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.