OAKLAND, Calif. — Ever since LeBron James first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in his home town of Akron, Ohio, he has been burdened by impossible expectations.
Few people are capable of coming anywhere close to living up to the title “The Chosen One,” the phrase that graced that magazine cover over a picture of James. Having that kind of pressure placed on a teenager is almost guaranteed to end in a failure to live up to it.
James, though, has done so in every way imaginable. With plenty of time left in his career, he is easily among the 10 greatest players of all-time. He has won a pair of championships and made it to seven NBA Finals – including the last six in a row, something no one had done since the legendary Boston Celtics teams of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell in the 1960s.
But for all of his accomplishments, all of the remarkable things he has done, Sunday’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors presents James with the rarest of opportunities: the chance to define his legacy on his own terms.
“I came back [to the Cavaliers] for a reason,” James said Saturday, “and that is to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland, to Northeast Ohio and all of Ohio and all Cavaliers fans in the world. That’s been one of my goals.
“But I don’t add too much pressure to it. I go out and trust what I’ve been able to do, the work I’ve put into it, my teammates have put into it, and you go out there and see what happens.”
With one more win, James has the chance to take control of the rest of his career. The thing he has seemed destined to do ever since he was drafted by the Cavaliers 13 years ago – delivering the title Cleveland has waited more than 50 years to receive – would be complete. His legacy would be ironclad, his place in the sport’s history inarguable.
A victory would elevate James to another level in the sport’s history, moving him ever higher up the list of all-time greats, and it would give him the freedom to do what he’d like over the remainder of his career.
He could even choose to leave Cleveland again – like he did when he made his decision to join the Miami Heat as a free agent in 2010 – if he wanted to. Nothing more could be asked of him. The Prodigal Son would have returned and delivered in the ultimate way.
James is no longer a precocious teenager, but a 31-year-old who has been through hell and back between then and now. He has seen just about everything possible in his career, from Cleveland to Miami and back again – the failures to break through in his first stint with the Cavaliers and the fallout from leaving, to finally winning a pair of championships with the Heat and returning again. All of those trials and tribulations have prepared James for this moment, for this series, in which, as he has so many times in his career, he has made his presence felt with devastating force.
Few players could put up the kind of back-to-back performances James delivered in Games 5 and 6 of this series to carry the Cavaliers to the brink of the championship that has forever eluded the franchise. Scoring 41 points in both games, throwing a seemingly endless series of brilliant passes while committing a combined three turnovers, preening over the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Stephen Curry, after blocking his shot into the seventh row – James has done it all.
And, because of his brilliance, James and the Cavaliers have a chance to rewrite history. A win means the city of Cleveland finally gets the championship it has waited a half-century to receive. It would mark the first time any team has recovered from a three games to one deficit to win the NBA Finals. It would prevent the 73-win Warriors from being considered the greatest team in NBA history.
But for James, it would mean something even more special, even more lasting: authoring the defining moment in what is already a legendary career.
“If we win and take care of business,” James said, “that’s something our city hasn’t had in a very long time.”
No one understands what a win Sunday would mean more than James does. Although he was a fan of the Cowboys and Yankees as a child, James knows all about the history of failure for Cleveland’s sports teams since the Browns won the city’s last championship in 1964.
The Fumble. The Drive. The Shot. For the people of Cleveland and the surrounding environs – including James’s beloved Akron – losing in the most excruciating of ways is expected.
But since James was drafted by the Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft, it has always been expected he would finally be the one to change that. The story was too good to be true: The kid from the streets of Akron, a mere 40 miles away, growing up to become the player to deliver Cleveland the championship it has waited decades to receive. It’s a tale of a screenwriter’s dreams.
“It’s an opportunity to do something special,” James said. “I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can be part of something that was very special.”
With a win Sunday, James would have somehow lived up to every bit of the hype placed upon him as a teenager in Akron starring for St. Vincent-St. Mary – a time when the possibilities for his future seemed limitless and the expectations that went along with it were as well.
That’d be something special, indeed.