I’m not writing this column to eat crow or to admit that I was wrong, but I’m truly, truly happy for the city of Cleveland and for the dedicated sports fans of northeast Ohio who are finally getting to celebrate a professional sports championship.
I wrote two columns about LeBron James — one when he made his infamous “The Decision” to leave Cleveland in 2010, and the other when he returned in 2014 with the goal of winning an NBA championship for NE Ohio with the Cavaliers — and I was both pretty hard on him for leaving (rather, for the way he left) and cynical in addressing his return.
Not that he or anyone in that portion of the state cares what I said or felt then (or now), but I have to go along with something that ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said recently, a few days prior to the Cavs winning Cleveland’s first professional sports championship since 1964.
I don’t recall the precise quote, but Smith — not exactly one of my favorite talking heads — made the point that James had exhibited exemplary behavior throughout his NBA career, on and off the court, with the exception of “The Decision,” a disastrous made-for-TV special in which he revealed he was taking his “talents to South Beach” to join the Miami Heat prior to the 2010-11 season.
While I felt (and still feel) that James was somewhat a diva while playing high school basketball in Akron, the more I thought about Smith’s assessment, the more I had to agree with him.
I never have (and never will) questioned LeBron James’ ability as a basketball player. When all is said and done, I think he has a chance to be on the so-called “Mount Rushmore” of all-time great basketball players. To some, he’s already there.
(Mine is Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, with a “next four” of James, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. IMO, James is close to shouldering out Robertson).
In my 2010 column, I vowed to never watch James play again, and I held to that vow (other than when the Heat played the Cavs or when it looked like the Heat were going to lose in the NBA Finals) until/unless he returned to Cleveland… and even then I was reluctant.
It has seemed to me — and many NBA observers who have far, far more expertise than I — that James orchestrated the makeup of the team’s roster from behind the scenes, causing many experts to call him “player/coach/general manager” of the Cavaliers.
He went on a social media rant about that — and those who doubted him or his motives — earlier in the week.
When interviewed after the Cavs beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors 93-89 Sunday night, he alluded to bringing a “blueprint” to Cleveland for what he felt the Cavaliers needed to do to win that elusive championship… the closest he’s ever come to admitting culpability, if there was any.
Although he claims not to have been responsible for the mid-season firing of head coach David Blatt — despite the fact Cleveland had the best record in the Eastern Conference (30-11) at the time — it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have something to do with it.
Whether the Cavs would have won an NBA title with Blatt still the head coach is a question that will never be definitively answered, but when I read during the playoffs that, during a time-out, current head coach Tyronn Lue told James — who had a tendency to take over Blatt’s team huddles — to "shut the (expletive) up, I got this," the new coach apparently both earned James’ respect and took control of the team.
So maybe that did have something to do with it.
No team had ever rallied from a 3-1 Finals deficit to win an NBA championship, but James and Kyrie Irving put the Cavs on their shoulders and powered Cleveland past the Warriors, who had set an NBA record with 73 regular-season victories.
James put up hellacious numbers against the Warriors. His per-game averages (29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks) in winning series MVP honors led both teams for the first time in Finals history.
He proved to the world — and, in particular, the Warriors and two-time MVP Stephen Curry — why he was still the world’s best basketball player.
And while James will no doubt opt out of his current contract in order to get a hefty raise — and deservedly so — he’s already stated that he’s not leaving Cleveland, so that kind of drama won’t exist this off-season.
The recent ESPN “30 for 30” film, Believeland, did a terrific job documenting all the heart-wrenching disappointments that loyal Cleveland sports fans have suffered through since the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship, such as “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” “The Decision,” the Browns’ stunning move to Baltimore, and the Indians being three outs away from winning the 1997 World Series before losing Game 7 in extra innings.
These are heady times on Lake Erie: the Cavaliers are NBA champions; the Indians are in contention for the American League Central Division title; the Republican National Convention is coming to town, and the Browns… well, the Browns were really great in ‘64.
Enjoy that hard-earned championship, Cleveland sports fans. You deserve it, and I’m sure you appreciate it far more than any pro sports town in America.
And I can’t believe I’m writing this — again, I’m not eating crow or admitting that I was wrong — but, Cleveland sports fans, appreciate what James did for you in coming back home.
He put his heart where he felt it belonged all along (despite the horrendous “The Decision”), and he delivered upon his promise.