Last summer, LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers with a poignant essay in Sports Illustrated. Everyone from Ohio who I know was moved by it in some way. There were so many affecting lines that resonated with Cavs fans, and he spoke to all the emotions we dealt with during the years after he left for Miami.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
"But what's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously."
"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have."
But it's the next sentence, the second-to-last one in the essay, that seems the most relevant after the Cavs beat the Hawks on Tuesday night to advance to the NBA Finals: "I'm ready to accept the challenge."
Cleveland, as you may have heard, has not had a major professional sports team win a championship since 1964. (I like to specify that we're only lacking a major pro sports title, because Cleveland definitely dominated pro indoor soccer once upon a time.)
There were many challenges facing LeBron upon his return to his hometown team, but I've always believed that the challenge of history is the one he was referring to. The now-51-year title drought is the elephant that hangs over every home crowd in a playoff game. It's happened at the Q before; at the first sign things are going wrong, the energy is sucked out of the building. Here we go again.
Few athletes who play here seem interested in the tortured sports history of the city. They're not necessarily indifferent to it, but they know it doesn't really have any impact on the games they're playing at the moment.
Rather than ignore it, LeBron decided to accept it as his challenge. He did so once again after the game on Tuesday night when he said, "I think we all know how long it has been since a champion has been in this city. You can try to not focus on it, or try to say it's not about that. But we all know it." And with that, LeBron made it clear the role he wants to play: He wants to be the man who ends it.
Just as he did in his essay, he stopped well short of guaranteeing the Cavs will win the title. The task before this team -- beating the Warriors, who have been the best team in the NBA all season -- is enormous. Kevin Love is out and Kyrie Irving probably won't be 100 percent. Golden State is a heavy favorite.
It is fitting that the Finals would be so difficult. After all, a victory would overcome 51 years of disappointment. I don't know if LeBron will be able to do it, but if he does, it will be his greatest accomplishment.
It won't be given, it must be earned.