The problem with the upcoming NBA Finals? There is no villain in the buildings. This is a best-of-seven series where everyone wears a white hat.
The Golden State Warriors of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, Steve Kerr, Bob Myers and Jerry West are the Cezanne of the hardwood, basketball artists who paint colorful images while brushing away one opponent after another. Even their majority owner, Joe Lacob, took his early booing like a big boy and struck back with a subtle, shrewd vengeance – assembling a mighty and gifted team that silenced even his most outspoken critics.
And the Cleveland Cavaliers? A year ago the basketball world snickered and sneered and celebrated the San Antonio Spurs’ carving up of the Miami Heat, the franchise LeBron James joined in 2010 after divorcing his hometown team during the most excruciating and ill-conceived broadcast – the hourlong “Decision” debacle – in the history of sports TV.
But four years later, he executed the crossover of all crossovers. He grabbed his ball, his two championship rings and returned to Cleveland, where he once again is the most beloved sports figure in the state.
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“After a while, people weren’t mad that LeBron left for Miami,” said former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Tim Rogers, who covered James’ prep career at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. “They were mad at ‘how’ he left. But that dissipated over time. And let’s face it, it’s been well-chronicled that Cleveland is really starved for a winner.”
Nothern Californians are rooting for the Warriors, of course, but here are five reasons to consider sliding into Cleveland’s corner, all pertaining to James’ luminous presence.
Loyalty and local roots – The Cavaliers had seven years to give James a talented supporting cast – to add even one complementary All-Star – before Pat Riley lured him to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Few superstars (OK, maybe Kobe Bryant) want to go it alone. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Tim Duncan had David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. The 2006-07 Cavaliers reached the Finals with James and a feisty collection of role players, with Larry Hughes the second-leading scorer and the oft-hobbled Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao collecting the rebounds. And the result? They were swept by the Spurs. For LeBron, it was time to scratch the seven-year itch.
Misery and mistakes by the lake – When it comes to sports suffering the past 50 or so years, Cleveland has few peers. Since capturing the 1964 NFL championship, the Browns have lost three AFC title games, all to the Denver Broncos. The Indians fell to the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 World Series, and though favored two years later against the Florida Marlins, they fumbled away yet another series. Then there was the NBA kick to the gut – Michael Jordan’s last-second game winner over the outstretched arms of leaping Craig Ehlo in the 1989 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
An exorcism awaits and celebration is overdue – Unlike the marginally talented Cavaliers who reached the championship series eight years ago, Lenny Wilkens’ 1988-89 squad was deep, talented, experienced, eminently capable and deserving of title contention. His roster included All-Stars Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty and major contributors Ron Harper, Mike Sanders, John “Hot Rod” Williams, Tree Rollins and Ehlo. “That was our year,” Ehlo recalled from his home in Spokane, Wash. “I actually lived in Akron, and I would see a young LeBron in the gym, working out. He rushed over to me one time and said, ‘Craig Ehlo. It’s so good to meet you. I loved your teams.’ He knew our history and said that our team influenced the way he played. I still think about that. So who am I rooting for? The Cavs. I’m getting tickets and taking my son to a game in Cleveland. If we win, I won’t get a ring. But when that banner is hung from the rafters, I’d feel a part of it. The hard times would be exorcised. It’s not just for Cleveland. It’s for all of us.”
Shrewd moves and overcoming injuries – Perhaps even more so than in 2007, when everyone outside Ohio could have predicted a sweep, these Cavs faithful are true believers. Though the Warriors are favored, the mood around Quicken Loans Arena is upbeat, excited, expectant. Though Kevin Love is recovering from shoulder surgery, general manager David Griffin’s response to early-season struggles was not to fire rookie coach David Blatt but to upgrade his roster with J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert. Love’s absence also accelerated the development of power forward Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving’s recent injury allowed Matthew Dellavedova to gain valuable experience and, despite the much-publicized timeout gaffe, Blatt is demonstrating why he is highly regarded within international coaching circles. “This time, there are a lot of people – myself included – who think the Cavs can win this thing,” Rogers said. “The team is playing really well together, and unlike most Cavs teams in the past, this is a very physical team. I’m telling you; it’s crazy back here.”
No place like home – James isn’t walking around with a chip on his shoulder; it’s more like the weight of a community, a state, perhaps even most of the Midwest astride his back. And who does this? Goes home for this? Knows his sports history, recognizes the enormity of the task, accepts that losing another championship would break hearts and make grown men and women weep again, yet openly and often recites his mission statement? He left home. He moved back. No matter where you live, how much you enjoy the Warriors, it would be hard to root against James and his climb up Mount Rushmore.
Best-of-seven series will be televised on Ch. 10
- Thursday: at Golden State, 6p.m.
- Sunday, June 7: at Golden State, 5p.m.
- Tuesday, June 9: at Cleveland, 6p.m.
- Thursday, June 11: at Cleveland, 6p.m.
- Sunday, June 14: at Golden State, 5p.m.*
- Tuesday, June 16: at Cleveland, 6p.m.*
- Friday, June 19: at Golden State, 6p.m.*