Part II: 2016, the Year of Second Chances

From one underdog to another: LeBron James finally wins a championship for Cleveland.

From one underdog to another: LeBron James finally wins a championship for Cleveland.

I read LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” Sports Illustrated essay when it first came out in July 2014. Back then, I didn’t follow basketball; it was just that the essay was sprawled out all over my Facebook news feed and I couldn’t avoid it. At the time, I had absolutely no context as to who LeBron James really was. All I knew about him was that he was some basketball player that Barack Obama allegedly compared himself to behind closed doors in the political tell-all, Game Change.

In fact, earlier that summer, some guy had posted a Facebook status declaring that he was “taking his talents” to some Masters program, and I had thought it was the most arrogant thing I’ve ever read on my Facebook feed. Now, I know it was LeBron’s infamous line from his all-day ESPN special, “The Decision,” so, in retrospect, I’ll admit that the status was kind of funny.

Fast forward to the late spring of 2015. I was following the playoffs because I started watching sports. My home team, the Warriors, were having a dream season for the first time in a long time. It was hard not to jump on the bandwagon, but I vehemently argued that I really watched the games, and I really loved the team. They were so much fun to watch. Also I wanted them to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals because I finally discovered who LeBron James was, and I loved the whole “best team versus best player” narrative. I desperately needed the Cavaliers to get into the 2015 NBA Finals, and so they did–or at least, LeBron James did–with some impressive plays, most memorably, this buzzer-beating three-pointer against the Bulls.

But, at the end, the Warriors were just putting that cherry on top of their dream season, beating the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Though LeBron had put on a tremendous series, his lone endeavor in the midst of his teammates’ injuries was no match for the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green, who put on spectacular displays of basketball teamwork in the six-game series. The trophy was hoisted, and a year-long debate was initiated: Are the Warriors one of the greatest teams of all time? Is LeBron James definitely not the GOAT? Will we see the Warriors and Cavaliers play each other again in next year’s finals?

I needed the answer to the last question to be a “yes.”

I don’t have cable. So, for the early part of the 2015-2016 NBA season, I was counting down to the Warriors versus Cavaliers Christmas Day special. When the Warriors won, I doubted the Cavaliers–they had a healthy team this time, and still couldn’t beat the Warriors. And, for the rest of the regular season, the Warriors continued a fairy tale narrative, setting a regular season record of winning 73 games; Stephen Curry posted a record for the number of three-pointers in the regular season. The Cavaliers, however, were navigating the waters of a slightly weaker eastern conference, but quietly dominating, nonetheless.

I was in Europe for the first four games of the NBA Finals. The Warriors had too easily beaten the Cavaliers in the first two games. I kept thinking, we need LeBron to be LeBron. The Warriors’ victory would be boring if it’s simply just given to them, I argued. The Cavaliers blew the Warriors out in Game 3, but the Warriors came back in Game 4. The Warriors just needed one more.

I was home for Game 5. I rationalized that we could give the Cavaliers one more game. If the Cavaliers won, the Warriors would be well-rested for Game 6, and win. It’ll be like last year–a six-game series. The narratives, I thought, would be that the Cavaliers played a respectable finals series, but the Warriors shall be the dominant NBA team for the next few years, and Cleveland’s moment will have to wait.

Some folks want to blame the Game 5 loss to Draymond Green’s suspension, but that seems far from the heart of the matter. Even the guys on the Cavaliers whose presence felt nonexistent last year–Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith–made some crucial shots that elevated the team. Surely, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were the true stars, but their supporting cast was strong, and willing to bleed and sweat for Cleveland in a way that the Warriors didn’t seem to care to do for Oakland. Between the crotch-hitting and the name-calling and the mouthguard-throwing, the once likable Warriors were on the brink of being losers.

At the end of Game 7, the Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, 93-89. The end of their fairy tale season didn’t end in a championship, but a loss at home. I felt sad for Oakland, a city that’s only half an hour away, and a city that was once nefarious for crime, but was revived by a champion basketball team. Deep down, though, I felt conflicted about the actual Warriors, a team whose celebrity and records were beginning to overshadow their work ethic and focus on and off the court.

Yet, there was the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has never won an NBA championship. Cleveland itself hasn’t won anything since the Cleveland Browns’ Super Bowl victory eons ago. Collapsed on the ground of Oracle arena, there was LeBron James–the inevitable finals MVP–crying. Crying, because the odds were against him and his team. Crying, because he had won. Crying, because he had fulfilled exactly what he had set out to do by coming back home.

No matter who you were rooting for, it was hard not to feel incredibly happy for the Cavaliers’ victory. They roared back from a three-game deficit–a feat that no other team had ever achieved in any finals series. Their win felt magical. The scrappy underdogs had won. And, yes, it felt ridiculous, calling LeBron James–a superhuman basketball machine–an underdog, but in a way, he was. For someone who is so unbelievably good at his game, there are still detractors arguing that he isn’t. The Cavaliers were given a second chance, and they took it. Their leader, LeBron James carried them, but they also learned to carry themselves.

Earlier this week, I went back and re-read LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” essay. Now I understand the context, and now I am more moved by it than ever.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

Only someone who had his shares of losses would ever say that. Cleveland is an underdog. The Cavaliers are underdogs. And, I shall present my ultimate hot take: LeBron James is an underdog. Yet, he, his team, and his town won last week, against all odds.

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Part I: 2016, The Year of Second Chances

Dustin Johnson wins US Open despite the golf gods being clearly against him.

Dustin Johnson wins US Open despite the golf gods being clearly against him.

In an effort to be more like Thought Catalog, I’m going to talk some golf.

June 19, 2016 may have been the greatest day in sports, ever. I say this as someone who recently started watching sports after moving home, post-college, because there was nothing better to do. But, this is the Internet, and the Internet is a paradise of amateurs who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Of all the sports on television, I love watching golf. I quickly learned that golf is on three or four hours a day (depending on the tournament) on weekends, which makes the narratives extremely easy to follow. I actually fell in love with golf during last year’s U.S. Open, or at least it was one of the many turning points.

First, it was Masters, then it was the Players, then it was the U.S. Open. Notice that two out of those three tournaments was won by 22-year-old (soon to be 23-year-old), Jordan Spieth. Spieth, however, has lost his mojo this year, most notably on the 12th hole at the Masters. I, along with the rest of American golf, was lying on the floor, screaming when his ball fell in the water the second time, and the heartbreak was real. Despite already winning twice on tour this season, let us remember that, Spieth, just this time last year, was on the verge of potentially going for the Grand Slam, and boy, did he get close–finishing tied for fourth at the British Open and a solo second at the PGA Championship, where he relentlessly dueled with current World Number One, Jason Day, who eventually won the major by putting up the ultimate golf clinic.

As last year’s golf season came to an end and Spieth was golf’s new star in a post-Tiger era, we almost forgot about Dustin Johnson. Johnson, the man who nearly won the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, as Spieth sat in the clubhouse with his score of -5, waiting to see if Johnson will win, force a playoff, or come in second. Then, Johnson did the unimaginable: he three-putted the 18th hole. Spieth’s coronation as U.S. Open champion, or as golf’s new golden boy, or as one of the greatest of all time, officially began. At the time, I was far too young a sports fan to comprehend how damn heartbreaking Johnson’s three-putt was–I was happy to see Spieth win, having been practically introduced to golf because of Spieth’s performance at Augusta, and was extremely impressed by how he bounced back from his double-bogey at Chambers–but re-watching Johnson three-putt was hard.

Johnson was seen as a choker–perhaps unlucky, at times, but a choker. Yet, at this year’s U.S. Open, he was simply dazzling: an exciting, precise bomber and an improved putter. I’m going to admit that I was initially rooting for Sergio Garcia (the ultimate golf underdog) the whole time. For a moment, it looked like there was a chance that Garcia could very well prevail, especially after the amazing hole-in from the bunker on the eighth hole, which was followed by him rescuing a bird. However, Garcia faltered a bit in the back-nine and had to settle for a T-5 finish.

As the day progressed, the main narrative quickly switched to Johnson. When the USGA told Johnson at the twelfth hole that the rule officials were still reviewing whether or not his putter may have caused his ball to roll backwards (??) at the fifth hole, but they wouldn’t let him know whether or not he’ll get a one-shot penalty until after the round is over (??), I felt awful for Johnson, who had to play the rest of his round not knowing whether or not he’ll be penalized. While this may have affected the rest of the field–and judging by the final scores, it certainly may have had a profound effect–I couldn’t imagine the pressure he was under. Although many have criticized Johnson for being sort of a blank slate (read Shane Ryan’s chapter on Johnson in Slaying the Tiger), I’m willing to argue that pressure is still pressure in the final round of the U.S. Open, and whatever Johnson was experiencing was probably no different. And he got to show the USGA what he was made of–finishing the round at -5, a four-shot lead, making the one-shot penalty ruled after his round a moot point.

While I love bombers (I absolutely love watching Bubba Watson drive a ball off the tee), Johnson never appealed to me. While he’s sort of an underdog with his history of major disappointments (no pun intended), he didn’t really have much character. Sure, he is an attractive athlete who is engaged to Wayne Gretzky’s attractive socialite daughter and they have a beautiful child together–but, then what? Compared to his fellow players’ very candid showcases of disappointment after a big loss, Johnson never seemed too bothered by his losses, even as the rest of the world watched in collective horror. Perhaps over-coached by media coaches, he even failed to be compelling when he had to explain his drug addiction.

Yet, there was something magical about Johnson’s win at the U.S. Open. Whoever he was off the course merged with the sunset-lit golf hero he became over the course of the back nine of Oakmont. The patrons chanted “DJ, DJ, DJ” and “USA, USA, USA” as Johnson walked to the 18th hole with a definitive lead. Alas, that lack of taking it all too seriously, seems to work well for him this time around. While the likes of Spieth and Rory McIlroy were seen tweeting furiously at USGA’s decision to maybe penalize Johnson at the end of the round, Johnson, though rattled, played it much cooler than anyone else in his position would have. The USGA had since apologized after the wrath had ensued.

I admire Johnson so much for keeping calm, because I feel like it’s the complete opposite of how I, and many others, would have reacted. Beside the fact that Johnson is a world-class golfer, I admire him for relying on pure talent and intuition–qualities that I, and many other people, probably don’t possess. And, in a first time in a long time, so did the rest of a golf world, who, in the past year, had embraced Spieth, whose on-course cerebral neuroses and off-course gee whizery made him so relatable and charming. Now, I suppose, we’re ready to be enchanted by a different kind of golfer–one that we see so little of ourselves in, yet should strive to be more like. Because he rose from the ashes of last year’s three-putt at the 18th hole at Chambers Bay to birdie the 18th hole at Oakmont, against all odds.