LeBron James dunk game 3 ()LeBron James dunk game 3 () © Copyright

Bron legacy

This summer, LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first ever NBA title. We were there to witness the greatest comeback in basketball history. 

Game two

LeBron James has a habit of making the basketball media wait. Thirteen seasons into his NBA career, James’ post-game warmdown and icing treatment can take upwards of an hour. Reporters cram into the press room armed with coffee and snacks, prepared to wait well beyond midnight. Tonight is different.

James enters the small room 25 minutes after the buzzer. He brushes past, smelling of aftershave, but must barely have had time to shower. Wearing a blue suit and sunglasses, he makes his way to the table at the front of the room.

James sits at the table and begins scanning the final scorecard from the evening’s game. The grid, which lays out each player’s tangible statistics, makes difficult reading. His team has just been annihilated. For the second time in five days, they’ve been massacred by the smart, slick, new-era basketball of Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. It finished 110-77 and it could have been more, had the Warriors not removed their starting five for the final quarter. GSW lead 2-0 in the first-to-four NBA finals. LeBron and his Cavaliers are staring uphill, his mind motoring.

LeBron James Steph Curry Game 2 2016 ()

 

THE CHOSEN ONE

Expectations have always been high for LeBron James. As a teenage phenomenon in Akron, Ohio, he was photographed for the cover of Sports Illustrated in his school kit with the headline ‘The Chosen One’, and he signed a $90million deal with Nike during his senior year. James skipped college basketball and declared for the 2003 NBA Draft aged 17. His local team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, selected him with the first draft pick. The mediocre team from a bankrupt Midwestern city was revitalised by the arrival of a young messianic athlete, born 50 miles south on the freeway: a story too good to be true.

Despite James’ best efforts, The Cavs simply weren’t good enough to win a championship. Seven years later, in 2010, James jumped ship to Miami Heat, where he won consecutive championships and grew into a global star – but the nature of his departure from Cleveland picked away at him. In 2014, at the peak of his powers, he addressed an open letter to the people of Cleveland, promising to deliver the city its first major sporting title in 50 years. 

Now aged 31, LeBron is a better player than during his first stint with the Cavs. Lethal attacker, clairvoyant passer, defensive bedrock, inspiring leader, with a MENSA-level basketball IQ; he’s the most gifted all-round talent of his generation, but his return to Cleveland coincided with the emergence of the Golden State Warriors, last year’s NBA Champions who entered this year’s playoffs after the best regular season of all time. They won 73 of their 82 regular season games, eclipsing Michael Jordan’s all-star Chicago Bulls team of 1996.

Their whiplash-speed, team-orientated game, and their star player Steph Curry’s unprecedented three-point shooting, have triggered much discussion over whether they are the best basketball team of all time. In Game Two, LeBron managed a decent haul of 19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, but the Warriors simply pounced on his errors. All season, talk has focused on Curry’s brilliance. This NBA Finals was supposed to be about watching King James cede his throne to this new generation. Trying to beat the Warriors alone – as in 2015 – is doomed to failure. James looks outdated, an anachronism.

What is LeBron James all about? He’s carried the torch forward from the Jordan-era, but what has he done for the game? Some players win multiple championships, the great ones change the way the game’s played, but LeBron’s issue is his inimitability – his USP is his sheer otherworldliness. It’s the problem with being so bloody talented. Winning titles isn’t enough. The Cleveland project – bringing a title to his home team – is LeBron’s unprecedented attempt to leave an indelible mark on the sport.

At the front of the room, his eyes pan left to right still registering the statistics. His head shakes and the microphone picks up a sigh. The first journalist raises his arm; the post-mortem begins.

Where did it go so wrong? Why did LeBron have the ball turned over seven times? Why did his team overlook the task of shutting down Draymond Green? How do they come back from here? What is the status of Kevin Love, the highly-paid, underperforming Cavs forward who picked up a concussion mid game? Wasn’t he recruited by LeBron directly to help deliver Cleveland the title? What about the letter? What about the promise?

James addresses each question, conceding that he perhaps needs to be more selfish and take over games. He offers the short-term promise that the Cavs – who basically gave up mid-game – will be fired up for Game Three.

Game three

Northeast Ohio is an unlikely setting for a fairytale. Cleveland sits on the southern shore of Lake Erie, once among America’s richest cities. Cleveland was a manufacturing powerhouse before widespread decline of heavy industry caused financial turmoil, residents left the city in droves and it quickly became the butt of America’s jokes. “The mistake on the lake” being one.

I take the cross-country flight and arrive in Cleveland with a day to spare before Game Three. I meet some Cavs fans, who make me some Mexican food. Sport has been tough on Cleveland. Even though American sport – with salary caps and a draft system – is designed to spread out success, Cleveland hasn’t won a title in any major sport since the Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship in the pre-Superbowl era. It’s the longest losing streak in American sporting history. Over tacos, the locals talk of a curse.

The Cavs fans break down their team’s tactics, criticise who’s getting the shots and minutes. Towards the end of the meal, a couple of beers in, their despair deepens further. “This is the most Cleveland thing ever to happen. We fail, so it’d be fitting if LeBron’s legacy was to come back here, to do all this, get this close and still lose.”

They’ve pretty much given up.

Cleveland ()

 

DEFEND THE LAND

Approaching downtown Cleveland is like driving across a building site. The Cavs play at the Quicken Loans Arena, which sits opposite a giant pit with cranes rising out of it. Just along the road, there is a huge poster of LeBron, back to camera, arms aloft to the Cleveland crowd. The poster is about 10 storeys high.

Throughout the day, anticipation builds, more and more people arrive on the streets wearing the famous LeBron 23 jersey, and the battle cry of defend the land is spray-painted onto the city’s streets. In the arena, the players speak defiantly about defending home court, embarrassed by the drubbings they received in California. They promise that tonight’s game will be a different story.

NBA is a hybrid of high-level sport, show-time entertainment, bombastic melodrama and red-blooded Americana.

During the closing lines of The Star-Spangled Banner, LeBron rips off his warm-up jacket, throws it on the floor, flexes his muscles and roars “LET’S GO!” His primal scream fills the arena, sending 18,000 Clevelanders into overdrive. Theatre. It’s time for the Cavs to step up.

The game tips off, and Cleveland roar out of the blocks, racing into a 9-0 lead. The Cavs are pumped, and The Warriors don’t look ready for this kind of start. There’s barely a moment to draw breath in a first quarter that finishes 33-16. Kyrie Irving leads the scoring with 16, and LeBron adds four baskets from four shots. At the other end, Curry and Thompson finish the quarter with zero points. 

The camera cuts to Jim Brown, 80, the Cleveland Browns’ former full back, who won the city its last title in 1964. He is perhaps the greatest American footballer of all time. Upon seeing himself on the jumbo-tron, Brown raises a solitary forefinger in acknowledgement. The whole place goes B.A.N.A.N.A.S again: Cleveland rocks with civic pride.

The game’s highlight comes in the third quarter. James falls to the floor while snatching the ball from Curry, but somehow carries on dribbling, clambers to his feet, and tosses the ball to Kyrie Irving to set up a 2-on-1. Irving attacks the basket and tosses the ball into the sky for James, but it looks like an overthrow. James hangs up, arm levered back like an oil well pump, and somehow finds the ball behind his head and jackhammers the alley-oop dunk home. That phenomenal feat of athleticism makes the crowd go even wilder. It finishes 120-90, the Cavs have arrived at the party, and finally, we have a Finals series on our hands. 

I go for a drink at a bar after the game. Klay Thompson walks along the street; Festus Ezeli, the Warriors’ 6ft 11in, Nigerian-born center emerges from a bar. What’s going on? Why are the Golden State Warriors having a drinks reception? The players aren’t drinking, but I’m beginning to learn that a Finals series is all about momentum. If you go back to your hotel room in a foreign city after a hammering and just stew on it, you’re likely to enter a vicious cycle. If you want to win a seven-game series, you’ll need to ride out some low points.

I get into the bar which is closed off to non-Warriors and start to order a drink when the bouncer correctly identifies that I’m not a basketball player. I’m swiftly and peacefully ejected from the small venue.

The following morning at practice, I sit in the front row as LeBron James and JR Smith work through their shooting routine (sidenote: this is the trillest thing that's ever happened to me). Shooting when the body is fresh is a pretty straightforward task for most pro basketball players, but the fatigue of back-to-back games plays havoc with their bodies. Think of it like football – if you were tasked with making a football land exactly on the halfway line, the amount of effort it takes to pull off that skill varies greatly depending on whether you are fresh or you played last night. The practices and the shooting drills are used to find a biting point, another attempt to maintain rhythm through times of fatigue.

The buzzer sounds to signal the end of practice. “Lunchtime!” yells James, impersonating a 12-year-old school kid, the players around him burst into fits of laughter. LeBron has been here before – this is his sixth consecutive NBA Finals – and he knows that as well as planning and preparing and shooting and defending, morale matters as well.

The Cleveland press clamours around the players, who all speak with renewed buoyancy on last night’s game. Kyrie reflects about his electrifying performance, Richard Jefferson talks about the benefits of having played in an NBA Finals with New Jersey over a decade ago, center Tristan Thompson talks about cherishing doing the dirty work, ripping down rebounds and giving the ball to the team’s stars. The Cavs, the dysfunctional LeBron-dominated outfit, are starting to look like a team.

Game four

The Cavs cannot maintain the intensity they showed in Game Three. The Warriors offer a timely reminder why they’re considered the best team ever. Oozing professionalism, they steady the ship. Klay Thompson shoots well; Andre Iguodala defends LeBron James; Draymond Green does the gritty business, which includes punching LeBron in the balls (for which he receives a one game suspension); Curry plays better, too. Suddenly, they look like the team in perfect equilibrium.

Game four Cavs ()

 

The final score is 97-110, and the Warriors have won in an away arena, like a break point in tennis. Green tears down the tunnel hugging his crew of mates, who’ve come over from his home state, neighbouring Michigan. They’re just one victory away from claiming the title. The next game is in Oakland; the Warriors are going back to Cali with the chance to clinch the Championship in front of their home crowd.

Post-game, both locker rooms serve like decompression chambers, helping the players to reacclimatise after the high of the game. The Warriors are in touching distance of the title, but nothing’s been won yet. Players graze the buffet, sit up to their knees in ice buckets, reflect together on moments in the game and are occasionally summoned by a man with a clipboard for various media commitments.

I finally get out of the arena about 1am, and people are fighting in the streets. Curry fans are arguing with James fans about who’s better, so I book an Uber. It arrives and a man starts shouting at me for getting into the car ahead of him. I try to remind him how Uber works, but people have forgotten how to function. It’s match point and the Warriors just have to hold serve. Maybe James will leave in the summer, maybe that’s the last time they’ll ever see him in Cavs wine and gold. #Believeland, the promise – it’s all turned to shit. The dream is dead, the city must be cursed.

Game five

Only two teams in NBA history have ever clawed it back to 3-3 from 3-1 down in the Finals. Both times, they lost the series in the seventh game. No team in history has overturned a 3-1 deficit. There is the sense that even if the Cavs can stave off immediate execution, there is simply too much to do against the best team ever.

LeBron James Game 5 ()

 

The Cavs come out fighting. Kyrie Irving weaves and buzzes and drives to the basket, LeBron James dominates both ends of the court. Shutting down opponents and looking offensively uncontainable, both finish the game with 41 points – an enormous, record-breaking haul for teammates in the Finals. Cavs win Game Five 112-97.

Discussion turns to whether LeBron should be awarded Finals MVP despite the fact he’s going to end up on the losing side. Because the Warriors are going to win, everyone’s decided; they’ve had a 73-9 season, and they need one win from the remaining two matches. The seven-game series ensures the best team wins. They still have two match points. The first is away, but surely there will be no mistake by the lake?

Game six

The Warriors get Draymond Green back from suspension, the blue-collared heartbeat of the team who brings intensity and tempo to their lineup. NBA Finals are a bit like a strategy game. Tactics which led to success in one game need to be tweaked. But back in Cleveland, the Cavs roar out with reckless energy. LeBron scores 41 again.

Steph Curry Gumshield ()

 

The Warriors’ 7ft center Andrew Bogut was injured in Game Five and is out for the remainder of the series. The lack of a giant player blocking under the basket exposes one of the Warriors’ weaknesses. Earlier in the series, LeBron had to drive to the basket and pull up, to shoot, from around 15ft, a shot he is less comfortable hitting. LeBron on his way to the basket is like a wrecking ball aimed at the side of your house, like trying to halt a runaway train rolling down the hill. Get out of that house, get off that track! He’s great at the other end, too.

There’s a moment when Steph Curry attacks the basket for a layup and LeBron just swats it away. The Q erupts, it’s man against boy. LeBron turns to him and pulls a face. Watch. The. Throne. Curry later gets ejected from the game for committing too many fouls, then launches his gumshield and hits a member of the crowd. The NBA’s new golden boy has spat his dummy out. Cavs have won 115-101. The series is tied.

Game seven

The 2016 NBA Finals is a classic. Game Of Thrones multiplied The Sopranos. The only criticism so far is that none of the first six games went to the wire. A match-up between two good teams typically produces tight, tactical affairs. But despite the 3-3 deadlock, it has been a series of one-sided slugfests. It’s almost as though the moment one team hints at dominance, the other immediately folds. There’s no time for that now, though. It’s game seven, it’s all on the line, both teams need maximum performances and maximum minutes from their stars. There’s nowhere to hide.

Game Seven was an epic fit to settle any battle. There were 20 lead changes, and eleven points at which the game was tied. There are so many things to talk about. Green scored five three pointers in five efforts before half-time, Curry couldn’t stop fouling again, Kevin Love finally showed up, justifying his maximum salary with a terrific defensive performance. Tristan Thompson continued his willingness to do the gritty, unglamorous stuff. LeBron’s 27 points; his 11 assists; his 11 rebounds; one limp-wristed free throw, scored in the game’s dying embers after having fallen and injured himself.

The way Kyrie Irving bobbed and weaved, danced and tormented Curry and Thompson, and scored the game’s decisive three pointer. We could talk about the way LeBron collapsed in tears at the final buzzer and shouted “CLEVELAND, THIS IS FOR YOUUUUUU!!!!” into the microphone after the game. But I want to talk about one moment, about a minute before Irving’s decisive clutch play, when, two minutes before the end of the 103rd game of the season, LeBron made the world stand still, and delivered on his promise.

SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN

It’s 89-89 and everybody is running on fumes. Both teams look like they’ve forgotten how to score. The Cavs take the ball up court, everyone committed to the offense. They shoot, miss, and the ball rebounds to Andre Iguodala, who throws it to Curry around half court and the Warriors embark on a fast break, Iguodala and Curry vs The Cavs’ JR Smith, a shooter not renowned for his defending.

It’s a bit like peak-Gerrard and peak-Rooney breaking from a corner, and bearing down on the opposition goal with Jermain Defoe as the opponent’s last man back. This isn’t going to end well.

What happens next happens quite quickly – Steph Curry draws JR Smith across into no man’s land, and throws the ball back to Iguodala, who is in for the easy lay-up. Then Lebron James appears out of nowhere, sails over the head of his own teammate and pins the ball against the backboard, shutting down Iguodala’s easy two.

It’s completely and utterly absurd. Absurd in real time, absurd on the dozens of replays I’ve since watched. Audacious, outrageous, ridiculous. What’s most ridiculous is that it’s so calculated and so precise. You see him decide to do it, his brain clicks into gear, he runs half the court and he takes off, the situation still unfolding, determines what arm to lead with, and shuts that shit down.

He saw a problem, saw a solution, and executed. Presence of mind to the power of infinity, and the timing of Superman.

The chasedown block is LeBron’s defensive calling card, but witnessing one is rare – YouTube videos of compilations rack up serious viewing numbers. In a game played at breakneck speed, the window in which the chase down block can be executed is only ever miniscule. It requires the opponent to be fully committed to their shot, and then having lulled them into a false sense of security, LeBron arrives in the few inches between the ball’s release and the moment it reaches the top of its arc. Arrive early and you foul, arrive late and you either foul or hit the ball on its way down – that’s goaltending, an automatic two points to the opposition. You basically need to sneak up on your opponent and pick their pocket, but when you’re 6ft 8in and weigh 17st 8lbs, running at almost 18mph, it’s near impossible.

Technically, it’s so much more than a goal-line clearance.

Physically, it’s out of this world.

Figuratively, it’s a stake in the heart of Steph Curry. YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!

When the buzzer sounds, it’s 89-93. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the first team to ever overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit. They are the first Cleveland team to win a major sporting title since 1964. The drought is over. The curse lifted. He has delivered what he promised.

The block is the defining moment of LeBron James’ career, because it is 100% him. Forget the early hype, The Chosen One, The Decision, the mistake on the lake, the betrayal, the burnt jerseys, South Beach, the letter, the promise, the redemption, the 3-1 deficit, the rivalry with Steph Curry, LeBron vs Jordan. It’s all noise, all supplementary narrative we apply to sport to make it mean more, to give us something to argue about, to fill hours on TV stations between games.

The block captures LeBron James at his purest: a lightning-witted basketballing genius with physical abilities beyond comprehension. The world raved about Steph Curry because he looks like a regular human. LeBron James is special because he is not like a regular human, or any other basketball player. It takes moments like the block to remind us.

Curry’s three-point shooting will cause a paradigm shift. Opposition defences will set up differently in an attempt to accommodate his shooting style, and eventually a new generation of Steph Currys will emerge. There will never be another LeBron James.

A legacy befitting a king. Finally.

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