LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers visit the Golden 1 Center on Friday for the first time, and the mere thought of that gives me pause – and goose bumps.
The Cavs are the world champs. The Cavs are the world champs. The Cavs are the world champs.
How good does it feel to write that mere days after the calendar slams the door on a miserable 2016? In the year that we lost Prince, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, John Glenn, among others, that the presidential election transitioned into a messy, mean-spirited cartoon, and that terrorists struck with a ferocity around the globe, the NBA’s greatest player provided a Great Escape.
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James reminded us why we love this game, why we care about sports. The Akron, Ohio native fulfilled his promise to his hometown. He moved away, came back, and crafted a story of hope, anguish, redemption, reconciliation and the ultimate triumph. He brought home the trophy. His is the most compelling NBA story of the past few decades, eclipsing fierce competition and significant contributions of many of his peers. The majesty of the original Dream Team. The soaring acts and dominance of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. The power of Shaquille O’Neal and grace of Hakeem Olajuwon. The pick-and-roll wonder of John Stockton and Karl Malone. The brilliance of Tim Duncan and Larry Bird. The enduring excellence of the San Antonio Spurs. The revival of the Golden State Warriors.
And, perhaps most notably, the irrepressible Magic Johnson, who in his darkest moments, who in 1991 was diagnosed with the life-threatening AIDS virus, was uplifted by the unwavering support of Jerry West, Pat Riley and former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who embarked on a relentless educational blitz about the disease.
Who but LeBron could pull this off?
After seven years years playing for the home team, with no Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale or Dwyane Wade as a sidekick, he became frustrated and took his talents to South Beach. The salt-in-wounds Decision devastated the Cavs and their fans. One of my Cleveland-born friends swore she would never watch another NBA game. But two Miami Heat titles later, James again shocked the world and returned to Cleveland, reclaiming his once alienated fan base (my friend included) and then throwing down the dunk: He vowed to carry the Cavs to their first championship.
So what if it took two seasons? With new general manager David Griffin determined to improve his supporting cast, Kevin Love signed on. Kyrie Irving became healthy. J.R. Smith behaved and made shots. Tristan Thompson anchored the interior. Midway into the 2015-16 season, Griffin replaced coach David Blatt with assistant Tyronn Lue (a West disciple, by the way), and the rest was, well, magical.
Trailing the Warriors 3-1 in The Finals, the Cavs stormed back, capitalizing on Draymond Green’s suspension and Steph Curry’s nagging injuries, and in front of a raucous Oracle Arena court, made three plays Cavs fans will forever cherish.
James chased down Andre Iguodala and blocked his shot. Irving converted a 3-pointer. Love, forced onto the quicker Curry on the perimeter, matched the MVP step for step, obstructing a clear look at the basket.
Within seconds, Oracle morphed into a morgue, the Cavs celebration began, and the jokes and snarky references about Cleveland no longer seemed so funny. The mistake by the lake, the burning Cuyahoga River, the Cadavaliers, the painful image of Jordan’s game-winner over a leaping Craig Ehlo, all were replaced by one word: champions.
“Most people don’t understand how proud you are unless you’re from Cleveland,” said Kings center and Akron native Kosta Koufos. “You’re talking about a city that has been through hard times and hasn’t won a championship. And people take their sports seriously. It’s a whole different level. I’m a Sacramento King and I have to be a little neutral. But I remember going to Gund Arena as a kid, sitting in the nosebleed seats. It was the best thing in the world. And you know what’s amazing? The whole mood back home has changed. It’s become about so much more than basketball.”
According to a study by the Convention Sports & Leisure the playoff games at Quicken Loan Arena generated an estimated $40 million for the city. Emotionally, the Cavs broke the bank.
In a telephone survey conducted after the Finals by FTI Consulting, almost 70 percent of respondents said local morale was moderately high or very high. An estimated 75 percent would recommend living in northern Ohio to their friends. And the main reason cited for the region’s improved image?
The Cavs. Of course.
The best story in recent sports history ended a mere 92 miles west of Sacramento, though looking back, one wonders which is more improbable? The Kings finding new owners and finally securing an arena deal or LeBron going home and carrying the Cavs – no, carrying an entire region – to the NBA’s promised land? Local leanings aside, let’s stick with LeBron. The legend’s next tasks include getting open looks for Kyle Korver, continuing to press the front office to acquire a backup point guard, and then securing that rematch with those Warriors and their newcomer Kevin Durant.
Meantime, LeBron, thanks for providing some fun in 2016.