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2018 NBA Playoffs

LeBron James delivers night to remember

If James does leave the Cavs for a second time: ‘He gave the city of Cleveland a championship, and he doesn’t owe us anything’

CLEVELAND — As he handled his lunchtime customers seated around the bar at Zanzibar restaurant in downtown Cleveland, bartender Harold Childers was presented with a worst-case scenario for Friday.

The possible last home game in a Cleveland uniform for LeBron James.

Childers, wearing the wine-colored LeBron James jersey that he usually sports on game days, motioned toward the street and pointed out the dozens of people in No. 23 jerseys. And he noted how the soul food restaurant, located maybe 100 yards away from Quicken Loans Arena, and every other downtown business has benefited the people who flock to Cleveland to see James.

“LeBron revived this city, and if he leaves I would never fault him because he won us a championship,” Childers said. “But I don’t think this is LeBron’s last game in Cleveland. They’ll win [Friday], they win Sunday and they’ll go to the Finals.”

Credit James for making Childers a prophet on the first half of his prediction. Capping a spectacular night with two dramatic 3-pointers in the final minutes that had Cleveland fans chanting, “MVP, MVP, MVP,” James scored 46 points to go along with 11 rebounds and 9 assists in Cleveland’s 109-99 win over the Boston Celtics that sets up Sunday’s Game 7.

Harold Childers

It was a perfectly timed performance for James and the Cavaliers, who lost Kevin Love just over five minutes into the game after a vicious head-to-head collision with Boston’s Jayson Tatum.

With Love missing the rest of the game as he was tested for a concussion, the Cavaliers’ bench stepped up with big efforts from Jeff Green (14 points) and Larry Nance (10 points, seven rebounds).

Starting point guard George Hill scored 20, his playoff high this year, to overcome a horrible Game 5 five in which he missed four of his five shots and scored seven points.

Now the series is down to one game. As the No. 2 seed in the East, Boston has home-court advantage in a series where neither team has won on the road.

So in Game 7, do you trust a young Boston team that has a roster full of players who lack extensive playoff experience?

Or do you trust James, who is averaging 34.1 points in the 22 elimination games he has played in his career?

“It’s a Game 7,” said James. “It’s just basketball for me. I know what I’m capable of doing, and I’m going to trust everything I put into it.”

And the Cleveland fans know that he will, which is all James has done when he was drafted by the Cavaliers with the top pick in 2003.

Of course they were mad when he left via The Decision in 2010, an abandonment that made jersey burning popular. But a lot of those fans were upset with how he left, rather than the fact that he bailed.

“Sure, I was upset because I would have liked to have known in advance,” said Akin Affrica, the owner of six Cleveland-area restaurants, including Zanzibar. “But the people here respect what he’s done in helping rebuild the brand of Cleveland, Akron and Northeast Ohio. Nobody else was doing it, and LeBron is the person that put Cleveland on the map.”

James has helped put a lot of money in the pockets of business owners, which has been corroborated by a Harvard study released last year that cited the growth of restaurants, drinking establishments and employment rates within a 1-mile radius of arenas where James has played.

A 2015 story on Cleveland.com indicated that the impact that James has on Cleveland could be in the nine-figure range. And that’s evident by the number of filled establishments in downtown on game day, as well as the people walking out of downtown hotels to the Quicken Loans Arena.

“The downtown airport for private jets has increased business on game day, and those people are eating at the most expensive restaurants. And that’s all because of LeBron,” said Yalinda Rhoden, who grew up in James’ hometown of Akron but now lives in Cleveland. “I have a friend who works at the arena seating people in their VIP seats who said the people tip him $40, sometimes $50 a game. Before LeBron came back, he wasn’t getting anything.”

Having James means a large number of nationally televised games. And the increased number of televised games means large crews who visit the local establishments. For Ty Barber, owner of Ty Barber’s Barbershop on Superior Avenue, that often means an increase in clientele.

“I just had [ESPN’s] Mark Jackson in here earlier today,” Barber said, taking out his phone and showing his photo. “Hotels are being built all around here. The casino is jumping, and T-shirt sales are crazy. LeBron will always be the man.”

Like Childers, Barber doesn’t think that LeBron has played his last game in Cleveland. “That’s a lot of hype from the media, but I think he’s staying,” he said. “If he were to leave, it [would] be the Dark Ages again. You’ll probably be able to go to the games for free.”

Aside from the economic boom that James has provided in Cleveland, many fans appreciate the philanthropy he demonstrated by pledging $41 million to provide college scholarships to Akron students.

“For the children in Cleveland and Akron, he’s meant hope,” said Rhoden, the Akron native. “They’ve seen him coming from living in the projects in Akron raised by a single mother to going to leading an exemplary life and becoming an NBA star.”

In this, his 15th year in the NBA, no player has played better than James. With his 46 points on Friday, James has now scored more than 40 points in seven games in this postseason, tying him with Michael Jordan for the second-most in NBA history (Jerry West had eight 40-plus point games in 1965). James played 46 minutes during Friday’s amazing performance, which is fitting for a guy who played in all 82 games this regular season for the first time in his career.

To reach the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers will have to win a game in Boston, where the Celtics have won all 10 of their home playoff games. And the Celtics have never lost a playoff series that began with them winning the first two games.

Surely, Cleveland basketball fans will be devastated if the Cavaliers lose on Sunday. If that happens, James will begin the process to determine where he wants to play next season.

If he leaves, many fans would be hurt. Some may even burn his jersey again.

Others will simply applaud the great years that he gave them.

“When LeBron James came back, he told us that he was going to give us a championship,” Childers said. “He gave the city of Cleveland a championship, so he doesn’t owe us anything.

“In my mind, he’s paid his debt in full.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.