LeBron James was anointed as a transcendent, generational star while he was still in high school. He’s been the best player in basketball for most of the 13 years he’s been in the league—a four-time MVP, a 12-time All-Star, and already the 11th-leading scorer in NBA history by the age of 31. He’s the most physically gifted player of all time, faster and more skilled than anyone with his size and strength. And yet on Sunday night, a few minutes after he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever title, James said, “I don’t know why the man above give me the hardest road.” The now three-time NBA champ spoke the truth.
Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals felt like a rock fight staged inside an enormous pothole. Steph Curry, the unanimous MVP, shot 6 for 19 from the field and finished with more turnovers than assists. His fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson shot 6 for 17 from the floor and 2–10 from 3-point range. LeBron himself shot just 9 for 24 and led both teams with five turnovers. After he scored six straight points to put the Cavs up 89–87 with 4:52 to go, James missed four shots in a row, each of which would’ve given Cleveland back the lead. On the other end, the Warriors missed their last nine shot attempts. The only player on either team who made a field goal in the last 4:39 was Kyrie Irving, whose 3-pointer with 53 seconds left turned out to be the game-winner in Cleveland’s 93–89 victory over Golden State.
This is the thing about the NBA and legacies and greatness: In this series, LeBron was about as dominant as any basketball player can be, and he never came close to controlling his team’s fate. If one of the best offensive teams in history managed to score any points at all in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter … if Curry didn’t throw a dumb behind-the-back pass out of bounds … if Kyrie Irving had clanged that long jumper instead of knocking it in, then this story probably wouldn’t include the phrase “three-time NBA champ.”
James led both teams in the NBA Finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He scored 41 points in Game 5, 41 more in Game 6, and put up a triple-double in Game 7. With a little less than two minutes on the clock, he chased down Andre Iguodala and made the block of the century to keep the game tied.
A couple of minutes later, he nearly destroyed space and time with a game-clinching dunk over Draymond Green. That would’ve been fitting, for the best player in the world to seal one of the most significant victories in NBA history with one of the greatest dunks ever.
But Green fouled him, hard, sending James to the line. He flicked his jammed right wrist and made one out of two free throws, giving the Cavs the two-possession lead they wouldn’t relinquish. This was less spectacular but somehow more appropriate. LeBron soared over everyone, got knocked out of the sky, and had to pull himself off the ground to lock up his franchise’s biggest victory.
But to bring a championship to Cleveland, the best player in the game needed a couple of breaks. This is the reality of professional sports, and it’s because of that reality that I’ve rooted for LeBron James for the past 10 years. Players play to win championships, and fans and writers evaluate them based on whether they succeed. It’s unfair, but it’s what makes the games we watch so thrilling. Since winner-takes-some is never going to be a thing, those of us who want one of the best players we’ve ever seen to get the respect he deserves have no choice but to hope he gets the bounces he needs to make his résumé unimpeachable.
LeBron led the first-ever comeback from 3–1 down in the NBA Finals. He beat the greatest regular-season team ever. He came back to his home state of Ohio and won a championship for the most star-crossed sports city in the United States. That block on Iguodala isn’t the block that kept the game tied before Steph Curry went off and won his second title in a row. It’s the Block. If he wasn’t before, LeBron James is now, rightfully, a basketball legend.
It’s been a hard road for LeBron James. It was a hard road to get nicknamed “the Chosen One” as a high school junior, then get criticized even as he exceeded every unrealistic expectation. It was a hard road to get drafted by his home-state team, and be expected to do what no other player in any sport had done for Cleveland since 1964. It was a hard road to leave Ohio for another, better opportunity, and to have his jersey burned by the fans that had claimed to love him. It was a hard road to come back, to forgive Dan “Comic Sans” Gilbert, and to say he was “ready to accept the challenge” of winning a championship with the Cavaliers. It was a hard road to play without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in last year’s finals. It was a hard road at times to play with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving—the star power forward who can’t play defense and the star point guard who sees the game as a 48-minute one-man show with occasional intermissions during which other people are allowed to touch the ball. It was a hard road to lead a team that might not have even made the postseason without him.
Winning a championship in any sport is hard. An NBA championship is harder to win than most. There are no hot goaltenders or dominant starting pitchers. The playoffs aren’t a crapshoot; they’re a gauntlet. You can’t luck your way to an NBA title. You can’t hoist the trophy by relying on grit and guile. You have to be the best, or very, very close to the best, and hope that this is one of the years in which that’s good enough.
In his 2014 “coming home” essay in Sports Illustrated, James told Lee Jenkins, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” LeBron did more than enough to earn this championship, by playing as well as a basketball player can and by making his teammates better. Doing enough to win a title doesn’t always mean you win one, especially when you’re playing against Steph Curry and the Warriors. Nothing was given to LeBron James. But now he has this championship, and nobody will ever be able to take it away.