How LeBron James reshaped his legacy

There were tears, but for the first time since 1964, they weren’t of heartache.

It wasn’t like John Elway’s 98-yard march in 1987 (known as The Drive) or Earnest Byner’s gut-wrenching mistake a year later (known as The Fumble) or when Cleveland Indians closer Jose Mesa couldn’t hold a Game 7 lead like the Cleveland Cavaliers did on Sunday night. It wasn’t like when the Cleveland Browns were uprooted to Baltimore, a blow to a football town that left a searing, civic void. It wasn’t what ESPN’s recent documentary portrayed. This time a Cleveland team had won, and it didn’t involve Charlie Sheen or voodoo bats.

James reeled off Cleveland’s list of heartache like he was reciting lyrics he’d sung since he was a kid. He knew them like the rest of Northeast Ohio knew them. He could’ve cited Michael Jordan’s “shot” but there might’ve been some confusion considering Kyrie Irving’s audacious three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to seal the Cavs’ championship, which could plausibly oust the old definition.

“Our fans, they ride or die,” James said in the wake of the Cavs’ historic 93-89 Game 7 victory that secured his standing among the NBA’s pillars. “No matter what’s been going on, the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs, and so on. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this drought, our fans deserve it.”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after beating the Golden State Warriors in Game 7.

James rarely acknowledges it, but he knows he played a significant role in the misery. His 2010 televised spectacle left teammates reeling, an owner seething and fans so emotional they set his jersey on fire. Jason Herron, who burned James’ jersey, has since come around and even apologized, but James’ egregious miscalculation is partly why his story is so fascinating.

James contributed to the unhinged psyche and added to the local embarrassment. That’s why Sunday’s Game 7, the end of a compelling series that hooked a national audience outside of the disparate fan bases, left James sobbing on his knees. That wasn’t how James celebrated either of his titles with the Miami Heat. That was raw emotion, relief even. He’d made good on his promise.

Beloved for seven years, James was reviled nationally when he took his talents to South Beach. Visiting arenas pummeled James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as if fans had a personal vendetta against the Big Three. Fans rejoiced when the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 Finals because it upended the Heat’s strategy, a strategy that some saw as gaming the system. And James’ reputation took a massive hit, which was a difficult concept for the gregarious superstar since it had nothing to do with public transgressions. Why did so many feel the need to voice their disapproval of James’ career decisions?

Was it because he’d been celebrated like no high school basketball player had been, appearing on national broadcasts and landing national magazine covers? Was it because he’d handled the pitfalls of growing up a superstar in an unprecedented media age only to cash in all that good will with a televised announcement? Was there some nebulous standard set by his idol Michael Jordan or perhaps Tim Duncan, the quiet, unassuming superstar who once told James it would be his league after sweeping the Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals? For any or all of these reasons, James took a hit and only began to restore his image nationally when he announced he was returning to Cleveland two years ago.

Thus began the grueling task of reversing losing habits in an immature Cavs locker room. He took the long road with Irving, preferring his point guard to realize that he had to pick and choose when to attack rather than hammer the point home in a top-down approach. He eventually embraced Kevin Love, despite the clunky basketball fit of their respective games. He welcomed J.R. Smith with open arms, recognizing his three-point range as an asset over his dubious reputation. And then there was Tyronn Lue, a coach who James could finally relate to. Whether James had a say in this year’s coaching change is immaterial. Cavs GM David Griffin knew Lue had James’ trust, which couldn’t be said of former coach David Blatt.

James hates playing inefficient basketball, but he was forced to last Finals. There was no other option with his sidekicks Irving and Love both out. That the Cavs won two games and momentarily held a 2-1 lead was largely seen as a victory in and of itself. The Warriors were whole and just realizing their potential. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were building impeccable reputations as shooters, and Draymond Green was emerging as one of the best second-round picks in NBA history.

That they met again in a Finals rematch is a tribute to the Warriors’ staying power and an indication that the Cavaliers privately stewed about last year’s depleted effort. Curry, though he didn’t play particularly well in the first three games, did nothing to impeach his status as the back-to-back MVP. But something happened in Game 4 when Green took another groin swipe after getting away with one in the Oklahoma City Thunder series. The idea of the Warriors’ phenomenon, built on electric passing, elite shooting, a free-flowing basketball formula and an endless supply of capable players, started to chip away.

There was the Green suspension and the Twitter sniping. Then Klay Thompson poked the bear by saying James’ feelings must’ve gotten hurt. Finally there was Curry’s frustration boiling over as he pitched his gnawed mouth guard at a courtside fan. These were the same Warriors who’d just come back from a 3-1 deficit on their own. Rattled? These all-time Warriors didn’t know what shook meant.

And slowly, it became easier to see the pressure mounting around the Bay Area, simultaneously increasing the possibility off an all-time comeback on the Cavs’ end. That the Cavs were down 3-1, facing the greatest regular season team of all-time, it wasn’t hard to appreciate the enormity of the task at hand, which is perhaps why casual fans began pulling for the unprecedented comeback. When James soared high in Game 7 to pin Andre Iguodala’s layup, it was every bit as stunning as some of the majestic three-point bombs Curry had dropped this postseason. And it was James’ turn to douse the visiting locker room in champagne, a 13-year storybook ending that was most certainly earned, not given.

Source: MSN Sports

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