I’d been preparing myself for this for quite some time now. Ever since the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving, I knew there was a possibility LeBron James would leave Cleveland. I never really believed it, but I knew there was a chance. Foolishly, I thought, maybe, just maybe, the new-look Cavs could give the Warriors a run for their money. Or maybe, just maybe, Houston, San Antonio or Oklahoma City could take down Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, leaving the title there for the taking.
I picked the Cavaliers to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2018 NBA Finals. Boy, was I wrong on that one. But even amid all the dysfunction, I figured it was just another one of the Cavs’ “January swoons.” It happens every year, and of course, James hit a game-winner against Minnesota, Koby Altman remade Cleveland’s roster at the deadline, the Cavaliers were NBA Finals-bound.
With the Cavaliers on the verge of an early exit against Indiana and Boston, did it ever occur to me that James might leave? Of course, but I never really thought the Cavaliers were going to lose to either the Pacers or Celtics. Were their waning moments in Game 5 or Game 7? Maybe, but the Cavs had the greatest player in NBA history, there were going to, and did, pull it out.
Of course, I never thought they had a chance against the Warriors. Not after their run to the Finals. Even if JR Smith knew the score and the Cavs took Game 1, Golden State still probably wins the series in five or six. The Warriors are just that good. They’re unfair.
Even after getting swept though, the Cavaliers still, to me, seemed like the most obvious destination. Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston all made some sense, but at the end of the day, James wasn’t forming a super-team that could take down Golden State anywhere. So why not just stick around in Cleveland for another season and reload?
Alas, with a one-sentence press release, James is off to Los Angeles, and the Cavaliers are left with Kevin Love, Collin Sexton and a bunch of much-maligned role players.
To this day, I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the day of “The Decision” I and II. ESPN had begun to report that James was likely to leave Cleveland in 2010, and join up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. But I was having none of it. I saw Iron Man 2 to take my mind off things, but it didn’t help alleviate any of the anger or pain when James announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”
I didn’t burn my LeBron James jersey. Still to this day, it sits in my closet at home, more than a few sizes too small. But I was mad. I rooted against James all throughout his first season in Miami, and boy was I happy when Dallas won. Same thing in year two, and year three, but neither the Thunder nor the Spurs were able to finish the job. The King finally had his ring.
With Decision II, I was sitting on a quad on Washingon University in St. Louis’ campus. For months I thought James was coming back to Cleveland, arguing with all of my friends who thought otherwise. Many of them thought I was crazy. But it all made sense to me. Miami wasn’t getting any better, or any younger, and if James wanted to beat the Paul George-led Pacers, or the Thunder, he needed to find a new team. That team, of course, was Cleveland, with young pieces, ample draft picks and cap space.
Of course, when I refreshed my Twitter feed on that sunny day in St. Louis, it happened. I was right, and James was coming back. I had to reread Sports Illustrated’s tweet a few times before it settled in. LeBron James was coming home, and I immediately went nuts.
James wasn’t promising a championship. There was no “Not four, not five…” But it was certainly assumed. I figured the Cavs would get at least one, if not a few more, and James would be Cavalier for life. He’s done so much for this city and will continue to do so much for this city. His contributions go way beyond just that of being basketball player.
Still, though, the Golden State Warriors changed everything. Suddenly, winning one championship became an accomplishment, especially after the Warriors added Kevin Durant.
And boy was that one championship special. Never forget that the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP, blew a 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals. I should probably repeat that. Never forget that the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP, blew a 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals. How about one more time? Never forget that the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP, blew a 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals.
It is the greatest moment in Cleveland sports history. A 52-year championship drought ended, with a comeback for the ages, spearheaded by one of the greatest championship performances ever by LeBron James.
Euphoria and relief. It was incredible. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Championship. And we weren’t done. Or at least we thought.
Fast forward two years later, and it’s the Warriors who are again on top, having won their third title in four years.
The ball bounces a few different ways though, and maybe we’re talking about the Cavs winning three titles in four years. Maybe Irving doesn’t get injured in 2015. Or maybe Durant doesn’t join the Warriors. It just goes to show how fleeting success can be. One moment the Cavs are on top of the world. The next, James is off to Los Angeles.
Over the past few weeks, it seemed inevitable James would leave. I didn’t want to believe it and still thought there was a chance he stayed. When Paul George didn’t even meet with the Lakers and re-signed with Oklahoma City, I got my hopes up. Alas, less than 24 hours later, James is a Laker.
Last time James left Cleveland, fans burned his jersey and railed against him on National Television. That won’t be happening this time. And while I certainly won’t be hopping on the Lakers’ bandwagon, I’ll still cheer for James, especially against Golden State. At the end of the day, he’s still one of us, born and raised in Northeast Ohio, where “nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
So thank you LeBron. While this isn’t how I wanted it to end, he fulfilled his promise and brought Cleveland a championship. It’s been a heck of a four-year ride, albeit one with a lot of bumps, ups and downs. I’ll never forget the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP, blew a 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, and I’ll never let anyone else forget either. I’ll cherish all the other moments too, the high-flying dunks, the jaw-dropping passes, the back-breaking stepback jumpers, the incredible buzzer-beaters and so much more. Maybe one day you’ll return again, but for the time being, you’re off to Los Angeles. So thank you and goodbye LeBron, you’ll surely be missed.