The two greatest words in sports are “Game Seven,” which we experienced twice in the Blues’ run to the NHL Western Conference Finals this year.
As great as those game sevens were for the Blues, and as great as any buildup has been for any game seven ever in any sports, it’s hard to imagine that the script could be any better than it was for the NBA Finals, with Cleveland traveling across the country to visit the Golden State Warriors.
With a 93-89 victory in Game Seven in Oakland, the Cavaliers ended a 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland.
No city with at least three teams in the four major sports had gone that long without a title.
If we include everything in the storyline, the whole thing sounds preposterous. Local hero returns home after a bitter departure, with the goal to win a championship. With that championship in his grasp in his first year back, his team crumbles physically around him, and he basically has to carry his team and loses in the championship round.
Fast forward to the next season. The team that vanquished the returning hero, and their own MVP, break the win record of the team…and the player…the returning icon idolized as a kid himself. The new kids on the block are the flavor of the week, and dramatically come back in a series of their own before grabbing a lead in the championship round. But like Rocky getting knocked down and coming back or like Roy Hobbs in The Natural succumbing to a years old gunshot wound and hitting the game winning home run, the hero rebounds.
Is this really a script Hollywood would accept? Those movies are primarily fictional. This one is real. Think of all of the pieces involved.
· LeBron James leaves the Cavaliers and is eviscerated in his home region for his “decision” to move as a free agent to Miami. Cleveland burns his jerseys and tears down a huge image of him downtown because of his departure, and even more so the way he left, saying on live TV that he’s “taking my talents to South Beach,” without telling the Cavaliers first.
· After four years and two championships in Miami, James returns to his home region, writing in an essay for Sports Illustrated announcing his return that… “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
· Indeed, Cleveland hadn’t had a title since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship. I was born in 1962 and I’ve suffered disappointment with the Blues year after year. But I had a Super Bowl with the Rams and, in my lifetime, have experienced ten Cardinals World Series and five championships…three that I remember well (1982, 2006 and 2011). I can’t imagine what it would be like if ALL of my local franchises had failed to win championships like the Blues have, but anyone my age in Cleveland had suffered that fate with the Cavaliers, Indians and Browns. They din’t remember a championship.
· So hopes were high last year when the Cavaliers MADE it to the finals, but fate cruelly stepped in and took James’ teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love away with injuries. Relying on guys like Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov, LeBron carried them to two wins, and they were overcome in six games by Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
· This season, Curry won his second consecutive MVP, and the Warriors won 73 games. That win total surpassed the mark of 72 set by the 1995-’96 Chicago Bulls, who were led by LeBron’s childhood hero Michael Jordan. While the Warriors rolled, the Cavaliers struggled so much that they fired coach David Blatt, the same guy that led them to the finals last season, in late January.
· Heading into the playoffs, the Warriors looked unstoppable; especially after rallying from a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City to make the finals, then drubbing the Cavaliers in the first two games by a total of a record 48 points. Most people, me included, thought the series would end in four or five. Not among that group was LeBron James himself.
· The Cavs won game three in convincing fashion, then lost game four. In that game, Golden State’s Draymond Green made the fatal mistake of hitting James in the testicles on a contested play. Subsequently, Warriors guard Klay Thompson told the media James “got his feelings hurt,” a taunt that James publicly laughed off. By winning game four, Golden State became the 33rd team in history to take a 3-1 lead in The Finals. The previous 32 have won the title, and only two have had to go to game seven.
· Because Green and Thompson placed a chip squarely on James’ shoulder, the Warriors became the third team to lead The Finals 3-1 and face a game seven. And now, they are the first team to lose The Finals after being up 3-1 in the series. On their own, they supplied a rampaging LeBron, who has scored 41 points in back-to-back Cleveland blowouts in games five and six, then turned in a triple-double on the road in game seven. He emotionally and physically willed his team to victory.
At the conclusion of his return essay, James wrote “I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
He came home, and achieved his goal with a win in game seven of The Finals.
The kids of Northeast Ohio watched intently, as the adults. And when LeBron won it for them, and then told them “Cleveland, this is for you,” the joyous release was remarkable. All of them waiting for, hoping for that first championship to remember, got it. LeBron made that region the center of the American sports landscape with a win in game seven. He really IS the returning, conquering hero. He showed people that if you’re talented, work hard enough and work for what you want, you can get it.
It really is unbelievably amazing. James and the Cavs pulled off one of the most momentous victories in sports history. And, like the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team (Miracle), or like Indiana’s Hickory High School (Hoosiers), or like the Marshall football team (We are Marshall), Hollywood will have to tell it. It’s that incredible.