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LeBron lives up to his word to give Cleveland its redemption

After enduring decades of despair, the city can celebrate the championship it sought and the history made in doing so

POSTED: Jun 20, 2016 11:38 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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The Cavaliers' win in Game 7 of The 2016 Finals gives Cleveland its first championship in 52 years.

I'm not sure what Cleveland fans will do when their next champions are crowned, but I don't think they'll be setting cars on fire and breaking windows. I think they'll walk out of their homes and head downtown, to Public Square, gather in drunken clumps, some howling, some praying, and hug it out till daybreak. I believe that Cleveland will never be the same; it will be a better, happier place. I truly believe that Cleveland's collective soul will be redeemed on that great and glorious day. Nothing Less.

-- Scott Raab, The Whore of Akron

Austin Carr had stopped crying ... sort of.

The locker room was still moist, and some of the people who own the Cleveland Cavaliers were carrying around bottles of champagne that defied description (and would most likely not make it through customs). Everywhere, there were people who'd come to Cleveland to work for the franchise. But Carr, now the team's television analyst, wasn't just an employee. He was a lifer, a Clevelander since the team's second year of existence (1971), a team that went 23-59 and played in the old Cleveland Arena, on 37th and Euclid, in front of 5,000 or so cigarette-smoking fans most nights.

But the tears had dried now, sort of, as all those who had come on Dan Gilbert's plane whooped and hollered in the locker room, and all those who had grown up with LeBron James in Akron smoked cigars, and as James brought his kids with him up to the podium, the demon smote, dead at age 52, the Curse ended, at long last, by a native son of Ohio.

Nightly Notable: LeBron James

LeBron James notches a triple double en route to a Finals Game 7 victory, and Finals MVP.

"Been waiting a long time," Carr said.

They all had, the people who live in what they call Northeast Ohio -- that region of the state encapsuled by Cleveland, on Lake Erie, by Medina and Elyria to the West, by Youngstown, an hour and a half east of the big city, and by Akron, about 45 minutes southeast of Cleveland down Interstate 77. They have been the ones who stayed, even as the jobs and a lot of the hope left, because most of them couldn't go. They watched the Cuyahoga River burn in '69, and they watched Cleveland go bankrupt in '78, and they watched the Browns leave and they watched Tamir Rice die.

And they stayed.

They stayed and attached themselves to their sports teams, which excelled rarely but failed spectacularly when they were good. They stayed through "Red Right 88" and "The Drive" and "The Fumble" and "The Shot" and "The Decision." All those disappointments have happened since 1964, when running back Jim Brown led the Browns to an NFL title, Cleveland's last major sports championship. Since then, Cleveland's sporting hearts were constantly broken anew like figurines in a china shop, besieged by a never-ending series of charging elephants.

They stayed and waited, stayed and waited. Even the promise of a local economic spike from the upcoming Republican National Convention next month was tempered by the announcements of all the companies that have already announced they won't be coming. (Insert your own reasons why that is so here. I have mine.)

Cavaliers vs. Warriors: Game 7

LeBron James records 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists to lead the Cavaliers to their first NBA Championship in franchise history.

We know that sports don't pay the rent or get drugs out of the neighborhood, or put out the fires or elect non-corrupt public officials. But we also know that sports matter, to a great many people, and most certainly to Clevelanders. And so it mattered when LeBron James became the most coveted basketball player on Earth when he was 15, because he was from Akron, and that made him important in ways that those of us who aren't from there, and only parachute into town occasionally, will never understand.

And it mattered when James turned 18 and entered the 2003 NBA Draft, just when the Cavaliers had the first pick, because Cleveland now had the most coveted basketball player on Earth. Cleveland had something the rest of the world wanted. It had been a very long time since that had been true. And it mattered when James left in 2010 in free agency to sign with the Miami Heat, the pain so raw, the feelings of betrayal so profound that none of us who weren't from Cleveland or Akron could understand.

And it mattered again Sunday in Game 7 of The Finals, when James led his Cavaliers to the most unimaginable of comebacks, to win the whole damn thing.

"I came back for a reason," James said Sunday night. "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 I knew if I had to -- 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. Right now it's just excitement. It's not even relief. It's just excitement for us as a team, as a franchise, as a city, as a community. To be able to continue to build up our city, to continue to be an inspiration to our city, it means everything. I'm happy to be a part of it."

GameTime: Locker Room Celebration

The Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate in the locker room after winning the 2016 NBA Finals.

It mattered so much to Raab, a brilliant writer for Esquire, who was from Cleveland, that he spent much of the year that followed James' departure basically stalking him in Miami, wishing him nothing but ill will. Raab wrote a book about his travails and whose title left no doubt about his position -- a book that ended, gloriously for Raab, with James and the Heat going down in flames to the Dallas Mavericks in The 2011 Finals.

There was not a sequel. Not once James -- a free-agent again -- returned to the Cavs in 2014, promising nothing but his best effort, but being in a much different position as a player than he'd been in Miami. There, he was the most important piece of the SuperFriends, but still one of three -- and on a team where Pat Riley still held the hammer.

In LeBron 2.0, in Cleveland, there's been no doubt who's been in charge, on and off the court, from minute one.

"It's bigger than basketball," James's agent, Rich Paul, from Cleveland, the second R in LRMR Marketing -- LeBron, Randy (Mims), Maverick (Carter) and Rich -- whispered Sunday night, while James retold from the podium just how the hell the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to the defending-champion Golden State Warriors to become the first team in league history to overcome that deficit and win The Finals.

Just how the hell did James win his third title and third Finals MVP, on a team that looked like chum just six days ago? And how did he do that while becoming the first player ever to lead both teams in every major statistical category -- points (29.7 per game), rebounds (11.3), assists (8.9), steals (2.6) and blocks (2.3) -- in The Finals? How the hell did he run down Andre Iguodala for that momentum-changing block late in the fourth quarter of Game 7?

Just how the hell did James wrestle those 52 years to the ground and beat a Golden State team that looked for all the world like it would be the greatest single-season team in NBA history?

"He was willing to take that, be willing to carry that load," Paul said. "Most guys in professional sports have a me mindset. He has a we mindset. We stretches further than his house, than his locker room. It's we that the kids that are watching me grow, watching me and modeling their games after me. It's we, kids that grow like me and that struggle for the next meal. It's we and others who raise their grandchildren, single parents. It's we, being a young black man and not supposed to make it to see 18. That's we."

That was the subtext of these Finals, the matchup of James and Stephen Curry -- Curry, from a two-parent household, whose father was an NBA player, who grew up in a stable neighborhood, and who had eclipsed James as the league's best player in, seemingly, the blink of an eye. It was Curry who was the two-time Kia MVP and whose team won 73 games this season, while James and the Cavs seemingly meandered through the regular season, culminating in David Blatt getting fired as coach and replaced by Tyronn Lue.

Cavaliers Clinch Title

The Cleveland Cavaliers watch as the last shot is missed and they become the 2016 NBA Champions.

It should go without saying that James didn't share the sentiment that he'd been passed by Curry. As The Finals went on and as James seemed to grow and Curry seemed to shrink, James relished the chance to re-establish just who the most Alpha Male in NBA was (and is). That smirk after James swatted Curry's shot in Game 6 Thursday was not by accident. It was months in the making.

"I got a text today from someone in Chicago who said 'the whole city of Chicago is pulling for 'Bron," Paul said. "And that has nothing to do with the Bulls. But it has everything to do with where we come from."

Legacies are heavy weights.

James had parried everyone, including me, who has asked him during the last two years what winning a championship in Cleveland would mean to him. It is not simple, his feelings for the city; James has always noted that he's from Akron, not Cleveland. His affinities, loves and loyalties are first with Akron, including the kids that he's helping put through college. His high school was in Akron. The friends that are his closest and help him navigate his life are from Akron.

But Akron does not have an NBA team.

And James plays for Cleveland.

And until Sunday, James had never played in a game that, if his team won, would end the Cleveland curse.

GameTime: LeBron Joins The Crew

LeBron James joins the GameTime crew to talk about Game 7 and what it is like for him and his teammates to be bringing back a championship to Cleveland.

Thirteen NBA seasons, and all of the big games and moments James has faced, but until Sunday, he never had a championship for The Land on his racket.

"It's Father's Day, Game 7, and I'm in the city I love with my one & only child, & it's heaven," Raab had said via direct message Sunday morning. "And it is agony, waiting & hoping & worrying. I'm good, maybe the luckiest Cleveland fan ever born. But damn, I'll be 64 soon, & I want to share a CLE title with my family & friends. And I want one for a great city that hasn't had much to celebrate for a long, long time -- two generations of heartbreak and failure. Like the players, we can only do what we can do, control what we can control, give it our all, & live with the results. Like them, I want to BE in the moment.

"As crazy as fanhood is, it matters at depth to me & every Cleveland fan I know. I'm happy to be here, knowing that LeBron & Co. have a chance to do something truly epic. I'm thrilled, & come what may, I'm proud."

Of course James wanted to win for himself, and his teammates, and his city/cities. But that weight, those five decades ... it's impossible to believe that none of it sat on his already bad back like a piano.

He had parried again Saturday.

I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city.

– Cavs star LeBron James

"I don't think it's went through my mind until you asked me," he said to me during his news conference Saturday, when I asked him about the moment and what it would mean for Northeast Ohio for the umpteenth time.

"Well, you say pressure because everyone -- that's like the whole world, the word everyone likes to use in sports is 'pressure,'" James said. "I don't really get involved in it. But I guess in layman's terms, pressure, I think it's an opportunity to do something special, and I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can be a part of something that was very special."

Oh, come on!

Dwyane Wade. You know him! You guys are close friends! LeBron knows what's at stake Sunday, right?

"He does," said Wade, who flew in from Hawaii Sunday morning to be at Oracle Sunday afternoon. "He just doesn't want his mind to go there right now. Like, you just want to focus on the task and not think about anything else outside at this point ... you have to know how to do that. To be that great, you have to know how to do that. You have to know how to shut this crowd out; you have to shut out whatever everybody's saying, everything. He's good at that. He has a lot of years of experience.

Even Wade was blown away by what James did in Games 5 and 6.

"I told him, 'that's the LeBron I've known for 13 years,' " Wade said. "He's got his foot on the gas pedal."

For 46 years, the Cavaliers had been occasionally good, but never great. The highlight of Carr's years as a player was the Miracle of Richfield in 1976, when Cleveland upset the defending conference champion Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and took the Boston Celtics to six games in the conference finals.

"It would mean so much, because I've been with the franchise from the beginning," Carr said. "And to watch us almost get there, and watch us grow and grow and grow, and to finally get to the top? Like I always tell people, I've been fighting other NBA cities since 1971. And to finally end up on the top? There's no way to explain it. You just cry. It's a release."

A generation later, another group of Cavaliers -- "The Team of the '90s," as Magic Johnson had predicted in the late 1980s -- got close, but never as close as everyone thought they would. Those Cavs, with Mark Price and Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty, won 54 games or more three times, and made the playoffs nine times in 11 seasons. But they ran into Michael Jordan's Bulls, and could never get past them.

"The pressure is there, you know it and feel it," Price said Sunday. "The fans are so great, as a star player you really want to be a part of delivering it to the franchise and the city."

So Gilbert and James, famously, made up. But the task still seemed as high as the billboard that once again featured James in front of Quicken Loans Arena upon his return, the one that has "Cleveland" on the back instead of "James." It was a brilliantly orchestrated return, as good as "The Decision" was bad -- who can argue with the tale of the Prodigal Son (yes, there were two sons in the Bible story, and James is an only child. Just go with it)?

It's not about basketball. It's bigger. It's legacy. It's giving a positive mindset to Northeast Ohio. People in Northeast Ohio, it's really like you have to work for everything you have. And there's no Fifth Avenue. There's no beach. It's a grind, grind, grind city.

– Rich Paul, on Cleveland

But there was work to do, last season and this season. The Cavs were at their worst when things were at their best. When they won a few games, they tended to coast through the next few. When challenged, their attention held for a few games. But then it would slip again. They were clearly still the best team in the East, but looked again like Finals fodder for whichever team came out of the Western Conference's meat grinder.

Nothing looked especially different when Golden State won Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena to go up 3-1. They'd dispatch the Cavaliers quickly in Game 5, and James would fall to 2-5 in Finals series, and never mind that his teams had made six straight Finals; he was going to be a loser again.

"I think when we were down 3-1, I think it was the first time we've had appropriate fear all year," Cleveland General Manager David Griffin said. "I think we understood this was going to take, literally, everything that we had. This team, this group of guys, is really blessed to be able to say that whenever they've given everything they've had, nobody has beaten them ... they were the most confident down 3-1 team that you've ever seen."

James was sanguine as his team's plane flew West last Sunday.

"For me, when I came up here after we lost Game 4 at home, I said, hey, listen, we've got to take one possession, one game at a time," he said. "We're going to Golden State, so we've got to fly home anyways, so why not have another game? And I believed in that. And my guys believe in me as their leader every single day. I preach to them every single day. I'm their leader, and they allow me to lead those guys every single night. I was just true to that. I believed, and nobody else believed besides the other 14 guys and our coaching staff and our fans."

No, no one else believed. How could you? This was the stuff of fairy tales, and fairy tales are not what they've known and lived in Cleveland for so very long.

"When we were in Vegas," Paul said late Sunday night, "and he was deciding whether or not he was going to come back, I told him, 'go on vacation. I got it.' And one of the things he talked about was, I could stay (in Miami) and win more championships, or I could go back home. It's not about basketball. It's bigger. It's legacy. It's giving a positive mindset to Northeast Ohio. People in Northeast Ohio, it's really like you have to work for everything you have. And there's no Fifth Avenue. There's no beach. It's a grind, grind, grind city. And a lot of people wake up with the mindset of, I can't. People wake up saying 'I can't.' So if you're eating 'I can't' for breakfast, how can you be successful?"

In the great comedy "Major League," the sadsack Indians won the pennant, beating the Yankees behind Willie Mays Hays and Pedro Serrano and Jake Taylor and Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn. It was, and is, a cult classic. But it was a movie.

Movies aren't real.

LeBron James? Oh, he's real.

MORE MORNING TIP: David Aldridge's Weekly Top 15 Rankings | Debunking NBA conspiracy theories

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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