Sunday night’s NBA championship-winning game was historic on many levels. When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7, they became the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the finals. Led by Cleveland’s LeBron James, they also became the first team all year to beat the Warriors twice on their home court, and the first team all year to have beat the Warriors in three straight games. But most of all, the Cavs are the first team to win a championship for Cleveland in 52 years. As the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” puts it, over the past half century, of all the American cities with three sports franchises, only one has failed to win a championship: Cleveland.
Cleveland fans have not only been through a decades-long drought of sports championship wins; they have also in recent years experienced hope, heartbreak, and hard-earned forgiveness riding the rollercoaster that is the story of LeBron James.
For the uninitiated, LeBron, a native of the Cleveland area, became the hope of his hometown when he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 straight out of high school. But in 2010, he left the Cavs for the Miami Heat, a decision he broadcast on ESPN in a fashion that left many in the city feeling betrayed by their own. He won two championships with the Heat before ending his contract with them and returning to the Cavs in 2014. His express purpose in returning was to bring a trophy to Cleveland.
In LeBron’s first year back with the Cavs (a team that was missing two of its three best players due to injury in the finals) he lost to the Golden State Warriors. This year, the two teams were matched up again, after the warriors had the most wins of all teams in the regular season. In a remarkably close Game 7 with 20 ties, 11 lead changes, and neither team having a greater than 7 point lead the entire game, LeBron faced his last chance of the season to make good on his promise to the city of Cleveland. Within the final minute of the game, the score was tied 89-89. Kyrie Irving made a 3-point shot, LeBron made one foul shot, and the usually impeccable Warriors missed two shots. Then the Cavaliers pushed through to a 4-point victory.
The buzzer went off, the drought was over, and the emotional floodgates opened. LeBron was immediately surrounded by ecstatic teammates, and at one point knelt to the floor in tears. “I set out a goal two years ago when I came back, to bring a championship to this city,” he told sports anchor Doris Burke after the game. “I gave everything that I had. I poured my heart, my blood, my sweat, my tears into this game. Against all odds. . . . I don’t know why we want to take the hardest road. I don’t know why the man above gave me the hardest road, but. . . the man above don’t put you in situations that you can’t handle. I just kept that same positive attitude. Instead of saying why me, I said this is what He wants me to do.”
LeBron ended his emotional statement by shouting, “Cleveland! This is for you!”
I’ve said in the past that it looked like LeBron had matured since he left Cleveland six years ago in spectacular fashion. He has run a hard race, and yes, his choices may have made it even harder for himself at times, but if his goal was to bring a trophy to Cleveland, then he’s finished the race with flying colors. His pre-game calm evidently spread among his teammates and helped them achieve victory. His postgame remarks tell a lesson of endurance. And today, for LeBron as much as for the fans in Cleveland, the joy of victory is all the greater because the team (and the city’s basketball fans) had to overcome decades of heartache to reach it.
Thousands of fans greeted the Cavaliers at the airport when they arrived Monday, and thousands more will fill the streets of Cleveland for a celebratory parade on Wednesday. After a long road, a hard fight, and extraordinary perseverance, there’s one thing LeBron can say for sure this time: He’s home.