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Finally! LeBron brings joy to Cleveland with historic title

LeBron James has performance for the ages to help Cavs finish historic comeback, deliver city its first pro sports title since 1964

POSTED: Jun 20, 2016 8:18 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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— When you win a championship for a deprived and beaten-down sports city that hasn't bragged in 52 years, the victory liquid of choice isn't champagne. No, it's much more organic than that, less bubbly, more personal.

It's tears, streaming down your face, past your nostrils, over the cheeks, a river right into your mouth, sweet to the taste, and LeBron James got so stone drunk on his emotion that he nearly passed out on the floor.

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.

On his knees, or whatever was left of them after playing 46 out of 48 minutes in a Game 7, LeBron pounded the Oracle Arena hardwood with his fist, over and over, sobbing and screaming, "Oh my God, oh my God!" That will be the recurring scene of this dream when it's replayed for future generations of Clevelanders, who probably wouldn't -- couldn't -- comprehend all the fuss.

What they should know is that you could list all the major sports championships won by any team in any sport and few would carry the weight of this one. They should know a dastardly curse that caused the longest title drought of any North American city was wiped away in emphatic manner by the Cleveland Cavaliers, against all common sense.

How many times has a pitiful, poor Cleveland team been on the other end, unable to rise in the moment, powerless to prevent a painful fate? Look at how this NBA title was secured. This was very un-Cleveland like. The Cavaliers scrambled from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals; that was a first. They beat the Warriors three straight games; that was a first against this current Golden State crew. They won twice in Oakland; again, a first against a historic 73-win team.

This was for them.

– LeBron James, on winning a title for Cleveland

And they kept attacking, time and time again, in a heightened 93-89 victory that stayed dangerously close until the very end, and therefore torturing the thousands of Cavs fans whose emotions were held hostage as they gathered in the downtown streets. Would it be hysteria or heartbreak? They didn't know. They had to toe that tightrope. They were well-prepared for one feeling, inexperienced for the other. Understand that Cleveland professional sports teams had gone 146 straight seasons without beating their chest. Understand that Cleveland was once in this tense spot before, in the 1997 World Series, but Indians pitcher Jose Mesa couldn't close out the ninth inning.

Finally: Kyrie Irving lasered a 3-point shot over the fingertips of Stephen Curry with 53 seconds left that broke a tied game for good. That swish, delivered with guts and confidence, and now known as The Jumper, is the answer to The Drive (John Elway) and The Fumble (Earnest Byner) and The Shot (Michael Jordan), the devils that drove a stake through Cleveland's conscious. For many reasons, Irving's 25-foot pull-up won't erase the iconic image of Jordan grabbing an inbounds pass and levitating over Craig Ehlo, unless you live in the 216, and therefore Irving over Steph is the prettiest you've ever seen.

LeBron Wins MVP

Adam Silver presents the Finals MVP Trophy to LeBron James.

"I shoot it and I'm just hoping it goes in," said Irving.

This team, the 2016 Cavaliers, was often derided for being too one-dimensional, code for being too one-man, too you-know-who. Well, there was a rebuttal Sunday. What the Cavs showed in the moment of truth is how it took a collective effort and a total team to deliver this long-awaited championship.

There was Kevin Love, a frustrated former All-Star who had been bedeviled by confusion, injury and uncertainty for much of these two seasons. He was mainly a no-show in this series and was even benched for a game in favor of 35-year-old journeyman Richard Jefferson. But there was Love, finally rebounding like a maniac (14 total) to jump-start Game 7, flourishing his teammates with confidence in him, forcing the Warriors' D to respect him.

"I just continued to fight through it," he said. "I knew that I just had to have one great game. I was told to rise above it by my teammates."

There was J.R. Smith, a streaky shooter with a checkered career, opening the second half with a pair of crushing 3-pointers form the parking lot to chop away a seven-point halftime deficit and recharge the Cavs. There was Tristan Thompson, a 6-foot-11 big man often caught in defensive switches against Curry, who kept his feet moving and never allowed Curry (6-for-19 shooting) much room to hurt Cleveland.

J.R. Smith on His Father

J.R. Smith gets emotional during his postgame news conference talking about his father and his family.

Irving? A year ago he was limited to one game because of a knee injury, which severely limited the Cavs' scoring options. He rehabbed and recovered, cut down on his mistakes and number of dribbles, re-made himself into a threat, learned how to co-exist alongside a mega-star who craves the ability to control the ball, and became a championship hero. It was Irving who gave great support with the 41-point outburst in Game 5. Then he shot his way through the Warriors' defense Sunday and never ran away from pressure. He scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half, and you know why Irving didn't celebrate his big shot? He was busy getting back on defense, once a chore for him, where he was sold against Curry.

"If there could ever be another Game 7 like this, I hope I'm either playing in it or I'm watching something historic like that," he said. "I'm just really thankful to be part of it and to do it with the group that I had in the locker room and us etching our names forever in NBA history."

There was Tyronn Lue, elevated from assistant coach on Jan. 22, a neophyte given the responsibility of directing a fractured team in a win-or-bust atmosphere. He matched wits against Steve Kerr, the Coach of the Year, and pressed all of the right buttons.

"Not even in my dreams," he said. "My wildest dreams. Just happy that a small-town boy could do something positive. The team supported me from day one, taking over a tough situation. Stuck behind me 100 percent."

GameTime: Love And Lue Talk Game 7

Kevin Love and Tyronn Lue join the GameTime crew to talk about Game 7 and what it took to win the 2016 NBA Finals.

Yes, the Cavs were all that ... but we know who made this special moment in Cleveland history possible.

"My guys believe in me as their leader," James said. "They allow me to lead. I was just true to that. I knew what I was capable of doing, and my guys allowed me to lead them for 48 minutes. I gave everything that I had for 48 minutes."

LeBron had a triple-double in Game 7. Ponder that for a moment. He scored 27 points, took 11 rebounds, found teammates for 11 more baskets. And none of that describes his defense, or the sound of his soaring and violent block of an Andre Iguodala layup with 1:50 left. The last three games were 41 points, 41 points, triple-double. LeBron led all scorers, rebounders, passers and shot-blockers for the entire series. One man.

"A baaad man," corrected Thompson.

I knew what I was capable of doing, and my guys allowed me to lead them for 48 minutes. I gave everything that I had for 48 minutes.

– Cleveland's LeBron James

He fulfilled the promise he made when he was drafted, then after a bitter divorce, one he made again when he returned to Cleveland two summers ago. It certainly seemed possible for someone with four MVPs still in his prime. But did he have enough help? And if not, could he summon the strength? To lift the sagging, punctured spirits of an entire city?

He's had a complicated relationship with Cleveland. LeBron was embraced as a savior at first, then hailed as a local icon, then spit upon as a traitor. The owner of the Cavs, Dan Gilbert, urged Clevelanders to turn their backs on LeBron. But, time heals, LeBron knew where his heart beat hardest. Home will always be Akron, the sleepy sister to the south, but on Sunday, overtaken by the moment, he referred to Cleveland as "my city." Cleveland always wanted to hear that.

"Name another person who has taken an entire state," said Jefferson. "He didn't have to come back here. He could've stayed in Miami. He said, `You know what? I'm going to come back because I promised that I would do something.' It's amazing."

GameTime: Gilbert And Forbes Join The Crew

Dan Gilbert and Nathan Forbes join the GameTime crew to talk about Game 7 and what it feels like for the Cleveland Cavaliers to have a Championship.

When the buzzer sounded, LeBron raced into the arms of Irving and Love, and then he needed some time to himself and hit his knees. He didn't do that in Miami. His forehead and fists and teardrops never touched the floor. Those championships were nice. This was his signature.

The city, obviously, went a bit insane Sunday and throughout the break of dawn Monday although it didn't really know how to act in such matters. For five decades Cleveland watches as others danced in the streets, lost their voices, tugged their jerseys, used their index finger. Cleveland had an index finger? Nobody knew.

Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what's been going on. For us to be able to do this, and end this drought, they deserve it.

– LeBron James

"Just knowing what our city has been through, as far as sports for 50-something years," James said. "Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what's been going on. For us to be able to do this, and end this drought, they deserve it. This was for them."

LeBron very likely just put himself on basketball's Mount Rushmore, and for the skeptics, understand that he still has years ahead. This is his third championship but the only one that anyone will vividly recall. This is the one that places him high with the legends, given the magnitude, and also because he did it mostly but not totally without great help.

In his final moments inside an arena that quickly emptied, LeBron James walked with his Finals MVP trophy, the Larry O'Brien trophy, his three kids and entourage, and kept repeating his second biggest wish, now that the first one was finally accomplished.

"I'm ready to get back to Cleveland. I can't wait to get off that plane and hold that trophy. Hold it up for my city."

Tears. Cleveland is used to that, although for 52 years they've been salty. The sports history in that town is more than ready to welcome a new addition. From The Fumble to The Drive to The Shot, there is finally something to hug:

The Championship.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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