As the Cavaliers paraded through the streets of Cleveland to celebrate their NBA title, LeBron James seemed at ease and actually looked to be enjoying the moment. For much of the year this was not the case, as LeBron was more serious and pragmatic than he was ever outwardly joyous.
In truth, it seemed as if something had changed for him after the Cavs won Game 7 in Oakland. He cried as the Cavs celebrated, poked fun at the Warriors by wearing an ‘Ultimate Warrior’ t-shirt as he got off the plane with the Larry O’Brien trophy in hand, he gushed about all of his teammates,he swore, and he smiled.
More often than not, at least when he’s presenting himself publicly, LeBron is serious and calculated. This past season - and really since he announced his return in Sports Illustrated - he has been focused on completing that often stated goal of winning a title for Northeast Ohio. The process of that focus - James taking some jaded shots at players in the media, searching for some kind of adversity, admittedly creating some drama and subtweeting teammates - wasn’t always pleasant from the outside looking in and it likely wasn’t always fun for his teammates or the organization.
Now, he’s completed that goal, perhaps the biggest accomplishment in his career. LeBron, in a sense, has been unhinged in some ways. When he retires some day, this season - and specifically that block on Andre Iguodala from Game 7 and his celebration afterward - will be the first clip on his highlight reel. The titles in Miami are a significant part of his legacy and yet this Cleveland wins transcends them. This title, at least in some ways, erases the debacle that was ‘The Decision’. He ended the title drought in Cleveland and fulfilled his promise.
LeBron’s triumph also happened at a time when he was doubted perhaps more than he ever had been. For the first time, at age 31, he started showing definitive signs of mortality as his jumper started to disappear. And as he slipped - or maybe just rested with the Finals in mind - Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and the Warriors rolled to 73 wins and seemed to be playing a style that LeBron and the Cavs weren’t equipped to handle. At the same time, Curry deservedly picked up his second MVP and LeBron seemed to be headed towards a new chapter of some kind, a reality where he and his team might not be good enough to win it all.
The playoffs, and most importantly the Finals, changed all of that over the course of seven games. How the Finals played out - with Curry hurt, with Green’s suspension as the Warriors were about to finish the Cavs, with Andrew Bogut’s injury - matter in a sense, but how LeBron led the Cavs to a win transcends all of it. The Cavs, down 3-1, rallied and won with LeBron coming up with ‘The Block’ and the free throw that put Cleveland up four with seconds to play. Others - Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson - were important in the Finals, but it was LeBron leading the way, dominating the game, and knocking off the golden team and its star. A title taken from a team at the top of the league on their home floor, all while overcoming a Finals deficit that no team had ever overcome.
Just look at how LeBron reacts as the final buzzer sounded. Right there, LeBron threw his arms up and looked into his moment, as Love rushed towards him, as the rest of the world watched.. As much as it was a moment for a city and a team, this was a moment for LeBron too.
In his Sports Illustrated essay, LeBron acknowledged how hard it was to win a title, writing the following:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.
And yet, from the night he returned, the city changed and started to expect it, that it would be easy. There were some mixed feelings about him, but none of that would matter if he could win it all. It took two years and a lot drama - again, some of it created on purpose in order to create some motivation - but it happened. And as it turns out, it wasn’t easy. It took the Cavs making trades, LeBron being Herculean at times (and in multiple ways), and a fair amount of luck for a title to happen.
It couldn’t have been easy for LeBron to decide to leave one of his best friends to come to an organization that besides drafting him in 2003 and drafting Irving and Tristan Thompson in 2011, hadn’t made many good moves in the past 20 years. It couldn’t have been easy to go from a Heat locker room where the entire team was close to one where reports regularly came out that the locker room chemistry was a mess. In truth, LeBron choosing Cleveland was LeBron choosing the unknown.
In the end, it took LeBron sprinting full court and Iguodala pump-faking one too many times for everything coming together for ‘The Block’. A block that set up Irving’s three-pointer and LeBron’s free throw and the days celebration that happened afterward.
For LeBron, this elevated him to another level that no other accomplishment - not an MVP, a gold medal, or a title in another city - could have. He has three titles - the last of which wiped away years of ill will and pessimism against him. A title that finally allows Cleveland to move past moments like ‘Red Right 88’, ‘The Shot’ and the 1997 World Series. LeBron proved he is still is a dominant figure in the game at age 31, after spending a season looking like he might have lost a step. As he moves forward, he and the Cavs will still contend for titles and they may win one or two more.
If that happens, downtown will again be filled with a million or so fans high on the Cavs winning another title. And if that happens, LeBron will only further cement his status as arguably the greatest figure in Cleveland sports history, his already secure status as a legend, and one of the best to ever play basketball, if not the best ever.
And yet, he’s just accomplished something he’ll never be able to top. There may be more great moments to come for LeBron and the Cavs, but it will never get better than this.