I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.
Those were the last words in LeBron James’s influential, inspiring letter to the World. A letter in which he revealed his much-awaited decision to leave the Miami Heat and shockingly rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers in hopes of bringing a championship to the state of Ohio. Just seconds after this letter was published, the news of James’ return to Cleveland went worldwide and a multitude of celebrations were occurring across northeast Ohio. Hundreds of fans were flooding the streets as banners, posters, newspapers and news stations were unfolding the celebrated news. Joyous described the faces of just about every Cleveland Cavalier fan that day in addition to a respected, honorable and impressive reaction from people across the World. Teammates of James and other NBA players, owners and analysts couldn’t hold in their opinions as they expressed their zeal, excitement and respect of the King’s grand decision. Even his freshly former team, the Miami Heat, conveyed their understanding and appreciation of James’ return to Cleveland and success in Miami. While the rest of the World enjoyed one of the greatest sports stories to take place and Cleveland Cavalier fans already beginning to heavily celebrate, one man sat back from it all and wore a face that looked nothing like celebration, instead substituting the emotions with focus, the dancing with hard work and training, creating a drive that would be unsustainable and preparing for path that would be relentless. That man was LeBron James.
I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.
James wanted no part of the celebration as he knew he was entering a very challenging and draining course. Although his plan seemed marvelous and had very few holes, his adversities started with the other part of his return to Cleveland: his departure of Miami, a choice overlooked and only LeBron would understand.
I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys.
His struggles started with the decision to leave the Heat, the team that gracefully embraced him when he was hated, hugged him when he had finally won and shared 4 amazing, historic years with him. Four years with the Heat that had sharpened him as a man and player, on and off the basketball court, helping him to capture goals he had only dreamed about, and getting through trials and hardships that made him smarter and stronger alongside the likes of one of his best friend and teammates in Dwyane Wade, who was with him through every step of the way and even surrendered a vital role in the team in order to make extravagant room for LeBron and ultimately make him comfortable in Miami. James’ years in Miami brought out some of his greatest accolades; 2 NBA championships, 4 straight NBA Finals appearances, 2 NBA MVPs, 2 NBA Finals MVPs, a 27 game winning streak, a gold medal and much more. The lifetime friendships and successes he built in Miami were endless, opportunities he was never quite able to grasp in Cleveland. To have all that and to go back to a hometown that burned your jerseys, disgraced your name, said they never wanted you back; to go back to a team where the owner morally abused you, threw out everything you worked for and gave you credit for nothing is as hard and merciful as it gets. LeBron’s decision to reunite with the Cavaliers showed just how much he had matured, portraying one of the greatest acts of grace in sports in forgiving Dan Gilbert, learning from the infamous Decision and most importantly moving on.
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.
Soon after LeBron re-signed with the Cavs, the front office made several moves to give James the supporting cast he’d need to make a run to win a title. The 1st pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins, would be traded alongside former number one pick, Anthony Bennett, for All-Star Kevin Love. The Cavs also signed two of LeBron’s previous Heat teammates and good friends, James Jones and Mike Miller, in addition to veteran Shawn Marion. The Cavaliers looked promising heading into the 2014-2015 season; LeBron James, Kryie Irving and Kevin Love were being called the new and younger big 3, an upgrade and more favorable trio for years to come, guys who would thrive with and benefit LeBron. But like the continuous pattern in LeBron’s career, the adversity wouldn’t go away and the sunshine wouldn’t last long. Early season struggles were apparent as the Cavs lost 7 of their first 12 games. A great deal of speculation was served when tensions between LeBron James and Kryie Irving surfaced over the beginning of the season. LeBron, who had been immune to injuries for the majority of his career, was sentenced to rest for 2 weeks at the end of December as a result of nagging injuries to the back and knee; in the 10 games he missed, the Cavs lost 9, forcing LeBron to hurry back and save the season. In the midst of these couple of weeks, one of James’ “favorite teammates”, Anderson Varejao, would rupture his Achilles tendon and was forced to miss the remainder of the season. The season-ending injury to Varejao pressed Cavs GM, David Griffin, to trade for Center Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets. Griffin also decided to trade away Dion Waiters and a couple other players in exchange for Iman Shumpert and the notorious J.R Smith from the New York Knicks, two players who were playing for the worst team in the league. The trades coupled with James’ return allowed the Cavs to find their identity and go on a 12 game winning straight and ultimately win 18 of their next 20 games from the middle of January. The Cavs cruised the rest of the season and finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference with a 53-29 record, taking Cleveland back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. LeBron was the primary reason, having yet another stellar season, averaging 25.3 PPG, 7.4 APG & 6 RPG.
As the playoffs began, LeBron, a man on a mission, turned off his phone and temporarily blocked social media from his life, a move showing James’ commitment to the Cavaliers upcoming post season run. When asked about it, James said, “this is when I lock in right now and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.” Locked in, James set the tone as the Cavs took on the young and eager Boston Celtics in the first round and defeated them in just 4 games. James led the sweep averaging 27 PPG, 9 RPG and 6 APG while playing 43 minutes a game. While the 4 game domination was just what fans had envisioned, amidst the clinching victory, LeBron and the Cavs would encounter another adverse setback; Kevin Love, the team’s best big man and an essential part of the offense, would be declared out for the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to his left shoulder.
With no excuses in mind, the Cavs would have a tough 2nd round match up with the Chicago Bulls. A healthy and motivated Derrick Rose alongside All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol gave the Bulls a look they hadn’t possessed since the Jordan years. The Bulls showed their potential immediately, snatching game 1 in Cleveland, and eventually going up 2-1 in the series behind a Derrick Rose 3 point game-winner. The Cavs quickly understood the challenge going forward without Kevin Love would be difficult and a 1-2 hole didn’t make them feel any better. A pumped and confident United Center rallied behind the Bulls as they led the way for 3 quarters during Game 4. Refusing to quit, LeBron scored, assisted and rebounded all throughout the game, even defending Center Joakim Noah and Point Guard Derrick Rose at times. With the game tied at 84 and with just 1.5 seconds on the clock, James would save his best for last as he caught the ball in the corner of the court and nailed a cold-blooded game winner at the buzzer to even the series and give life to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game winner gave the Cavs the momentum as they won Game 5 behind another big game from LeBron. Back in Chicago for game 6, the Cavs routed the Bulls but not without some pain; Kryie Irving, who had been dealing with a right foot strain and left knee tendonitis left the game early and didn’t come back. Despite the misfortune, the Cavs won the series and made their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Coming off a physical, testy series with the Bulls, the Cavs would face the Atlanta Hawks, the best team in the East behind Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer, and 4 All-Stars in Al Horford, Paul Milsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Krover. For the first time in the Cavs route to the finals, home court wouldn’t be in their favor. In Atlanta, the Cavs got right to work; LeBron had back to back 30 point games to impressively steal both games on the road. Back in Cleveland, the Cavs would play Game 3 without Kryie Irving again. A rough start to the game would see LeBron miss his first 10 shots and have the Cavs looking back the whole game. Suddenly, LeBron would flip switch and terrorize the Hawks, going on a run of his own, hitting clutch shots as the Hawks threw just about every one of their defenders at him, to seal the game all on his own. The King finished the game with 37pts, 18reb and 13ast, leading the Cavs to a triumphant 3-0 stand. The Cavs wouldn’t look back after that as they demolished the Hawks, 118-88, in Game 4, to successfully sweep the Atlanta Hawks and earn just the franchise’s second trip to the NBA finals. In the 4 game demolition, LeBron James averaged 30.3 PPG, 11 RPG & 9.3 APG, a feat he himself had never achieved in the playoffs before and the rest of the NBA watched in awe as an even better, scarier LeBron James took the floor. Heading into his whopping 5th straight finals, James had a high assessment of himself, saying, “If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game. If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I’ve been”.
Just 4 wins away from winning it all, the Cavs would have to get through the Golden State Warriors, a team coming off a historic regular season and the owner of the NBA’s best record, 67-15. Behind the young and dynamic NBA MVP, Stephen Curry, stood an excellent startling lineup with key offensive and defensive steam rollers, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, and a superb bench with former all-stars in Andre Iguodala and David Lee, not to mention the outstanding, runner-up coach of the year, Steve Kerr. With a vast arsenal and an array of star-power, the Warriors would give James his largest challenge since the Spurs’ 4 game slaughter of the Cavs back in 2007. Hoping the break before the finals would give Kryie Irving some time to rest up, LeBron would need everything from Irving and the rest of the crew. The series between the best player in the league vs the best team in the league drew enormous attention and as Game 1 begin, the expectations lived up to the hype. Close and gritty, both teams fought back and forth, with James and Curry leading the way. Giving everything he had, Irving proved to be the only reliable source of help to James all game long, scoring on his own and making timely defensive plays. With only 8 players in attendance, LeBron carried the bulk of the weight throughout the contest, playing hard from the beginning to the end; With just a couple seconds left and a tied game in his hands, LeBron missed a potential game winner at the buzzer, and the game went into overtime. With the Warriors cruising in overtime and the Cavs offense in a drought, matters only got worse, as Kryie Irving re-aggravated his knee and limped to the locker room in a great deal of pain. The buzzer sounded, the Warriors winning Game 1, 108-101, with a sea of yellow celebrating in the stands. Exhausted and drained, James walked off the floor, an incredible 44pts, 8reb and 6ast later to learn that his salient partner in crime, Kryie Irving, would fracture his left knee cap and miss the remainder of the series.
After fighting so hard for 53 minutes, the news of Irving’s injury left the locker room heartbroken, devastated and almost ready to give up. Critics, writers and analysts all wrote the Cavs off and didn’t even give them a chance. The thought that Kevin Love and Kryie Irving would both be out for the finals, the most crucial and important part of they year, was unprecedented and truly unbelievable but to James, this would be nothing new. Yes, both of his best players have never been out simultaneously, especially during playoff time, but the setback, people writing him off the wall and the unparalleled battle against adversity was all to familiar to him.
Motivated and refusing to give up, James stormed out of the gates, and gave the World a performance they wouldn’t forget; Making up for everything the Cavs lacked in Love and Irving, James rebounded, assisted and scored at will, hustling and fighting to give the Cavs life. He led the Cavs in the huddle and tried to get different guys going, reviving all hopes as another close game occurred. Again, the game would go into overtime, but James wouldn’t allow a repeat of Game 1; After LeBron split a pair of free throws at the line with 4 seconds left and gave the Cavs a 2 point lead, Stephen Curry caught the ball, ran up the court and tried to pass it but Iman Shumpert intercepted the pass, leaving it to James who got the ball while the buzzer sounded and ferociously let out a scream, a pure display of emotions after a rigorous test of his will. James final stat line read 39pts, 16reb and 11ast in 50 wearied minutes, a performance for the books. The greatness would continue; Game 3 in Cleveland would see Matthew Dellavedova step up in big time way and James have another spectacular game, going for 40pts 12reb, 8ast and 4stl, as the Cavs, who weren’t expected to win another game, just took a momentous 2-1 lead and found themselves just 2 wins away from winning a championship.
Despite the turnaround, the best team in the NBA would counter and Steve Kerr inserted Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup, a move that would completely shift the series as the Warriors went small. Igoudala would torment James on defense and force him to have his worst game of the series, 20pts, 12reb and 8ast, which if any other player had would be great, but for James, wouldn’t get the job done, not nearly, as the Warriors evened up the series and took their confidence back to Golden State for a decisive game 5. With a best of 3 series at hand, James, already beat up and battered, would have to give it his all and command a larger support system to excel for the Cavs to win the series. In Game 5, the best players went at it, trading buckets, as Steph Curry and LeBron James tried to will their teams to victory. Curry had finally erupted, a 37 point night filled with 7 makes from behind the 3 point line, a work the Warriors were waiting for all series long. Although J.R Smith and Tristan Thompson had sub par games, James couldn’t get the dire help he needed and the Warriors won the game. Covering just about everything, the “best player in the World”, a controversial title James assertively called himself after the game, finished with a massive triple-double, 40pts, 14reb and 11ast, while playing all but 3 minutes of the game. As the series shifted back to Cleveland for a win-or-go-home game for the Cavs, James would try to rally his teammates one last time to revive their season. But with just 7 players playing, the Cavs failed to bring the energy a team on the brink of elimination would carry as the Warriors used a balance attack behind 20 point games from Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala, and a triple-double from Draymond Green to gain ground. Depleted and drained, the Cavs would give it their all for one last quarter as James had another monster game, but the Warriors would prove to be too much to handle, and the Cavaliers would exhaustively wave the white flag, losing the game, the series and their season.
LeBron James would walk off his home floor on the losing side again, outworked and outmatched, with the weight of the World on his back. Haters and critics taking their best jabs, noting his poor 2-4 finals record, low field goal percentage and unfair comparisons to Micheal Jordan. While those claims might be true, the series against the Warriors validated and showcased how LeBron James really was the best player in the World and his 2015 finals run was like no other in history. With numerous season-ending injuries to potent players, ongoing rifts and an atmosphere of inexperience and constant disbelief, an unparalleled battle against adversity, James went into the finals and gave everything he had and more; The best player in the World left the series with historical averages of 35.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG and 8.8 APG while boasting a lineup that featured players like Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov and James Jones, all players who were either unheard of or sitting on the bench of a non-playoff team just months before and a rookie head coach, David Blatt, who had no prior NBA experience. James adverse battle was from top to bottom as he coached, directed and played, making everyone around look him far better than they were, bringing a team with the framework to compete in the lottery to competing in the NBA finals, and being just 2 wins away from a championship. James’ unparalleled battle with adversity was truly an unparalleled battle, a journey filled with tests of will, heartbreak and fight – an unparalleled battle in which James was given nothing, but worked for everything, just as he had earned.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.