The Grass Ain’t Always Greener…
Very few times in life do we get to take back something we’ve said or done. Whether we intend to or not, if we hurt someone we often attempt to make things right. Even less often do our attempts to rectify those things get accepted by those we’ve hurt.
LeBron James’ two consecutive turnovers in the summer of 2010 were so damaging, so excruciatingly painful, that no one, James included, could have imagined a scenario where his transgressions would be forgiven.
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach…”
This is akin to changing your relationship status on Facebook to “single,” before you formally broke it off with your girlfriend.
And so began the villainization of LeBron James.
Before, James had not only been the best player in basketball, but he was likable, not like his contemporary Kobe Bryant. The local, humble, kid whom God emulates when he plays basketball had transformed into a selfish, egotistical douchebag who had to “join forces” with two of his best buddies to try to win a championship, something Jordan or Bryant never had to do (as goes the narrative).
Cavs owner Dan Gilberts incendiary letter to the city of Cleveland about LeBron was a source of great debate, but also acted as a proxy for the denizens of Northeast Ohio. For what could better exemplify the bitter disappointment of a downtrodden fan base than the vitriolic, hurtful statement made by a man who made millions off one basketball player?
“Not Three…Not Four…Not Five…Not Six…”
And so sat James inside American Airlines arena, next to his two new All-Star teammates. With those brash proclamations to win a multitude of championships, one section of the country was reeling, writhing in agony as the greatest player any of them have ever seen, or possibly will ever see, left the nest for greener pastures.
James didn’t need to jump the gun and state how many championships he and the Miami Heat would win in their tenure together; we were going to do it for him. How obvious was it that this “super team” would go on to demolish the Bulls 72-win record? How could we not engage in hyperbole, making them the greatest team ever, long before they had played a game together? They hadn’t even assembled a full team of 12 before we handed them the Larry O’Brien trophy.
This narrative was mostly caused because of the rag-tag collections of “teams” we’ve seen James carry through the playoffs in years prior. Surely he, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh could team up with nine guys from the University of Miami’s intramural basketball team and dominate, right?
Of course, Miami’s first year together was a failure, by our standards, as they failed to secure a championship. How dare they fail! Every stadium they entered outside of southern Florida, they were met with jeers, taunts and the like. James, seeing no end in sight, decided to embrace the role of a villain, a role he created but we as fans and members of the media propagated. For all of his scoring outbursts, win streaks, and records broken, this was one thing that simply couldn’t be sustained. So he quit trying to be the big bad wolf and continued to play ball.
The Grass Ain’t Always Greener…Until It Is
Years two and three saw James and the Heatles win back-to-back championships, validating the very reason he bolted from Cleveland three years before. James had begun to win back the American public, and how could he not? Everyone loves a winner, no matter what route was taken as long as it was within the rules of the game…kinda.
While year four in Miami was not culminated with a championship trophy, no one could blame James for the Heat’s end season implosion. Wade, always a regular on the injury report and 3 years older than James or Bosh, was showing his limitations. Bosh was largely ineffective, and the rest of the supporting cast just wasn’t up to snuff. That, along with a pissed off Spurs team, was a recipe for disaster.
In his 4 years, James had learned how to become the leader very few had seen, but no one had doubted. Having learned what it takes to both win a championship and be a champion, James was again, faced with a decision. His time in Miami had come to an end and he was a free agent once more.
“I’m Coming Home”
James had grown. He had long defended the proceeds from Decision #1, in his Boys and Girls club broadcast in 2010. James could have easily did the same: making a spectacle, calling ESPN to host a special about him announcing his return to Cleveland. Sure, people would have been put off (again) by it, but it wasn’t like he was telling Cleveland he wasn’t going home. Imagine the reception from another special where LeBron reverses course and after two hours of reflection simply said, “I’m going home.”
This of course was not the case. His open letter to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins came as a surprise to everyone, not just for his choice, but his method. No one outside of James’ camp and Jenkins knew when or how the world would be made aware, but he wanted it as low-key as possible.
“These past four years helped raise me into who I am,” James wrote. Nothing could be truer by his sheer display of humility and selflessness in that moment.
James would go on to address many issues, ranging from Dan Gilbert’s letter, to shutting down any notion of multiple championships for his city. It wasn’t because the roster that was incapable, as any roster with James is a playoff team, but James had learned what it took to win, and at the top of that list was patience. “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way,” he said.
But then the season started…
Road to the Finals
It had been long speculated that Kevin Love would join Cleveland via trade, which of course came to fruition. A new big three would be heralded to win a championship in their first year, just as the Miami Heat were in 2010. Things hardly started off as planned, though. A near two-week sabbatical from James during a struggling stretch of basketball caused instant concern. Was rookie coach David Blatt good enough to succeed? Was Kevin Love assimilating into an effective enough role? Could this “big three” learn to share the ball the way it needed to, and not become Cavs circa 2006?
After a series of injuries and trades shook the landscape of the roster LeBron once knew, the Cavs were off and running. Losing Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters but gaining Timofey Mozgov, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert may have been the best thing that could have happened to these Cavs.
LeBron returned, ball movement increased, and the LeBron gained capable shooters, an equal wing defender, and a low post defender and finisher he’s never had. Love and Irving continued to play like the All-Stars we knew them to be, and the Cavs transformed into one of the best teams in the NBA after February.
The midseason acquisition of Kendrick Perkins speaks to just how players around the league view James. “I was like, Doc? Or I have a chance to go play with The King. Doc? The King? Uh, I choose The King,” Perkins said on why he chose Cleveland after being released by the Thunder. Perkins knew his role on the team, and it certainly wasn’t going to be during live-game action. He knew his best chance to compete was off the shores of Lake Erie.
Here We Are
No one could have reasonably expected LeBron to be in the position he’s currently in. No Love, no Irving. Playing against the league MVP and the best team in the NBA, no one could blame LeBron for not bringing home the gold this time around. The odds are seemingly insurmountable.
Yet, here we are, with a 2-1 lead in favor of Cleveland, which could easily have been a 3-0 stranglehold. Again with a team that has no business in the Finals as currently constructed, LeBron has prepared his team better than he ever could have before he left for Miami five years ago.
“He was like, ‘we’re here for business’ and to be prepared,” said Cavs forward Tristan Thompson about James. It’s no wonder that these Cavs are now in the driver seat of this series.
Those experiences have prepared the best basketball player on the planet with a keen sense of urgency that has trickled down to each player on the team.
That urgency has manifested into the unlikeliest of heroes, making the likes of Matthew Dellavedova a household name after being an undrafted rookie last year. Whether it’s playing Steph Curry so closely his shadow has to be jealous, or knocking down ridiculous shots yet timely shots, you better believe “Delly” knows he’s supposed to be here, because LeBron believes it.
Of course these Finals still have a ways to go, for at least another two games, so there’s no reason to hand him the trophy prematurely. But from what he’s been through the past five seasons, his growth is evident. The best basketball player on the planet isn’t just knocking on history’s door, he’s about to kick it down. And we’re all witnesses.