Two years ago, when LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return to Cleveland, a prominent member of the Heat organization – he won’t say whom – told him he was making a terrible mistake.
Actually, it was one of the grandest gestures imaginable from a modern-day pro athlete. James exchanged the glamor of South Beach for the chance to bring a long-awaited championship home to northeast Ohio.
James delivered in historic fashion Sunday night, leading the Cavaliers to their first NBA title in a gripping Game Seven against the favored Warriors and ending Cleveland’s 52-year major championship drought.
I imagine Buffalo fans felt a stab of envy in the emotional aftermath, as James sobbed on the floor of the Oracle and fans rejoiced outside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. No longer will the city on the other end of Lake Erie carry the burden as a town of chronic losers.
As I watched James hold the championship trophy aloft, I wondered what it would be like if one of Western New York’s native sons pulled off a similar feat. It would be like Patrick Kane skating around with the Stanley Cup at the Arena after coming home to play for the Sabres.
But more so, I was filled with profound admiration for James, who accepted the enormous pressure of trying to win a title for his hometown and gave basketball fans the most remarkable clutch performance in NBA history.
It’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment, but this was a triumph that was worthy of superlatives, a defining moment in James’ wondrous career and a comeback that will be talked about for years to come.
This rivals what the Red Sox did in 2004 by coming from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, on their way to ending an 86-year World Series drought. The Cavs became the first team in NBA history to win the title after falling behind three games to one in the Finals.
Oh, and it came against a Golden State team that set an NBA record with 73 wins during the regular season and was being compared – prematurely, as it turned out – with the greatest teams in NBA history.
James essentially willed his team to the championship. Predictably, the debate on Monday wasn’t about the Warriors being the best team of all time, but whether LeBron had established himself as the best ever to play.
There was a strong argument to be made for James, even before the series. The sport has never seen anything quite like him, a powerful, 6-foot-8, 250-pound force with the skills of a guard, the defensive presence of a center, the basketball IQ of a coach and the heart of a champion.
For years, I’ve considered Magic Johnson the greatest ever. Johnson transformed the sport. He was a supreme playmaker who was forced to play center in the 1980 Finals as a 20-year-old rookie and responded with a 42-point, 15-rebound masterpiece in the Lakers’ clinching win over the Sixers.
That game became the standard for clutch performances in the Finals. But over the last three games of this year’s Finals, with his team facing elimination, James turned in the most astonishing individual run that I’ve ever seen.
The stats don’t do it justice, but they’re staggering just the same. Start with the preposterous fact that James led all players – on both teams – in the Finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots.
In the last three games, with everything on the line, James averaged 36 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and three blocks.
James has the vital ability to defend every position on the floor, and a rare sense of the moment. The play that defined him Monday came late in the fourth quarter, during a frantic sequence where the Cavs and Warriors failed to score on a combined dozen straight possessions.
After a missed shot, Golden States’ Andre Iguodala grabbed a rebound and took off on a two-on-one break with Steph Curry, who threaded a bounce pass to Iguodala for a layup. James, trailing the play, took off and soared from left to right through the lane to block the shot just before it hit glass.
A minute or so later, Kyrie Irving sank the three-point shot that gave Cleveland the win. LeBron’s block was one of those plays that brings you off your couch in amazement, a hoop lover’s delight.
James has taken a lot of heat over the years. But aside from his tacky way he announced his “Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami, he has done nothing to taint his reputation. No scandal, no drugs, no mistreatment of women. He comes off as a generous good guy and a basketball nerd of sorts.
So where does he rank? These judgments should be made over time, not in the flush of the moment. I decided Magic was the best after he had retired. It helps to have a longer perspective. Let’s face it, the idea that Curry had become the best player in the league seems laughable after the Finals.
Imagine if James, like Magic, had a supporting cast that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Michael Cooper. Or if he played with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, as Larry Bird did in his prime.
Michael Jordan is widely considered the best ever, largely because he went 6-for-6 in Finals. Jordan was extraordinary, but the surrounding talent on those Bulls teams was better than James had in Miami. And try to remember another starter on the Cavs team James dragged into the Finals in 2007.
James isn’t as good a shooter as Jordan or Bird, or as good a passer as Johnson or Bird, or as pure a scorer as Jordan or Kobe Bryant, or as good a defender as Hakeem Olajuwon. But he has a bit of all of them. He’s as good a team player as I’ve seen.
He proved it in the Olympics, when he deferred to other stars and helped the U.S. win gold in 2008 and 2012. Coach Mike Krzyzewski became a great admirer of James. After the title in London, Krzyzewski called him “the best player, the best leader and as smart as anyone playing the game.”
James will probably skip the Olympics in Rio. He’s earned it. He has played in three Games, which is more than most NBA players do. As a competitor, it will be difficult, because no one took more pleasure in playing and helping show the world the Americans are still the best in hoops.
At 31, LeBron is still the best player and leader, and as smart as anyone in the NBA today. I’m not sure he’s the best ever, but trust me, I’m wavering.