Power of purpose

After what he did to reach the NBA Finals, LeBron James can't lose

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So, yeah, I know, if you’re not from Cleveland you don’t want to hear any more talk about 50 years of heartbreak. You’ve got your own problems. The Yankees have not won a World Series in six years! The Lakers have only won five titles this century, and none since 2010! A 7-year-old in Pittsburgh has no memory of the Steelers winning the Super Bowl! And then there are the other heartbroken fans, the real ones, here’s looking at you folks in Buffalo, those in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, hockey fans Washington and St. Louis, those of you in Los Angeles who, for whatever reason, connected with the Clippers.

I get it. The idea of sports heartbreak (like most things in the world) comes back to Mel Brooks’ legendary words about the difference between tragedy and comedy. Tragedy, he said, is … my finger hurts. It hurts a lot, I have a paper cut, it stings, ow, it hurts.

Comedy, he said, is … you fall in a manhole. What do I care?

Point is: If you’re not from Cleveland, you don’t want to hear it. And, truth is, if you ARE from Cleveland, you probably don’t want to hear it either — you’ve heard enough about Red Right 88 and the Jordan shot and Jose Mesa and the Drive and the Fumble and the Betrayal and Ted Stepien and Bill Belichick’s dark years and 10-cent beer night and the rise and fall of Joe Charboneau. You’re ready to move on, ready for the future.

In other words, everything I’m writing here is probably just for me.

But … well … Cleveland won its last championship three years before I was born. That means I have lived almost that entire half-century of Cleveland losing. And I cannot tell you what LeBron James has meant to me this season without reliving at least some of that sports pain. There is something about James’ epic, troubled, triumphant and poignant season that makes more sense when framed by a lifetime of agonizing losses and hopeless seasons.

Let’s start here: In the grand scope of things, this has not been one of the LeBron James’ great seasons. I suspect that when the career is done, — when the retired LeBron has joined Shaq, Kenny the Jet and Sir Charles on a pregame show somewhere — we’ll look back and say that the four years he played in Miami were the apex of his career. Those were the four years when he was at the height of his powers, the four years when he still had his explosive physical talent, but he had also gained what George C. Scott in “The Hustler” called “Character.”

“Everybody’s got talent,” he told the young Paul Newman/Fast Eddie Felson. “I got talent. You think you can play big-money straight pool, or poker, for 40 straight hours on nothing but talent? You think they call Minnesota Fats the best in the country just ‘cause he’s got talent? Nah. Minnesota Fats has got more character in one finger than you have in your whole skinny body.”

LeBron James got his character from leaving Cleveland after a colossal failure, from dealing with the fury that followed him to South Beach, from becoming a quasi-villain across America, from playing with the passionate Dwyane Wade, from talking with the winner Pat Riley, from losing to Dallas in those first NBA Finals and so on. I certainly do not mean that LeBron James was anything less than amazing in Cleveland during the first go-around. I doubt a player can be more amazing than James was as a 22-year-old in 2007 when he carried and lugged and dragged a screaming Cavaliers team with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden to the NBA Finals. He was an incredible basketball player in Cleveland as a young man.

No, I just mean that Miami LeBron was complete. Think Bob Gibson in 1968 or Michael Jordan those three years after baseball or Tom Brady that 16-0 season or Roy Hobbs after he finally got his chance to play. Everything was in balance. His mental and physical energy were both peaking.

When you look at LeBron James’ statistics — and he ALWAYS put up jaw-dropping numbers — there’s something blatant and obvious about his Miami years: Just look at those crazy shooting percentage numbers. See James shot less than 48 percent in the field in Cleveland; only one season did he manage to break 50 percent (and he just barely broke it — 50.3 percent). But in Miami, he broke 51 percent every year, and nearly shot 57 percent his last season. In Miami, it was as if he had achieved Zen.

I desperately wanted to root against Miami LeBron because of the crass way he left Cleveland, and for a year or two I was able to do so. I remember precisely when my anti-LeBron phase ended. It was Game 6 of the 2012 playoff series against Boston. The Celtics led the series 3 games to 2, and at that point it still wasn’t clear that James was ever going to win a championship. His Heat had been hit hard in the gut by the Mavericks the year before, and that Celtics team — with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and a potentially electrifying Rajon Rondo — seemed just about ready to take LeBron out again. The story seemed pointed one way.

Only, no. That day I watched James put up as heartfelt and willful and awe-inspiring performance as anything Michael Jordan or Joe Montana or Muhammad Ali or Kellen Winslow ever did. His final numbers — 45 points, 15 boards, 5 assists, 19 of 26 shooting — do not fully capture the sheer force of his performance, the overpowering way he announced:

We … are … not … losing … tonight.

When I saw him play like that, my fury sort of broke apart. Don’t get me wrong: I still didn’t want LeBron James to win in Miami. But, realistically, how can you root against that sort of power? It’s like rooting against a tidal wave.

James reached four Finals with the Heat, won two of them, and, let’s be honest, those were not great teams. Dwyane Wade is a Hall of Fame player, but we watched his body slowly disintegrate over those four years. Chris Bosh is a wonderful player, who turned out to be a superb third option. Then there were a lot of nice players like Birdman Anderson and Mario Chalmers and the aged Ray Allen. The Heat were perhaps a first-round playoff loser without LeBron. They were a two-time champion with him.

When he returned to Cleveland to win a championship for his hometown, he was a different man from the one who left. Mentally, of course, he was different. But, let’s be honest, physically he was different too. I was there opening night in Cleveland, a night as charged with excitement as any I can remember in the town where I grew up. Before tipoff, they unveiled that Nike commercial, the one with Clevelanders everywhere huddling up for victory, and goosebumps popped and tears dropped, and then LeBron played like dirt, turned the ball over eight times, and the Cavaliers lost to the Knicks, something that wasn’t easy to do this season.

He just wasn’t the same player. Oh, sure, some nights he was as great as ever. And some nights, he was flat-out terrible. But most nights he was just … I guess human is the word. He scored his points and got his rebounds and dished out his assists, but none of it came easily. In his early Cleveland days, LeBron could fly, could run through walls, could dodge bullets. Then, in his Miami days, he had this power to control the game on another level.

Neo: “Are you trying to tell me that I can dodge bullets?

Morpheus: “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.

But in Cleveland 2.0, LeBron was tired. He was raw. He missed a couple of weeks with injuries. He struggled finding a rhythm with his new team. His Cavaliers were 19-20 in the middle of January, this after a brutal loss to Phoenix when James and J.R. Smith combined for 62 points and the rest of the team shot 27 percent. Everything just seemed SO HARD. It was like riding a bike in the wrong gear.

It got better after that, of course, but even when they started winning, things never seemed easy for LeBron. His outside shot drifted. He turned the ball over more than at any point in his career. He scored fewer points and grabbed fewer rebounds than at any point since he was a rookie running around on pure talent. But, then, he also played fewer minutes than he ever had played before too; for the first time in his career LeBron James seemed vulnerable. He seemed closer to the end than the beginning. James turned 30 in December. He was in his 12th season — the same number of seasons Michael Jordan had in Chicago (not counting his partial season after baseball). Time was taking its toll.

At first, this was hard to accept. Why now? James had come back to Cleveland to finally break that long championship drought … and it was clear that he had left much of his youth back in Miami. The Cavaliers were a mess for much of the season, and even after they starting played well, they were still fragile. The new coach, David Blatt, was likable but he did not always inspire belief. New star Kevin Love kept putting up double-doubles, but after the games ended it was hard to remember how he did it. The young star Kyrie Irving was awe-inspiring, especially around the rim, but how could he hold up in what has become an extraordinary league of guards — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, John Wall and so on?

Then the playoffs came, and it got so much worse. Love got hurt, Irving got hurt, Blatt tried to call a timeout when he had none left …

And LeBron James carried this team in a way that honestly brings tears to my eyes. You may be over the whole Cleveland story, and I can’t blame you, but for me it was only yesterday that Brian Sipe threw that ill-advised pass into the arms of Oakland’s Mike Davis rather than heaving it into Lake Erie. It was only yesterday that John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards through the wind and desperation of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was only yesterday that Michael Jordan made that shot over a falling Craig Ehlo, that Tom Glavine befuddled and blanked the greatest lineup the Cleveland Indians ever had, that Art Modell took the Browns out of Cleveland, that LeBron James himself smiled happily as he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

There isn’t one break in those 50 years, not one moment when the fates said: “OK, fine, here’s a bone.” The fates gave us Joe Charboneau, the slugger who could open beer bottles with his eyelids, but then he fell apart. The fates gave us Mark Price, maybe the greatest shooter in the history of basketball (until Steph Curry), but his team was never quite good enough. When Earnest Byner appeared to break into the end zone to tie the Denver Broncos in that 1988 AFC Championship game — that would have completed an 18-point comeback — I remember thinking for the briefest of seconds, “This really is happening.” It wasn’t, though. The ball was loose. The Broncos had recovered. Cleveland loses again.

That kind of losing repetition infuses a certain cynicism in a sports fan. I never really believe Cleveland is going to win. When Love got hurt, well, of course he did. When Irving was hurt … same thing. Hey, why not a plague of locusts?

Only, LeBron James has done what I thought impossible — he has pulled that Cleveland cynicism right out of me. He has done it by playing not only great basketball but soulful basketball. You know, of course, that he’s shooting less than 18 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. You know he’s averaging nearly 4.5 turnovers a game. You know he started 0-for-10 one game, and he’s missed a bunch of seemingly easy shots throughout the playoffs, and his body is falling apart on him.

And … none of it matters. They’re in the Finals. Sure, this is in part because the Eastern Conference is pretty terrible. Sure, this is in part because those ex-Knicks — Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith — have played out of their minds, some sort of odd cosmic punishment for Knicks fans who already had to endure Isiah Thomas. Sure, this is in part because Tristan Thompson (and I say this conservatively) is the greatest human being on planet earth and should win every Nobel Prize they give out and also all the Pulitzers, because they guy never stops, never.

But we all know this to be true: Almost all of this winning is LeBron James, his brilliant passing, his relentless rebounding, his last-minute, game-winning shooting, the you-never-saw-him-coming blocked shots, his sheer calm when he has the basketball.

I tell people all the time: At this point, the season is made. Of course, I want the Cavaliers to win and break that Cleveland losing spell. But that doesn’t even matter. And I’m not just saying that because I think Golden State is probably a better team, and it’s a glorious team led by one of my favorite people ever, Steph Curry.

No, it’s because LeBron James already has carried his team like no athlete in Cleveland since Jim Brown back in 1964. James has played with the sort of resolve and tenaciousness that reminds me so much of my hometown, the factory people I grew up with, the hard-working neighbors who shoveled their driveways daily, the league bowlers who drank black coffee on Sunday mornings and talked about how the Browns needed to stop playing that stupid nickel defense. Of course, I want them to win a championship, but in so many ways this team has been even better than a championship team. It has been a demonstration of what one man can do when he has a purpose.

“Every single night, every single practice, every single game, we’ve got to give it all we’ve got,” LeBron James said in that Nike commercial. “Everything that we do on this floor is because of this city. We owe them. … The toughness that we have is going to come from this city, everybody, the whole city of Cleveland. That’s what it’s all about. It’s time to bring them something special.”

Yeah, I know, it’s just a sneaker commercial. But I still think about it a lot. LeBron James delivered what he promised. This Cleveland team, win or lose, is something special.