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Backstage at the Cavs’ loss: the champagne goggles of victory and the icy agony of defeat

As Golden State ripped the spirit from the Cavaliers crowd, fans wondered: Will LeBron stay, or will he go?

“I’m done for now, so one for now/ Possibly forever, we had fun together/ But like all good things we must come to an end/ Please show the same love to my friends …”

Jay-Z, “Dear Summer” (2005)

It’s all anyone could focus on. In the streets. In hotel lobbies. Even in Ubers. Anything else? Nothing more than small talk. Is the city of Cleveland ready to embrace the idea that Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals could be the last time they see LeBron James as a Cavalier?

“If you come to the black community,” said Branson Wright of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “a lot of people are saying, ‘Well, he did what he said he was going to do. He’s a free agent and has a right to go. He got us a championship.’ We’d like him to stay, but if he goes, he goes.” Wright met James in 2001 at a scrimmage on the fourth-floor practice court at Quicken Loans Arena. It was organized by then-Cavs coach John Lucas when James was headed into his junior year of high school. “Then you have the people in other communities — I wouldn’t think it’s the same disappointment as before. Burning his jersey? I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of LeBron James jerseys — some throwback, some present-day — littered Quicken Loans for what no one hoped (but many expected) would be the end of an era. The response to James’ pregame introduction was deafening. Kids stood, mouths wide open, even those in Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant jerseys. During the first half, the crowd roared with each basket.

As Cleveland went into halftime, a sliver of hope remained that James would once again put the team and city on his back and will them to a victory that would at least force the series back to Oakland, California. It never came. Not even a halftime performance by Lil Jon could inject energy into a crowd who had more pressing thoughts on its mind than “Turn Down For What” or “Shots.”

The depth of James’ heartbreak was visible. It can seem like The Truman Show, but this is his actual life.

The Golden State Warriors ended the Cavs’ season and perhaps James’ tenure in Cleveland with a 6-0 run to start the third. The game was never close again. Signs read “LeBron don’t leave x2” and “LBJ we will be here next year. Will you?” Golden State was flawless at ripping the spirit from the arena. They did it with a barrage of 3s, yes, but also with defense. Each Cavs’ turnover that led to another Warriors bucket twisted the knife in deeper. Once again in Cleveland sports, the hometown team was on the wrong side of history.

Fans slowly trickled out of the arena halfway starting at the third quarter. Those who stayed even briefly booed their team’s effort. Everyone understood. The series was over — and maybe their annual trips to the Finals were over as well. James checked out for good with 4:03 left. He was given a standing ovation and a MVP chant while making sure to dap up each Warriors player and each of his teammates.

Several fans yelled, “We love you, LeBron!”

“Please don’t leave us again!”

“We can’t do this without you!”

Make a left outside the Cavs’ locker room, walk for about 20 seconds and a thick smell of Moet hits harder than a David West screen. Drenched goggles sat atop the heads of players and their loved ones. Media personnel took notes while dodging champagne showers. The Warriors had achieved their goal. They won their second consecutive title and third in the last four years. And depending on how the next few weeks pan out, they just might have “[swept LeBron] out of Cleveland.”

Inside the Cavs’ locker room: a polar opposite mood. Some Cavs stared into their phones. Guard Rodney Hood sat emotionless, hand on chin, leaning forward in a towel and staring into the abyss. The only true noise came from journalists positioning themselves for the next interview.

Off in the corner was a dejected, exasperated and distraught James, his knees covered by two large pallets of ice. His feet in a black bucket of ice water. His hand was iced too, and it would soon be revealed that James had played the final three games with a “significant right hand injury” after a “self-inflicted” injury that occurred after Game 1.

“Burning his jersey? I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

And while the timing and even severity of the injury runs through the social media and talk radio wringers, one thing is for certain. James never truly moved past Game 1. It was the Cavs’ lone opportunity to strike a semblance of fear in Golden State. Game 1’s J.R. Smith moment will eternally live in Cleveland sports history — seamlessly joining a motorcade of heartbreaks that have haunted generations of the city’s residents.

A towel was draped over James’ head as he leaned against a wall. His two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce, along with a group of friends, joined James in the locker room. It’s a side of James rarely seen. He was vulnerable and, at least at that moment, immediately postgame, void of any solutions. It felt like no one wanted to look at James, and that no one succeeded in not looking at James. He was experiencing the series loss as an existential loss. The depth of James’ heartbreak was visible. It can seem like The Truman Show, but this is his actual life.

The best player in the world suffered his second NBA Finals sweep. The game’s best player is at the mercy of the game’s best team. In the modern era of the NBA, we’ve never seen an all-time great player, one with the skills to go down as the greatest to ever live, encounter such hardships on the game’s highest stage.

He wants them to feel this pain. He wants that joy again.

Whatever decision rocks the sports world and shifts the balance of power in the NBA in the coming weeks won’t be inspired solely by basketball. “The one thing that I’ve always done is considered, obviously, my family,” James said. “Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age. They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I’ve got a teenage boy, a preteen and a little girl that wasn’t around as well. So sitting down and considering everything, my family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide to do in my career.”

But he has to be tired of this. In the last two years, he’s only won one Finals game. James knows the history of basketball better than anyone. He knows that despite his undeniable stats, undeniable goodwill and undeniable impact on the game, a large part of his legacy will be about what he’s done on the grandest stage. These Warriors are a direct threat to that.

If Friday night was James’ last time walking out of Quicken Loans Arena as part of the home team, he can take solace in the fact that the goal he sought four years ago when he left Miami can never be erased. He’ll come back one day to a jersey retirement and an eventual statue. He and his family have forever changed northeastern Ohio. “He’s just really touching lives and changing the face of Akron and Cleveland. I’m proud of them,” said Lucia Johnson, a dentist at VIP Smiles in Maple Heights. “My children look up to LeBron and all the things he’s doing. I bring them down to the arena, but it’s not just about sports. It’s bigger than basketball, like LeBron says.”

As James, his sons, and his entourage walked to the parking deck at 12:45 a.m., he looked like a man with the weight of his new reality squarely on his shoulders. His eyes facing slightly down, but still looking ahead. His lips are set as if he wants to say something, but doesn’t. In the distance, the Warriors can still be heard celebrating. He wants them to feel this pain. He wants that joy again.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.