OAKLAND – LeBron James’ tears of joy were unstoppable as he held the Larry O’Brien championship trophy at Oracle Arena on Sunday.
He had just authored one of sports’ all-time greatest stories, a magical fairytale that Cleveland has longed for since 1964.
And this is how it had to go down: James leading the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to beat the Golden State Warriors, the team that won an NBA-record 73 regular-season games, on the road for the NBA championship.
It was the only way.
James scored 27 points, collected 11 rebounds, delivered 11 assists, blocked three shots and had two steals – his seventh Finals triple-double – as the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 on Sunday.
“I'm true to the game, and I know what I bring to the table,” James said. “I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we've never been. That's what it was all about.
“The game always gives back to people that's true to the game. I've watched it. I know the history of the game, and I was just calm. I was calm. I was focused. I was locked in.”
It is the first time a team has won the title after falling behind 3-1 in a Finals series, and it took one of the best performances in Finals history from James to deliver Cleveland its first major pro sports championship since the 1964 Browns.
He was named Finals MVP for the third time in his career, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks. He led all players on both teams in all five categories in the Finals.In three consecutive must-win games for Cleveland, James had 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in Game 5; 41 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in Game 6; and the triple-double in Game 7.
"He's such a force physically, so powerful," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I thought he brought more force to the last three games than he did the first four. But he's one of the great players of all-time, and obviously was the key to the turnaround and had a great series."
The championship parade, the one James came back to deliver, is Wednesday.
“It's going to be the biggest party that Cleveland has ever seen ever,” James said.
Cleveland fans, northeast Ohio and the city endured sporting heartache after sporting heartache with two word reminders: The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, and yes, The Decision. The ethos of Cleveland sporting failures is woven into the fabric of fans.
James knows that history – he rattled off Earnest Byner’s fumble, John Elway’s 99-yard drive, Jose Mesa’s blown save opportunity and two Cavs Finals. It’s ingrained in his fabric, too. He’s part of it.
“Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what's been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams,” James said. “They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.”
It was for them, and James came through against improbable odds.
James has talent. But he’s a worker, too. Cavs general manager David Griffin called James a grinder.
“Laser-like focus,” Griffin told USA TODAY Sports. “He doesn’t know anything other than grind. He doesn’t know anything other than sacrifice for this.”
When James says, “My guys believe in me as their leader every single day,” it is not lip-service. He leads by example.
Before Game 5 in Oakland, James was up early, lifting weights and taking shots at a gym next to the team hotel. After the Cavs won Game 6, James returned to the team's practice facility at 6:30 a.m. for a massage.
“He got his work in before we flew,” Griffin said. “Nobody does that … His single-mindedness and focus, I’ve never seen before.”
Said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: “The biggest thing with LeBron and the reason why I say he deserves it is because of the person that he is. He's a giver. He's always looking to take care of people. He's always been nice to everyone. If anyone deserves it, LeBron James definitely deserves it.”
James and the Cavs washed away the heartache with one improbable championship. They were down 3-1 to the greatest regular-season team in NBA history and needed to win twice on the road. They also needed to win three in a row against a team that hadn’t lost three in a row under Coach Steve Kerr in the past two seasons.
Yet, somehow, the Cavaliers believed.
“You give me one game, you give me 48 minutes, I'll take my chances,” James said. “Once we got to a Game 7, I was just confident. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew my guys would allow me to lead them throughout the 48 minutes, and they did that.”
Griffin walked into a Starbucks with the Cavs down 3-1 and told a reporter that Cleveland would be back in Oakland for Game 7. A James confidant sent James an encouraging text following Game 4, telling James to stay confident.
James responded: “That’s all I can do is be me.”
The LeBron James story – if you listened to James closely enough – is one about beating the odds. He downplayed the pressure of trying to win a title for Cleveland by telling reporters time after time that coming from a single-parent home in the inner-city, he’s already a success. The numbers weren’t in his favor from the start.
This championship – his greatest championship – also beat the odds. Down 3-1 to the Warriors. No one thought Cleveland could win.
James and the Cavs washed away the heartache with one improbable championship. This should end that discussion once and for all about James' legacy, which was a silly discussion in the first place.
“Throughout my 13-year career, I've done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I've got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I'm capable of doing,” James said. “So that was a little icing on the cake for myself to just let me know that everything I've done, it results in this. They say hard work pays off, and that's what happened tonight.
Akron-born. Homegrown talent with unrealistic expectations placed on him as a teen. Drafted by the Cavaliers to bring a title to a championship-starved city. Left the city and region devastated when he went to Miami and won two titles with the Heat. Returned to the Cavs. Lost to Golden State in the 2015 Finals. Beat Golden State in 2016.
It is an extraordinary story authored by an extraordinary player.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.