The ‘Land of Champions
Cleveland has already started its celebration. Now it’s up to LeBron and the Cavs to catch up
Fifty-two years is a long time, especially for a sports-crazed, championship-famished city like Cleveland. Before June 19, the last time any of the city’s professional sports teams won a championship was Dec. 27, 1964, when the Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts. Jim Brown had 27 carries for 114 yards in a 27-0 Cleveland blowout.
What else was going on in the world at that time? Malcolm X was still alive. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was still eight months away from becoming law. Come And See Me by The Supremes and I Feel Fine by The Beatles were two of the biggest songs in the country. The first Super Bowl was 750 days away. And another 20 years would pass before a young man named LeBron James would be born.
For Tremayne Thomas, a native of the city now living in Houston as a special education teacher at Pearland High School, the magnitude of the moment was radiating from the city the minute he stepped off the plane on Wednesday. Northeast Ohio could make history, a feat the area had grown accustomed to in all the wrong ways following The Drive, The Fumble, The Blown Save and The Decision. But luck could fall in their favor.
House-sitting for his mother and other family members who went out of town on a cruise, Thomas’ mental tug of war had him lobbying between watching the series finale in public or watching the same way he did the last time the Cleveland Cavaliers traveled to Oakland, California, for Game 5 – by himself with the television on mute.
Ultimately, the temptation of being in the city for a moment over a half-century in the making was too much to resist. The move was risky. Sports are risky, especially placing faith in Cleveland sports. But scared money doesn’t make money. Thomas, his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers and friends he grew up with settled upon Liquid, a sports bar on West 6th Street roughly a mile away from Quicken Loans Arena. As even-keeled as you would’ve found in a Clevelander last night, Thomas’ calm demeanor proved a welcome contrast to Liquid’s.
“The vibe at the bar was more anxious, kind of nervous,” he said with a slight laugh, still riding off of adrenaline at nearly 3 in the morning. “You get those old doubts in your head from all bad memories, all the heartbreak we’ve had. But it was still poppin’ in there. People never lost hope.”
Game 7 was a heavyweight slugfest. Think the 15th round of Ken Norton and Larry Holmes. Jabs connected. Hooks connected. Both teams desperately sought for the one haymaker that’d put the other on the hardwood for the 10-count. The Golden State Warriors were up 87-83, a mere four-point lead, but in a game featuring a plethora of lead changes and momentum shifts, four felt like 14. A personal 6-0 run from Cavalier LeBron James changed that – three free throws followed by a three over Festus Ezeli (one of Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s biggest mistakes was giving the big man important minutes when it was beyond evident the Cavs exploited him every time on floor).
Thomas knew both the Cavs and Warriors were gassed. Warrior Stephen Curry was launching 3s that weren’t connecting – one didn’t hit the rim at all.
“I was like, well, we might not be able to buy a bucket, but they can’t get one either,” he said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Bruh, we can win this thing.’ ”
Historically, signature moments don’t go Cleveland’s way. But they did Sunday night. Coming out of halftime down seven, the Cavs couldn’t buy a bucket from outside. Timely 3s from J.R. Smith carved into the lead. From there, Cav point guard Kyrie Irving took over. No better difficult layup maker exists in basketball than the former No. 1 overall pick out of Duke. He found himself at the basket on demand and outplayed his two-time MVP counterpart Curry.
Although Cavs fans started a GoFundMe page before Game 6 begging him not to play, Kevin Love offered his most inspired performance of the series. He didn’t score much (nine points), but his 14 rebounds and out-of-body defensive assignment on Curry at the end of the game were valuable in ways reaching far beyond a box score. But two plays defined the game from Cleveland’s two biggest stars.
Tied at 89 with less than two minutes remaining, the Warriors pushed the fast break with the 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala preparing to give Golden State a two-point lead. Credit Smith for altering what would have been a dunk into a contested layup. From there, James barreled in at a staggering 19 mph looking more like a B14 fighter jet than greatest forward of all time for his patented “chase down block.”
A new play in Cleveland history: The Block. #SCtop10 https://t.co/YTmMw2sc3G
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 20, 2016
A minute later Irving would nail the biggest shot of his career, a wing three over Curry, giving Cleveland the lead for good. Moments later the 52-year drought was snapped. A city known for losing championships in the most dramatic fashion reversed the curse, now winning one in the most dramatic fashion. Cleveland became the first team since the 1978 Washington Bullets to win a Game 7 on the road. And the first to come back from 3-1 in the NBA Finals. Doing so against a team vying for the crown of “greatest team ever” with 73 regular wins to its name only made the champagne taste sweeter.
“It’s vindication, man,” Thomas said. “The city’s been starving for this. We fight for everything we get. We’re loyal fans. Just me personally, I’ve been loyal to the Cavs since the days when we didn’t have ‘Bron. We had Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, Terrell Brandon and Bobby Phills, Mark Price and John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams. I, much like a lot of other people in this city, have been doing this for a long time.”
In the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving officially arrived as a superstar. And he doesn’t even turn 25 until next March.
His 27.1 points per game are the highest of any of James’ teammates in the Finals. But Irving wasn’t a sidekick. He was more like a co-pilot who occasionally took over alpha dog duties when James went to the bench or even when James figured it was best to let his young boy cook any defender Golden State put in front of him. He outplayed both the Splash Brothers and was unfazed by the moment. While James struggled to find a rhythm, Irving led the charge in the third quarter of Game 7. Irving’s 26 points and six assists were huge not only because it was 26 points and six assists, but rather because each basket and each dime felt like they came when Cleveland absolutely needed it.
If that’s not the mark of a superstar on the game’s highest stage, nothing is.
But if Irving is a superstar, he’s obviously going to be pinned by the league’s biggest superstar, his teammate James.
Here’s a run down of James’ resume the past two weeks, per ESPN Stats & Info:
– James’ 11 fourth-quarter points in Game 7 nearly outscored Golden State’s (13)
– Curry shot 1-7 when guarded by him, Klay Thompson 2-6. James stifled the Warriors to 36 percent shooting the entire series, including 0-7 in Game 6. And now we see why he’s so upset he never won Defensive Player of the Year.
– He’s the third player in history to post a triple-double in Game 7 of the Finals (27-11-11). The other two are Jerry West and James Worthy.
– The only players to ever win three championships and four MVPs were Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James is now on that list.
– He’s the fifth player to win three Finals MVPs, joining Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.
– James and Abdul-Jabbar can say they’ve won Finals MVPs for multiple franchises.
– Here’s the list of players who have ever led all players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a series: LeBron James. That’s it.
– Times a player averaged 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per game. James has done it twice (and added three steals and two blocks per this year). Everyone else in league history? Zero.
Love or hate him – and a lot of people do both – James capped off his career’s crowning achievement. Or at least for now it is. Barring the unforeseen, James should end his career as a top five scorer and assister of all time. He’s already done so in the playoffs, and within the next two postseasons should find himself looking down on everyone in terms of points scored. He hasn’t lived up to hype the media threw upon his shoulders when he was a junior at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. He’s exceeded and lapped it twice over. He’s the best all-around basketball player and the one who has been asked to do more night in and night out than any player before him. And if the worst thing that can be said about him in his career – during the 24/7, social media-obsessed world we’re in now – is getting on national television and choosing a new team to play for, there’s been a lot worse.
“Even though he’s from Akron, me and LeBron are only a year apart,” Thomas said of James’ connection to the area. “When we were coming up, he was always in Cleveland. Always. He was coming to the games, kicking it in Cleveland, getting his jerseys in Cleveland. When he got suspended in high school for them throwbacks, that was in Shaker Square in Cleveland! It means even more because I’m happy for him personally. It was about damn time, like when he said when he won that first championship in Miami.”
Now, with a title in tow for the town he bolted from six years ago but always felt a connection to, – even if they burned his jerseys and the owner wrote a letter so embarrassing no one is willing to forget – he’s a made man in the state of Ohio. James has reached Jim Brown-level status in his state. And he’s reached icon-level status in the game of basketball. If James retired tomorrow, could anyone really fault him?
Yet, while James, Irving, Smith and the rest of the Cavs peppered Oracle with champagne the same way the Warriors did Quicken Loans last June, there’s still another task at hand: bringing the title home to Cleveland. Thomas and the rest of the city have already started the celebration. It’s up to the Cavs to catch up.
Songs such as Young Thug’s Digits, Drake and Future’s Big Rings and, perhaps most appropriately, Cleveland’s native sons Bone Thugs N’ Harmony’s Thuggish Ruggish Bone boomed out of cars.
“It was all love, man,” Thomas said of the celebration in the streets. “All races. Everybody. Black people, white people, gay people. It didn’t even matter. It was just love, bruh. For one time everybody came together to support something everybody cared about. It was a ride this year we’ll never forget.”
The parade is later this week. And once James gets to the podium, the million-dollar question is what will he say. Will he guarantee a repeat? Will he cry again? Will he quote Jay Z as he so often does? He’d never say this lyric, but he’s thinking it now more than ever.
If he ain’t better than Mike, he’s the closest one.