True emotion and passion is something that an athlete has a hard time faking. On the night of June 19, 2016 that emotion was written all over the face of LeBron James as he finally accomplished his goal of bringing a championship back to Northeast Ohio.
As the final buzzer sounded in Oracle Arena on that father’s day evening, James embraced teammate Kevin Love in an emotional, celebratory hug and then dropped to the floor and cried tears of joy as he came to the realization of the task he had just completed.
All the scrutiny, drama, pressure and weight that had rest on James’ shoulders since he was a 16-year-old kid seemed to be washed away by the spray of champagne in the visitors locker room that night.
Not only had James ended the 52-year Cleveland sports ‘curse’ he also led this Cavaliers team back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, the first team to ever do so in league history.
James’ emotional celebration that night in Oakland was the culmination of an unbelievable journey that began 13 years ago when he was a young, 18-year-old who had aspirations at becoming the best. Since then he has worked relentlessly at becoming not only the best player of his generation, but one of the best players of all time.
Pressure is something James has grown accustomed to during his 13-year career in the NBA. From day one he called himself ‘King James’ and chose to wear the iconic No. 23 jersey. The same number as Michael Jordan, who many believe to be the greatest basketball player in the history of the league.
Looking back on all the attention that surrounded James at such a young age, it would have been easy for him to another flash in the pan player that decided to make the jump from high school directly to the NBA. Instead James bucked that trend and worked tirelessly at his craft and dedicated his time and energy to become the MVP caliber player we all see today.
In James’ high school days, thousands of people would show up to watch him play, however he was always quick to try and deflect the spotlight off of himself and onto his other teammates. James did this because he knew that without his teammates he would not be the type of player he was.
James has always been criticized for what many call a ‘killer instinct’ because he would rather pass the ball to an open teammate then settle for a contested jump shot over two or three defenders.
This pass-first mindset to include his teammates started well before being selected No. 1 overall pick in 2003. It started when James was a young boy, playing AAU basketball with his friends. Although it was clear that James was by far the most talented player on the floor, he appeared to enjoy tallying assists more so than trying to score 40 points on a nightly basis.
Coming into the NBA straight out of high school, playing for a below average Cleveland Cavaliers team whose biggest success in the last decade was winning the draft lottery to win the rights to select James was no easy task for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old rookie.
Over the first few years of his professional basketball career, James enjoyed a lot of personal success but his team in Cleveland was average at best and was carried largely by James.
In just his fourth season in the league, a 22-year-old LeBron James overcame an 0-2 deficit and rallied his Cavalier team to four straight wins and an Eastern Conference championship. This stunning comeback was highlighted by a 48-point performance in Game 5 in which he scored 29 of the Cavs final 30 points. That night LeBron put the entire basketball world on notice, ‘King James’ had now officially arrived.
The Cleveland teams James was apart of always started out the season with high expectations but always came up short year after year and it appeared that James was growing tired of having to carry such a significant percent of the workload for a team with championship aspirations. James knew he needed the right set of teammates around him to win, he simply could not do it all on his own.
After another early exit in the 2010 playoffs, James walked off the floor in Boston with a blank stare and ripped off his Cavs jersey and dropped it to the side, little did Cleveland fans know this would be the final time James would be seen in a Cavaliers uniform.
James’ decision to depart from the Cavaliers came as a surprise at first but after the dust had settled it was clear that it was in James’ plans all along to leave Cleveland and join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
Suddenly James was no longer the beloved hometown hero; he was now the villain who spurred his hometown fans to chase championships. In retrospect was this the right move for James? Absolutely. He was a player that was getting criticized for failing to win the ultimate prize and with his move to Miami he put himself in the best possible scenario to win championships.
While it was obvious James enjoyed playing in Miami alongside two of his closest friends, there were always rumblings of a return to Cleveland that James would never put to rest. The closer it got to the end of James’ contract the more likely it appeared James would at least entertain a return to the place he spurned four years ago.
When it was announced on that Friday afternoon in July of 2014 that James would indeed return to the Cavaliers, it was as if time stood still and many were simply pinching themselves because a return home for James always appeared to be more of a fairytale then an actual scenario.
James could not ignore the tug that Ohio has always had on his heart, even when he was celebrating championships in South Beach he still said he felt like a small fish in a big pond as to where in Northeast Ohio he was the main attraction and center of attention.
Home always has a different meaning to everyone and for James, home is where he wanted to be, not only because he wanted his children to grow up in the same area he did but also to accomplish that dream of winning a championship as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The celebrations and championship parade planning were quickly put on hold after the Cavaliers started James’ first season back with a 19-20 record. From there all the talking heads began writing off James, saying he made the wrong choice to head back to such a young, inexperienced Cavaliers squad.
Key moves by the front office midseason seemed to be exactly what the Cavaliers needed as they went on to finish the season with a 34-9 record and had a good deal of momentum heading into the 2015 postseason. While James lead the Cavaliers through the playoffs with relative ease, his top two running mates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love struggled to stay healthy during their run to the NBA Finals.
Even though the Cavs went into the 2015 NBA Finals as significant underdogs to the 67-15 Golden State Warriors, James proved his greatness once again and averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists and carried the depleted Cavs roster to within two games of a title.
James’ greatness in this series could not save the Cavs from lack of depth against a strong Warriors unit and ultimately fell in six games to Golden State. James knew the road back to the Finals would not be easy but knew it was possible given all the work he and his teammates were going to put in during the offseason.
Heading into the 2015-16 season the Cavs motto and rallying cry was simple: Unfinished Business. However the Cavs would start the season shorthanded due to injuries, which meant James, would have to carry more of the load, something he was quite used to during his time in the NBA.
Although the Cavs got off to a solid start, James was critical of his teammates and they way they were playing even as they were winning. Nearly every time James spoke he mentioned how they need to keep getting better every day and not try to shortcut the process.
While James took heat for his leadership approaches from the national media, he stayed the course, knowing that the championship mindset would eventually set in with his teammates, who were mostly younger than James and not all accustomed to the bright spotlight that shined on the team on a constant basis.
During this ‘process’ as James called it, he showed real maturity and leadership throughout the season by not getting to high or too low and praised teammates but also was not afraid to jump on a teammate when they made a mistake or did something James did not like. This attitude James had was all apart of a process of changing the culture in Cleveland, something that was not an easy task for James.
On the court James earned more career accolades and enjoyed a lot of personal success but as for the team, they could not ever seem to it all going at the same times and while there were many good moments throughout the year, there were also games where the Cavs took a step back or made critical errors that championship teams do not typically make.
One of the major keys LeBron preached throughout the season was health and kept saying if the Cavs could get to the playoffs healthy then they would have as good of chance as anyone to win the title.
Just like in 2015, the Cavs advanced through the Eastern Conference playoffs with little resistance and seemed to be hitting their stride at the perfect time, just as James had envisioned several times throughout the season.
However, just like in 2015 the Cavs would have to go through the Warriors in the NBA Finals, who just came off of a record-breaking 73-9 regular season. This was the moment the basketball world and especially James had been waiting for, a chance to beat the Warriors with a healthy team alongside him.
In the first two games of the Finals Golden State was clearly the better team as they thoroughly outplayed the Cavs and it looked as if the Warriors would cruise to their second consecutive championship.
Even though the Cavs would go on to easily win Game 3 at home, they were unable to carry that momentum into Game 4 as Golden State would go on to take a decisive, seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead.
Once again James’ legacy was hanging in the balance and just like all the greats do, he would have to prove the doubters wrong yet again.
Heading into Game 5 the Warriors finally committed their first crucial error of the series. This mistake however, did not take place on the court.
It took place when a reporter asked Warriors guard Klay Thompson a question regarding the incident between James and Draymond Green at the end of Game 4. Thompson responded by saying “I guess his feelings just got hurt.”
After news of this quote reached LeBron, he did what he always did in a tough situation, he took the high road and simply laughed off the Thompson quote. However, this shot at LeBron would stick in his mind and serve as extra motivation as the series pushed on.
In the next two games of the Finals, James took his game to a different gear, a gear that many media members speculated that James could no longer reach due to his age. He seemed to have that pep in his step once again and unleashed his two best performances in recent memory on Golden State in Games 5 and 6.
Not only did James score 41 points in back-to-back games, he instilled confidence in his teammates and the fan base once again that he would in fact deliver on his promise to do whatever it took to bring a championship to Cleveland.
James had now set the stage for what was to be a career defining game for him. If he was successful at bringing his team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit he would cement his legacy as one of the greatest players ever. However, if he lost Game 7, his legacy would be forever tarnished and his Finals record would move to 2-5 all time.
With all the pressure in the world on the shoulders of James he made a career-defining play with just under two minutes left in the game when he sprinted down court and blocked Andre Iguodala’s layup attempt to keep the score tied.
James would then go on to sink what would be the game-clinching free throw in the final seconds and then watched the clock wind down to zero. Seeing Cleveland finally winning a championship was a surreal feeling for fans across the country supporting the Cavaliers but it was a feeling that James had always envisioned having.
On stage as James held both the championship trophy and Finals MVP trophy, ESPN reporter Doris Burke asked James why this title meant more to him than the first two he won in Miami. James answered with two resounding, yet simple words that everyone in Northeast Ohio could relate to, “I’m home.”
From day one that is what it has always been about for James, winning a championship for an area he had grown up in, struggled in and now thrives in both on and off the basketball court. They say home is where the heart is and for James, a now three time champion, his heart will always reside in Northeast Ohio.