LeBron James’ imagination is what carried Cleveland to the promised land.
Even as a kid born to a 16-year-old single mother in the rough part of Akron, Ohio, he had an audacious vision.
He set off to win an NBA championship for Cleveland and his home region of northeast Ohio. Cleveland — the ‘‘Mistake by the Lake” and butt of jokes about blight, dreariness, shuttered steel mills and a lack of championships by any pro team since 1964. That title drought came to define Cleveland and the psyche of its residents, even though the stereotypes don’t fit the city today.
James’ will to fulfill his vision — manifested physically in his sprint-from-behind, soaring block of Andre Iguodala’s shot late in Game 7 — turned Cleveland into Believeland as the Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 93-89 with a storybook ending so unbelievable it seemed like the driveway daydream of a little boy.
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James turned the series on its head when the Cavs trailed 3-1. He scored 41, 41 and a triple double in Cleveland’s three-game spree — and two of them were in Oakland. In a magnificent finale, he did what the doubters said he couldn’t do. He controlled the game from both ends of the floor. He made his teammates better. A 6-8 all-position player as unselfish on the court as he is to his hometown.
He made history: No other team has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA title. No other player has led the NBA Finals in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
James, with help from Kyrie Irving and Co., beat the league’s hot, in-vogue team from the beautiful, prosperous Bay Area. The Warriors were like a nifty innovative app from Silicon Valley: Click and watch them swish three-pointers from anywhere they please. The Cavs beat the team that beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls for most regular-season wins, with 73. They beat the adorable new face of the new run-and-gun NBA, Steph Curry. Sure, Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5, the turning point. And Curry and Klay Thompson never quite found their exquisite rhythm, but the Cavs’ defense had something to do with that.
Take a deep breath and marvel at James’ accomplishment, even if you don’t particularly like him, which you should. Resentful Miami Heat fans seem to forget he devoted four glorious years to Miami and led the team to four Finals and two titles.
But what he did for Cleveland has a mythic quality. James is the Odysseus of sport. He left home, fought through trials and tribulations, triumphed, then made a difficult journey back home.
Deep down, aren’t we all yearning for home, or to make peace with home? James knew no one can escape their past. Or shake their memories. They draw you back.
He had a very nice gig in Miami but he chose Cleveland, where fans had burned his jersey and cursed his name and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert excoriated him for his “cowardly betrayal” when he made The Decision to take his talents to South Beach in 2010.
James forgave, Cleveland forgave. “Who am I to hold a grudge?” he asked.
The decision to come home was a noble one.
Miami — a transient place, a place that people flee to, immigrate to, retire to and stash their money in — lacks the birthplace loyalty of a Midwestern city like Cleveland, where family roots go deep and natives stay and invest their souls. James realized he could make a bigger difference in Cleveland.
Scott Raab, author of The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James, watched Game 7 with his son on Father’s Day at a bar in Cleveland. He’s producing an ESPN film called Believeland. Raab, 63, said he was hopeful before the game but he’s had his hopes crushed many times since 1964 — like in 1997, when the Indians blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning of the World Series’ Game 7 against the Florida Marlins.
“I wrote that book out of love and hate, and to purge 50 years of Cleveland’s misery and personal misery,” Raab said on The Poscast with fellow Cleveland native Joe Posnanski. “Then LeBron comes back and the whole thing is almost Biblical. It’s like he said, ‘I’m Moses, I’m on a mission to lead my people.’ He called his shot, which is beyond belief.
“The misery is gone. We can all cry now. It’s so delicious, so sweet. I’m no civic champion but I do think it changes Cleveland’s self-image and the image in non-Clevelanders eyes.”
Straight out of high school so much was expected of James. He was on magazine covers as a teenager, signing Nike contracts, projected in gigantic images on the sides of buildings, “The Chosen One,” “King James” — how does a poor kid from Akron live up to that and lift up an entire city?
As James wept onto his golden trophies Sunday night, you had to admire the man inside the uniform. As he waves to fans during Cleveland’s parade on Wednesday morning, they’ll return the love. It’s really a remarkable tale. There’s no place like home.