with James and Irving, formed a new ‘Big Three’ and went to work on the league. The Cavaliers were bested for the best record in the East, but went through the postseason and won the Eastern Conference en route to the NBA Finals.
It was there the Cavs met the Golden State Warriors, who were appearing with a young Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and had shocked the league in making it to the Finals. Injuries and bad play cost the Cavaliers, who lost in six games to Golden State. And all offseason, the talk shifted on James and the Cavs. Criticism mounted as the league doubted the talent around James, and whether they could get over the hump.
This season, the Warriors rolled through the league to the best record in NBA history, and entered the playoffs the odds-on favorite to take their second consecutive title. Even as Cleveland rolled, the Warriors captured America, winning close games and a roaring comeback against Oklahoma City. The Cavaliers quietly made quick work of the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors, sweeping through the first two rounds and decisively winning the Eastern Conference Finals.
But it was all Warriors heading into the NBA Finals. The Cavs were heavy underdogs, especially after the two straight drubbings handed to them in Games 1 and 2 in Oakland. The Cavaliers found their resolve in Game 3, but were again routed in Game 4. The season was on the line, and the Warriors were just one win away from a repeat. And the Cavaliers were one loss away from a summer of speculation and uncertainty.
Kyrie Irving had played sporadically, with just one great performance. Kevin Love had disappeared, and the NBA world predicted his days in Cleveland were all but over. Even James faced rumours about moving on, as people began speculating if James would return to Miami should this series again prove to be a loss. Even this writer criticized the makeup of a disorganized team, who seemed to shrivel in the moment. Especially and as the key piece of their dealing of Andrew Wiggins, a promising wing, disappeared on the biggest stage.
The team that James built was struggling, and just not good enough. And then, we were wrong. Game 5 saw James and Irving catapult the Cavs to a lopsided win in Oakland, but even in the win, the NBA world surely see the series ending in Cleveland. But behind a raucous home crowd, the Cavaliers again walloped the Warriors, and all of a sudden the greatest team in NBA history (statistically, at least) looked like they were on the ropes.
Game 7 was all the Cavaliers hoped for. The Warriors and Cavs traded blows for the entirety of the games. The NBA world sat on pins and needles as the lead rocked back and forward. In the fourth quarter, the lead locked at 89 with just three minutes to play, the Cavaliers upped the ante. Following a steal, Andre Iguodala raced down the floor for the layup to give the Warriors the lead. But James was in pursuit, and delivered a block that will live in Cleveland lore forever. Seconds later, Kyrie Irving delivered a three pointer on Curry to give a dagger to the hearts of the defending champions.
The Warriors struggled for a shot twice, with Kevin Love providing locked defense on Steph Curry at the top of the key and, forcing an arid shot, took possession with less than :20 to play. It was there that James delivered the knockout free throw to put the lead at 4. And in that moment, the entire city felt a weight lift off its shoulders.
In one fell swoop, James proved the doubters wrong and brought relief to his city. For one night, the Cavaliers were NBA immortals, completing the greatest Finals comeback in history, against the best team regular season team in NBA history. And it was behind James and his team that he built. The NBA has a new champion, with the same King.
Just like Hollywood drew it up.