OAKLAND, Calif. — The pain is over, Cleveland. Fifty-two cursed years have succumbed to the legend of LeBron James. The native son who arrived in fame and left in shame has returned to deliver a championship that Northeast Ohio fans went through sporting hell to receive.
For more than five decades, no other city had experienced so much consistent misery. The heartache was so familiar that people could condense each new, agonizing moment into a two-word label. The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. The Decision. Cleveland knows those pains and so much more. But in place of the city’s pro title drought is now its greatest achievement: A spirited, unprecedented rally after trailing the NBA Finals three games to one to an opponent that won more games than any team in league history.
If you aim to soothe a half-century of soul-wrenching aches, this is the way to do it. With a 93-89 victory in Game 7 at Oracle Arena, the Cavaliers became the first team to win the Finals after trailing 3-1. It’s the most unlikely comeback the NBA has ever seen, orchestrated by a 31-year-old superstar who has earned an immovable place among the game’s most revered legends.
He did it for Cleveland. Every powerful dunk, every pass seemingly guided by a GPS device, every swooping block to erase a sure Golden State basket — James was motivated to fulfill his mission to free Cleveland from its woeful sports history. It took a homegrown prodigy to shatter the curse. It took a flawed hero to fail the first time, then leave and embarrass and anger the city and come back, older, wiser and a better winner. The James who fell short as a young adult would not be denied as a hardened man.
“Just knowing what our city has been through, Northeast Ohio has been through, as far as our sports and everything for the last 50-plus years,” James said. “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to the Cavs went to The Finals — I was on that team — in 2007, getting swept, and then last year us losing, 4-2. And so many more stories.
“And our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.”
Winning a championship in Cleveland is equivalent to winning at least three most anywhere else, and that’s probably a conservative comparison. Let’s put this in perspective: On Sunday, James and his longtime veteran teammate James Jones became the 69th and 70th players to win three NBA titles. Of those 70, just four — four! — players did not collect some of their rings playing for the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs: James, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Jones.
Basically, there have been four dynastic movements in NBA history, and if you weren’t fortunate to board those trains, good luck hogging championships. It’s safe to say James represents a fifth movement. To do it in Cleveland, to do it by beating the all-time great Warriors, to do it in a league in which so few franchises win championships, James has rewritten the first paragraph of his legacy.
And he’s still 31 years old and hasn’t sustained a major injury in his NBA career.
In the defining game of his career, James posted a triple-double Sunday: 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He was a menace on defense, protecting the rim as if his family lived in the basket. Kyrie Irving, who was brilliant in the Finals, scored 26 points and hit the biggest shot of the game, a three-pointer with 53 seconds remaining to give the Cavaliers a 92-89 lead. In a losing effort, Golden State forward Draymond Green had the most impressive stat line of the night, finishing with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. But this was James’s game.
James won two titles in Miami after leaving Cleveland in 2010 to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh. But he returned to Cleveland two years ago to complete a mission.
“We just witnessed one of the greatest games in NBA history,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said as the Cavaliers stood on a makeshift stage on the Oracle Arena court.
In a strange way, it was. This wasn’t the most well-played game, but it was what you’d expect from a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was hard-fought yet imperfect, a competition and not a beauty pageant. In recent history, when the Finals end with a for-it-all final showdown, the games are more battles of endurance than thrilling, free-flowing basketball. This one followed that pattern, appropriately.
After six games decided by double-digit margins, after a series of seesawing control, it was fitting that this game was not a classic as much as it was two wobbly teams continuing to punish each other and doing everything it could to stay on its feet. Neither team led by more than eight. There were 11 ties and 20 lead changes. It was exactly the kind of game Cleveland had to win to end the suffering.
When he left six years ago, some fans burned their replica James jerseys. Now, all is forgiven. King James is home. Cleveland is a winner. A dark sports city now shines with possibility.
Asked about the fans who were once upset with him, James said: “That don’t matter. That’s yesterday’s newspaper. 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.”
As James spoke, his three children sat with him. They have only begun to hear about what a great thing their father has done.