OAKLAND, Calif. – There were puddles gathering in the plastic laid out on the floor, gallons of Moet & Chandon pooling at inch-deep depths in spots. There were cigars and they stank. There were beers coming by the bucket. Hugs. Laughs. Whispered reflections.
Families soaking their shoes and smelling up their clothes to get a picture with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Dads taking a break from the celebrations to find a banana or an apple for cranky little ones, up well past bedtime.
“I’m retiring. I’m done. All the way done,” he said. “I’m going out on top.”
And then: “Where did my cigar go,” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “I need a cigar.”
That’s what a championship looks like, Cleveland.
That’s what happens when some of the most talented athletes anywhere come together and fight and claw and strain and get lucky and stick together and somehow get it done.
It’s laughs and hugs and booze and bad smells. And tears too.
The individual most responsible for ending the city’s 52-year championship drought cried them in rivers right on the floor at Oracle Arena after being handed the trophy; after being named the most-obvious Finals MVP of all time, after playing some of the best basketball that’s ever been played.
LeBron James, son of Akron, who left amid controversy and returned in triumph, got it done.
“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,” said James. “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to when 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.”
It was for him too, though. James is just 31 and at the peak of his game. He’ll have a chance to win championships again, odds are, but he’ll never win one this special and it’s hard to imagine he’ll win one in such epic fashion.
He played two of the best games in Finals history and in Games 5 and 6 to make Game 7 possible – his twin 41-point masterpieces will be part of his Hall-of-Fame highlight reel – and then followed up with just the third triple-double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in a Game 7 in Finals history.
It was what was required as the Cleveland Cavaliers outlasted the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in a tight, taut, scrappy series finale in an ear-drum splitting Oracle Arena that was suddenly silenced. It seemed impossible that a Game 7 could match the hype that this one had – something akin to Foreman-Ali and the “Rumble in the Jungle,” it seemed – but it very much did, with 20 lead changes, 11 ties and neither team managing a lead bigger than eight points.
Getting the Cavaliers this championship – James’ third – will be the high point of his career, even if there’s still time for plenty of rings to follow. He’s now got three titles in seven trips to the finals, which sounds a lot better than two titles and five runner-ups, which is where he was headed when before he engineered the NBA’s first comeback from down 2-0 and down 3-1 in a Finals.
He’s now got an answer for every last doubter.
“Those emotions came out of me, just leading 14 guys and understanding, like I said, what our city’s been through over the last 50-plus years since Jim Brown [who led the Cleveland Browns to an NFL title in 1964],” said James, who averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists along with 2.5 blocks and 2.5 steals – an unprecedented line in that no player has ever led both teams in the Finals in all of those categories.
“Then also people just counting me out. 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.”
Not any more. Not that anyone close to him ever did.
“He’s the best player on the planet,” said Jefferson, who came to Cleveland to finish his career with the Cavs and LeBron and one last chance to get a ring. “He’s not even from this planet. He’s the best player on a few planets, to tell the truth. He’s special man.
“I was in my third year when he came in the league and I’m in my athletic prime and he’s more athletic than me at 18, 19 years old. And then you get around him and his intelligence his absurd, his will to win. I was never around Michael Jordan, but his will to win has to be very similar.”
James had help. He didn’t have enough of it a year ago as the Cavaliers were injured and broken and lost to the Warriors in six games.
The biggest shot of the series was hit by Kyrie Irving who hit the first field goal in nearly four minutes coming out of a timeout, hitting a triple over Stephen Curry with 53 seconds left. Of course, that shot was made additionally relevant by a spectacular chase-down block by James on Andre Iguodala on a 2-on-1 fast break with Curry that had preserved the tie. Then Irving stepped up.
“I’m just hoping it goes in,” Irving said. “…It was 89-89 for a good portion of the game, especially in that fourth quarter, so I was just thinking the next team that scores has a great chance at winning the championship, and I hope that we can be the team that’s on that end.”
They were, which of course means the Warriors weren’t. Their magical 73-9 season ended with a thud. They lost as many games at home in this series has they had all year and as many games in the playoffs (nine) and they did in the first 82.
They have a ring and records but not the bookend championships to buffer any of their accomplishments from any kind of potential nitpicking. It was already beginning in the series as Curry, who averaged 22 points a game against the Cavs — well off his season average of 30 – wasn’t even the best point guard in the Finals, let alone the best player.
After Irving hit his big three Curry obviously went hunting for his own three even though there was plenty of time and it was only a one-possession game. It was an uncharacteristic bout of hero ball and not how the Warriors do business.
Isolated on slow-footed Kevin Love, Curry wasted an entire shot clock trying to get a three off. When he finally did he missed. He finished with just 17 points on 19 shots and will be turning his last few possessions over in his mind for years to come.
“I didn’t play efficient,” said Curry. “I had some good moments, but didn’t do enough to help my team win, especially down the stretch. I was aggressive, but in the wrong ways settling [for threes].
“It will haunt me for a while because it means a lot to me to try to lead my team and do what I need to do on the court and big stages. Done it before. Didn’t do it tonight. It will be good down the stretch or next year coming back and kind of remembering this feeling and being an even better player.”
He said of the last possession: “I was searching for a three and rushed and didn’t take what was there, which was probably better to go around him and try to get into the paint. That’s basically it.”
He stayed on the floor, soaking in the scene watching Cleveland celebrate on his floor. The party carried on to the dressing room where the champagne was raining down in rivers and the cigar smoke rising.
The party just beginning back in Cleveland, although without it’s most honoured guest.
But he was there in spirit.
“I’m home, I’m home,” said James after the horn sounded, the title won, the storybook ending complete when asked how this title was different than his other two. “And this is what I came back for.”