Last night, sports fans around the world witnessed history. The thrilling, down-to-the wire Game 7 bout between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors ended with the Cavaliers winning their first-ever championship, 93-89, the first championship for a Cleveland professional sports team in 52 years. But the quest for a Cleveland championship goes beyond this one game, this one series, or this one season. Last night, the greatest narrative in all of sports reached its conclusion, authored by the best player of his generation, LeBron James.
On May 22, 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers, a moribund franchise without an identity or franchise player, saw their fortunes turn around when they won the NBA draft lottery. One month later, the Cavs selected a high schooler from nearby Akron named LeBron James, the greatest prospect to ever come out of high school. LeBron lived up to the hype, winning Rookie of the Year in his inaugural season and receiving All Star honors in every season after that. As LeBron rose to superstardom, the Cavaliers rose to relevance, reaching the playoffs as the second seed in 2006-07. Three rounds later, Cleveland was in their first NBA Finals but were swept by the more experienced San Antonio Spurs.
While LeBron was recognized as the best player in basketball, he didn’t have enough talent around him to build a championship team. In the next couple seasons, the Cavaliers fell short of the championship round, losing to the talent-laden Boston Celtics and up-and-coming Orlando Magic. Then, in 2010, The King made the most controversial decision in NBA history and left Cleveland to go to the Miami, forming a super team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Cleveland fans burned James’ jersey and called him a traitor and the Cavaliers fell back to the bottom of the NBA.
With Miami, James reached the Finals four times in four years and won the first two championships in his career. But as the Heat started to burn out and LeBron reached free agency, Miami’s championship window seemed to be closing. In the summer of 2014, LeBron announced in an essay that he was coming back home to Ohio. He promised that Cleveland, which hadn’t won a championship in any sport in half a century, would win a championship.
In the first couple months, the Cavs switched from cellar dweller to the best team in the Eastern Conference. One of the first overall draft picks that the non-LeBron era yielded was All Star point guard Kyrie Irving, and two other top picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, were sent to Minnesota for double-double machine Kevin Love. Suddenly, Cleveland had a Big Three and were in championship contention.
As with Miami, the Cavaliers didn’t dominate early. LeBron dealt with injury and the Big Three were rarely on the same page. The Cavs found their stride in the second half of the season and cruised through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Suddenly, LeBron and the Cavaliers were back in the Finals.
LeBron’s Cavaliers ran into a much better team in the Golden State Warriors. The deeper, pure shooting Warriors held back Cleveland and injuries knocked out Irving and Love. LeBron and his supporting cast battled valiantly, but Golden State downed the Cavs in six games. Not only did the Warriors become the kings of the hill, but MVP Stephen Curry captured the title of best basketball player in the world.
Going into the 2015-16 season, LeBron James wanted something more than anything else in the world- to bring a title to Cleveland. The Cavaliers improved, with James, Irving, and Love finally gelling, but James still saw flaws in the team. Influenced by LeBron, the front office ousted head coach David Blatt for assistant and LeBron confidant Tyronn Lue. The move worked, and the Cavaliers rose to the top of the Eastern Conference. In the first round, the top-seeded Cavaliers broke the record for three-pointers in a playoff game and swept the Pistons and Hawks. LeBron reached his sixth straight NBA Finals and seventh overall. But their accomplishments were overshadowed by the Warriors, who won an NBA-record 73 games in the regular season and overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. For the second straight year, Golden State stood in the way of LeBron and a title.
Early on, the series lopsided in favor of Golden State. The Warriors took the first two games of the series and won another in Cleveland, putting the Cavaliers on the brink of elimination. No NBA team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, so most counted the Cavaliers out. And with Game 5 in Oakland, California, Steph and the Warriors were expected to put the Cavaliers’ dreams to rest and win their second straight championship.
Instead, LeBron and Kyrie Irving each scored 41 points, the first time in NBA history two teammates scored 40+ points in a playoff game. The shocking upset was followed by another strong James performance (41 points) and Cleveland blowout victory in Game 6. The series was knotted at three games a piece, with a winner-take-all Game 7 deciding the NBA champion.
Even having won the last two games, LeBron and the Cavaliers were the underdogs. Road teams in Game 7 of the NBA Finals were 3-15, and the Cavs were going into the toughest place to win as a road team in the NBA in Golden State’s Oracle Arena. The Warriors had won more games than any team in NBA history and could down opponents with a flurry of three-pointers at any moment. Most of all, Cleveland seemed to be cursed with painful sports memories, from Browns’ fumble in the AFC Championship in the 80s to the Indians’ collapse in the 1997 World Series.
After six blowout games, the Warriors and Cavaliers battled back and forth in Game 7. Golden State big man Draymond Green started out the game on fire, knocking down three-pointer after three-pointer and dropping 22 points in the first half. Cleveland stayed close, but the Warriors’ stellar three-point shooting gave them a seven-point advantage at halftime.
The Cavaliers came out of the break firing on all cylinders and took the lead, but the Warriors didn’t let up and held a slim advantage heading into the final frame. Twelve minutes separated Cleveland from long-awaited glory. How would Cleveland botch a perfect opportunity this time?
Tied at 89 with just under two minutes remaining, LeBron James, who’d already racked up a triple-double, delivered a massive block on Andre Iguodala to deny the Warriors of the lead. LeBron missed the ensuing jumper, but Kyrie Irving hit a go-ahead three-pointer over Curry with under a minute remaining, the best shot of his life. Kevin Love stifled Curry and the two-time MVP launched up a off-target three-pointer. With the Cavs back on offense, James was fouled and made the second of two free throw attempts, the dagger. Curry had one last shot, but his attempt was off the mark and the Cavaliers stormed the court.
The postgame scene was beyond extraordinary. Tears welled up in the faces of LeBron and the Cavaliers as they reveled in their victory. Thousands of miles away, Cleveland fans rejoiced as their 52-year drought snapped. And for one king, it was mission accomplished, the crowning moment of a long, painful, and memorable journey.