CLEVELAND – Before The Decision, there was the Boston series. You know the one. The one that birthed the terms LeQuit, LeChoke, and everything in between. The one where LeBron James walked off the floor in a Game 5 loss in Cleveland and looked as though he may never walk back into Quicken Loans Arena as a Cleveland Cavalier ever again. During that series, bothered, and flustered – even though he still had himself a terrific individual series when it was all said and done – James was not his typical calm self at the postgame podium.
One quote especially drew the ire of Cavs fans, who held onto that statement – among other perceived slights – for years after The Decision was made, and LeBron won his titles in Miami, and up until James returned home in one of the sport’s storybook moments.
“I spoil a lot of people with my play,” James said.
Cleveland never wanted to admit that was true. Cleveland has an inferiority complex that’s unrivaled by really anyone in professional sports, and it can be traced to any number of things. The weather. The losses the city has taken in both real life and the sports world. The national perception and the constant jokes hurled at their expense. The narratives they’re forced to swallow any time Cleveland is put on a broadcast in front of the whole world.
Spoiled? How could they be? This city hasn’t won anything since The Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air. Everybody hates Cleveland. And LeBron James hadn’t hand delivered them the championship they so desperately wanted.
The rhetoric was misguided, but so are many things in fanhood. And the dividing line between LeBron James and Cleveland was drawn. LeBron started identifying only as being from Akron, and Northeast Ohio, but not Cleveland (which he always did with subtlety but never to this level prior). He poured more and more into his community, and bought a house in nearby Bath even while he was hanging on South Beach. And fans blamed everyone but themselves for the loss, like a person out of a longterm relationship who can’t pick up the pieces and move on and instead gets angry, sad, and angry again almost on a loop.
In so many ways, James represented the best shot Cleveland would ever have at greatness, and they got beautiful, inspired basketball out of him night in and night out. But they got everything except the ring, and they focused so much more on that than anything else, as if not delivering said ring meant all the other gestures up until that point never mattered.
We had a wonderful life together. “Yeah but we never got married.” Why would marriage define our relationship? Weren’t you happy? Didn’t I treat you well? “Sure I was happy. But if you really treated me well, you would’ve proven it and given me a symbol of that.”
LeBron was right. Cleveland was spoiled. The entire NBA was spoiled. We always have been. And we still are. It’s just that now Cleveland – and everyone else – is finally starting to realize that.
There’s a skill LeBron James has that is so rare, it’s almost as if he and the others who share that gift are in a secret society of magicians where revealing the secret will get them excommunicated. When James is playing, there are nine other players on the floor, and an entire arena is watching. Somehow every eye is drawn to him, and those nine people – and every person in that arena – disappears. Except that James sees only those nine people, and he acts and reacts accordingly. Sure there have been players bigger than him before. Others who have been faster. Better shooters. More precise passers (although this one is actually arguable). Enhanced closers. Superior rebounders. Greater defenders. But if you’re creating a player who can do everything, and do each of those things at an elite level, no one has ever come close to LeBron James.
At one point in Game 6 against the Warriors, James was so locked in that he scored or assisted on 35 of 36 points the Cavaliers put up from the middle of the third quarter to late in the fourth (via ESPN Stats). He was everywhere on offense and defense, and had the sort of acute awareness typically reserved for an X-Men member or Denzel Washington from The Equalizer. For all his physical gifts, the most powerful part of his game is his mind, the sort of photographic encyclopedic Dewey Decimal system that could have made James a codebreaker in World War II, or an expert politician, or a card counter in Vegas, or a rocket scientist.
“I just want people to make sure that they recognize it,” Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson said after Game 6. “There are so many other things that get said at times and not many people in the history of sports have said, ‘Everyone get on my back. The city, state, organization, team, get on my back. If we win or fail I’ll take the blame, but I’m going to lead you.’ How many people have ever said that? I can’t think of too many players who have put that type of pressure on themselves and then have delivered more times than not. And he embraces it. It just shouldn’t go unnoticed. It should be something that’s recognized by the fans.”
LeBron is the most unique basketball player the NBA has ever seen. He knows it, and the second time around, Cleveland now knows it too.
The effort James has put out in the past two games against the best regular season team in history, and the defending NBA Champions, and the reigning MVP, is to be celebrated, regardless of whether Cleveland is able to cap off the first 3-1 series comeback in Finals history. He already helped his team do something nobody has done in 50 years – force a Game 7 after being down 3-1.
He was called out following Game 4 by the Warriors, and has been called out at every stage of his career for not always being the immortal id, ego, and superego ubermensch he has shown himself to be at times, no how matter unrealistic that request is. Almost every time that has happened he’s answered the call, Finals record be damned. He flashes the greatness that only true virtuosos can provide, but every symphony that survives hundreds of years of history neglects the others that have faded into obscurity. Time and again, we demand more and more of him. We ask him to give, and give, and give, and he always does.
As with all things, context and time will aid James in ways the present never has. Everyone is going to look back on his career and marvel that we were there in the first place, and we really were WITNESSES for as long as we were. The word legacy doesn’t matter anymore.
If LeBron James really does the unthinkable, and wins Game 7 against the Warriors, and brings his city the title they’ve been so desperately craving for so long, he’ll be the King of Cleveland forever. We should all be that spoiled.