OAKLAND, Calif. — When it was over, when he had finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to bring a title to his homeland, LeBron James — the same man who shattered the hearts of Cavaliers fans six years ago with his decision to leave — kneeled on the Oracle Arena floor and openly wept.
In the most improbable fashion possible, James handed Cleveland its long-awaited sports championship. He placed his team on his burly back and carried it to three consecutive victories.
James added perhaps the biggest affirmation of his greatness Sunday. The Cavaliers turned the city of Cleveland into a party town with a 93-89 win, as James hit the clinching free throw after banging his right wrist.
Those memories of Earnest Byner fumbling at the goal line, Jose Mesa blowing the save, and John Elway driving the Broncos 98 yards — memories that James grew up with — are now replaced by the Cleveland Cavaliers becoming the first team to ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
It happened because of perhaps the most scrutinized athlete of his generation, one was sworn off by his hometown after his rather reckless and egotistical announcement that he was leaving in 2010 to sign with the Miami Heat.
Two years ago, James, after winning two titles with Miami, decided to return. He was forgiven by the Cleveland faithful, including Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert — the same man who wrote a scathing public letter after his departure. James took the Cavaliers to the Finals last season, only to lose to the Warriors in six games.
Forty-one games into this season, general manager David Griffin fired coach David Blatt, handing the job to 38-year-old former Celtics assistant Tyronn Lue.
To say the road to prosperity was rocky is a gross understatement. The Cavaliers were hardly sound until the final month of the season and then looked completely fried after losing Game 4 of the Finals at home.
James put together consecutive 41-point games to help Cleveland tie the series. In the waning minutes of Game 7, with the Warriors looking to take a precious 2-point lead, Andre Iguodala streaked for a layup. The 31-year-old James, with his rare combination of speed and power, caught up to Iguodala and swatted the ball off the backboard for another of his chase-down blocks.
It helped spark a 10-2 game-ending run. Kyrie Irving helped his teammate with a critical 3-pointer with 53 seconds left to give the Cavaliers the lead for good, and spark a night of celebration in Cleveland.
“Just knowing what our city has been through, northeast Ohio has been through, as far as our sports and everything for the last 50-plus years,” James said. “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, Elway going 98 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to the Cavs went to the Finals — I was on that team — in 2007, us getting swept, and then last year us losing, 4-2. And so many more stories.
“And our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs, and so on, and all other sports teams. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.”
The Cavaliers were vying for Cleveland’s first major pro sports championship in 52 years and Oracle Arena contained a throng of Cavaliers fans, some who made the trip from Cleveland and paid exorbitant prices for Game 7 tickets.
What those fans saw in the first half was a Cavaliers team that didn’t play with quite the intensity of execution of the past two games. Cleveland shot 38.1 percent in the first half and committed eight turnovers.
James, with his legacy on the line, scored 12 points in the first 24 minutes on 5-for-11 shooting with four turnovers. In one of the biggest games of his career, James was passive at times, refraining from attempting to carry his teammates offensively.
What aided Cleveland greatly was the production of Kevin Love, who pulled down seven first-half rebounds in what may be his final game as a Cavalier. It’s been pretty apparent that the rugged big man doesn’t fit in the Cleveland offense, and management may try to find him a new home.
Love has three years — plus a player option for a fourth — left on his contract and may be a reasonable acquisition for the Celtics.
He finished with 9 points and 14 rebounds as the Cavaliers dominated the paint, and James made the winning plays to complete this improbable run and cement himself as one of the all-time greats.
“Right now it’s just excitement. It’s not even relief,” James said. “It’s just excitement for us as a team, as a franchise, as a city, as a community. To be able to continue to build up our city, to continue to be an inspiration to our city, it means everything. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Six years ago, James was despised in his hometown, booed vigorously each time he returned as a member of the Heat. He was perceived as to have betrayed a win-starved city, refusing to weather the rebuilding storm after Cleveland was eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Celtics in 2010.
He played four years for the Heat and despite the widespread success, never looked quite right in that uniform. When he became a free agent again, James and his agent Rich Paul decided on a trip to Las Vegas to accept Cleveland’s maximum contract offer to return.
Gleaming with his kids draped around him, James expressed the desire to get back to Cleveland and embrace the raucous reception awaiting him.
“Throughout my 13-year career, I’ve done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I’ve got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I’m capable of doing,” said James. “So that was a little icing on the cake for myself to just let me know that everything I’ve done, it results in this. They say hard work pays off, and that’s what happened tonight.”