Thirteen years ago, a lucky bounce of a lottery ball sent an 18-year-old prodigy into the overeager arms of his hometown team, creating a fraught relationship between player and city unmatched anywhere in professional sports. On Sunday night, LeBron James gave the city of Cleveland the championship it has been wanting for 52 years, the championship it’s been expecting since the 2003 NBA Draft, the one James promised when he swept back into the city in 2014.
And what a championship it was. Sure, it would have been enough for the Cavs to win, period. Beating the Thunder, had they won the West? There would have been dancing in the streets. Avenging last year’s finals defeat by beating the Warriors in six games? That would have been special because it would have happened at home. But us Cleveland fans are such gluttons for punishment, it’s only fitting that the path to victory was so challenging. It means more because LeBron and the Cavs and the city of Cleveland, for the first time in my lifetime, pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.
This series wasn’t just challenging. It was an outright slog. Last year, when the Cavs made the finals in James’ first season back in the wine and gold? Pure fun. Once Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in overtime of Game 1, the Cavs were playing with house money. They could win a few games but lose the series, and still hold their heads high for hanging with the Warriors. We could revel in watching Matthew Dellavedova dive for loose balls, shut down Steph Curry, and score 20 points. We took solace in watching LeBron carry a ragtag band of misfits on his back, making a case for finals MVP in a losing effort.
This season was destined to be different. Watching the Warriors get off to a 24–0 start, watching the nation come down with a case of #DubsFever, throwing things at the TV as commentators anointed Steph Curry as the greatest player in the league. All the while, the Cavs were struggling with their chemistry and playing inconsistently, so much so that they fired their coach David Blatt in January despite a 30–11 record.
In the playoffs, even as the Cavs swept Detroit and Atlanta and got by the Raptors with relative ease, I couldn’t shake that lingering sense of dread. There were highlights, to be sure. In Game 2 of the second round, the Cavs sank 25 3-pointers and had the Atlanta Hawks’ social media squad pulling out the Crying Jordan meme on their own team—that was pretty sweet.
But we all knew what was coming. It didn’t matter that Curry sprained his knee, or that the Thunder had the Warriors on the brink of elimination. This is Cleveland, and so of course it was going to come down to the record-breaking, world-beating Warriors and the imperfect Cavs. These moments don’t end well. Cleveland teams don’t win against John Elway or Michael Jordan or Greg Maddux. They don’t win against Steph Curry.
And so it was that the Cavs went down 2–0 with two underwhelming performances in Oakland. The desperation was palpable. I pondered what soul-selling promises I might make to the basketball gods if they could just give the Cavs a chance. (Give up a kidney? Vote Trump? Let my kids attend the University of Michigan? It was all on the table.) Winning Game 3 by 30 points, as the Cavs did, was almost cruel, because it gave us hope. Game 4—let’s not talk about Game 4.
All that pain and adversity made what’s happened over the past seven days all the more incredible. Game 5: James and Kyrie Irving combining for 82 points at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors are nearly unbeatable. Game 6: another 41 from James, and moments like this one.
And yet the odds were still against Cleveland in Game 7. As we all heard approximately 987 times, no team had ever come back from down 3–1 in the finals. Only a couple had even forced Game 7. The Cavs needed to beat what was supposed to be the greatest team in NBA history on a court that team had lost on just twice in 41 games during the regular season, the same court where the Cavs had already stolen one victory less than a week before.
On Sunday, a series that had been defined by blowouts gave way to a finale with 21 lead changes. The Cavs erased a seven-point halftime deficit thanks to the heroic shooting of J.R. Smith (stop and think about that for a moment). And in the midst of a four-minute stretch in which neither team scored, LeBron James soared for the Block to end all blocks.
It wasn’t LeBron’s prettiest game. His shot abandoned him at the worst possible moment, and yet somehow he ended up with a triple double. But this game and this season ended with the prettiest site that a Cleveland fan could imagine: James kissing the Larry O’Brien Trophy and weeping tears of joy.
As my colleague Josh Levin (and many others not named Skip Bayless) has pointed out, LeBron’s legacy is unassailable. He led every player on both teams in every statistical category during the NBA Finals: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He quieted the critics who said it would show weakness if he went 2–5 in the finals.
He has walked a fine line in talking about the importance of winning to Cleveland. He has praised the fans for their support but has also said he doesn’t let the fan pressure affect him. “I know what I put into the game,” he said after Game 6. “I know how true I am to the game. I know how true I am to these fans. So, no, I don’t let it get to me.”
But Sunday night, in his on-the-court interview with Doris Burke, he looked at the camera and shouted “Cleveland, this is for you!”
The Cavs helped build the mountain they had to climb, getting down early in the series. But LeBron brought all of us with him on the journey. And the view from the top? It’s amazing.