The Cleveland Cavaliers lead the NBA Finals. And the games remaining could forever change the story of the NBA’s best player.
Novelists don’t pen the richest narratives, nor are they authored by the platitudes sportswriters pound into their keyboards every night. The most powerful stories tug at our humanity because their truth is more compelling than fiction and their raw vulnerability exceeds any generalization. These are the comeback stories, the underdog tales of valor against insurmountable odds. Of setbacks and perseverance; of courage and the will to fight. Stories where the road to survival cuts a curved path through darkness wrought by unrelenting desperation. These are the stories of sacrifice. Heroes. And redemption. For a city.
And a man.
LeBron James is a drama queen and a crybaby. He seeks glory and craves adulation. He uses personal pronouns with such frequency when describing his role as a basketball player and self-professed leader that it’s tempting to forget that Me, Myself, and I aren’t the names of his teammates. LeBron has failed, many times, and in spectacular fashion. We anointed him the Chosen One at 16 and besieged his throne when he begged to rule without winning anything. We called him weak and gutless when the championship moment required the most of him and he hid in the shadows.
The Basketball Gods blessed LeBron with a combination of talents never before seen in professional sports. His body is Karl Malone. His mind is Magic Johnson. And his athleticism is Michael Jordan. Although LeBron has honed his skills to become a one-man wrecking crew capable of shooting, passing, driving, and defending his team to the cusp of greatness, everything about his accomplishments feels too easy, too ordained. Despite the clear dedication of a player who improved his footwork, learned a post-game, and crafted a jump shot, LeBron is a product of his natural gifts. Put simply, LeBron has never earned his success. It was always given to him.
And that’s what separates the story of this NBA Finals from its predecessors.
Public perception holds that the Warriors are too deep, too talented, too full of silky shooters stringing shots through the nets for the Cavs, and their injury-depleted roster, to compete. I’ve read claims from writers that LeBron has nothing to lose and nothing to prove in this series. I’ve seen experts assert that whether Cleveland wins or loses to Golden State, LeBron’s legacy remains intact. But they’re wrong. These finals aren’t about LeBron maintaining his legacy—they are about him building a new one because LeBron, for the first time, is an underdog.
In Miami, LeBron’s two championships required determination and perseverance. But that’s not why we remember them. We remember the super team, the triumvirate of Bosh, Wade, and James. We remember the defeated player who fled Cleveland and became a champion under the umbrella held over his head by Pat Riley and Dwayne Wade.
Now, the story has changed. If Cleveland—minus two All-Stars and begging throughout each game for a new unsung hero to rise—wins the title this year, the Cavs won’t be remembered for choreographing a ballet on the hardwood. They’ll be remembered for their grit and their toughness and their heart. They’ll be remembered for what they earned. And nobody will have earned more than LeBron James. This is LeBron’s chance to write a new script, to flip his story forever.
The most powerful scene in the movie The Sandlot is a dream sequence that ends with an imagined Babe Ruth testing a would be hero to be greater than he believes he can. “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” Maybe, that is this series for LeBron James—a test if he has a heart greater than the collective force of an NBA juggernaut. This series isn’t a test of LeBron’s jump shot or dribble drives or pinpoint passing. It’s a test to see if he can sacrifice himself for 50 of a game’s 53 minutes, in the NBA’s most hostile environment, endure missing 17 of his final 21 shots, and still lift his team to a win. This is a test to be not just a hero, but a legend.
LeBron knows this, too.
His face bore the strain of blown opportunities when his lefty layup rolled off the rim in regulation in Game 2. We saw the resolution stamped on him when the clock clicked to all zeroes and he spiked his emotions and unleashed his primordial scream. That scream was borne of the desperation – and temporary satisfaction – of a player trying to ascend to heights we’ve never witnessed. LeBron understands the stakes. His talents will only carry the Cavs so far in this series. To win, he has to have the heart to be a force greater than his individual talents. He needs to inspire his teammates to new heights by absorbing every blow the Warriors can throw at him, remaining on his feet, and begging Golden State to have the heart to stand in front of him and be willing to sacrifice everything themselves. This series is a real fight. And one the Cavs, led by LeBron, are going to bring at Golden State for every second remaining in these finals.
The Cavs season is stranger than fiction. From LeBron’s triumphant return to the early season tumbles that led to rumblings of ineptitude and dispirited play. To a mid-season trade that rescued the season and the playoff injuries that threaten to derail it. Now, a team of cast-offs and who are these players, stands even with the NBA’s most dynamic team. Doggedness and resolve versus offensive wizardry and effervescence. LeBron and the Cavs are underdogs with no chance to win, except they are two home victories away from winning the NBA Finals.
You could never make this story up. Because this is the story of heroes.
And maybe a legend.