LeBron James rises above the hatred to become Cleveland’s new hero
The Cavaliers star has played a defining role in helping his team fight back from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals against Golden State Warriors
In 1964 the NFL champions Cleveland Browns did not need a parade to celebrate their big win. After all, they had been on a pretty good run. Over the previous 18 years they won eight titles, four in the NFL and four in the now-defunct All American Football Conference, while playing in 12 championship games.
Their peerless running back Jim Brown was the best player in football and all of 28 years old.
But a little more than one year later, Brown called the team from London where he was filming The Dirty Dozen to tell them that he was retiring from football.
It was the beginning of a tortuous championship drought for the city’s sports teams that reached 52 years coming into 2016 and left Cleveland, the lynchpin of the Rust Belt, a piñata of futility continually beat on by the rest of America.
Things could not be any more different in the San Francisco Bay Area. With its stunning urban vistas, haute cuisine and world-class wine country as well as a plethora of hi-tech tycoons, where else would you rather be?
Of course, their sports teams have also had a bounteous haul recently with the baseball Giants winning three World Series in the past six years and the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions fresh off the best regular season in league history, preparing to meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in this year’s finals.
It would be a mismatch, both on and off the court, despite the Cavaliers featuring the current day Goliath in LeBron James, one of the most physically gifted and imposing athletes in the annals of modern sport.
Form would hold early with the sweet-shooting Warriors racing out to a three games to one series lead and needing a single victory at home to clinch a second straight title.
Considering no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in NBA Finals history, this was basically a fait accompli.
The demonisation of LeBron began in earnest while the deification of Warriors superstar and reigning two time MVP Steph Curry was also under way.
James is easily the highest profile athlete in the US and he knows it. Despite his every word and action being scrutinised ad nauseam, he hardly shies away from the spotlight and six years ago he very publicly announced that he was leaving the Cavaliers for greener pastures in Miami.
While the move may have been understandable, the process, a one-hour prime time special called The Decision, was deeply regrettable.
Despite returning to the Cavs before last season with the stated objective of ending Cleveland’s half century plus title curse, the northeast Ohio native was still a polarising figure to many.
When the Cavs fired coach David Blatt in mid-season despite having the best record in the conference, LeBron’s fingerprints were seemingly all over it.
Now he was a manipulative coach killer again getting his comeuppance as far as the haters were concerned in the finals. But you know, as benign as incidental hubris may seem it is still hubris.
Lost in the hate was the fact that James, along with guard Kyrie Irving, basically willed a rag-tag team to the NBA Finals. The Warriors and their fans were feeling pretty smug and maybe rightly so.
And yet, what exactly was their team playing for? Another title for the entitled? LeBron was still on a mission of civic redemption and refused to cower as he and Irving brought the Cavs back to an improbable and decisive game seven.
Watch this short tribute to James Brown
To say it was an epic game would be a criminal understatement. Simply put, this game is why we watch sports.
From the opening tip to the final horn it was riveting. And really the only way to break a half-century old curse is to do something that has never been done before, like rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. The Cavs did all that and more with a stunning game seven win.
In the end LeBron would lead the finals series in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals. There are no other meaningful metrics left to measure a basketball player’s performance other than wins and James took care of that as well. Deny or begrudge his transcendence all you want.
But those statistics and that accomplishment is irrefutable and any other interpretation is merely hate for the sport of hating.
Of course, there was a huge parade this time and after 52 years it was more of a public catharsis than a sporting procession. Cleveland has a championship team again and because of that there seems to be a little more balance in the world today. And for many of us that’s a good thing, a damn good thing.