Saturday, 25 June 2016

A Sporting Epic Completes The Legend of LeBron James

By Shane Thomas

This was the NBA's version of the Thrilla' in Manilla; the basketball equivalent of Manchester United and Arsenal at Villa Park in 1999; Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon 2008 on the hardwood.
There's something special about a deciding match in sport. Unlike a cup final, or a title fight in boxing, a series decider at the end of a North American sports season is the ne plus ultra of endings. It signifies a contest that has been push and pull; an encounter where neither side has been able to exert total control; a time where players, coaches, fans, and pundits can't relax for a moment; where the sweet nectar of glory is within touching distance, but the icy cramp of defeat also looms large.

The Golden State Warriors were chasing perfection. After the record breaking regular season that provided us with some of the most sumptuous basketball ever played, the Warriors needed to take Game 7 as a legitimisation of their greatness, but the Cleveland Cavaliers - and LeBron James - were chasing something more profound than greatness. They were pursuing restoration.

Through the potent - but trivial - prism of sport, the central purpose of LeBron's return to Cleveland was to end the hurt, the snark, and the perpetual feeling of misery attendant with being a fan of Cleveland sports. For so long they were the town that God supposedly hated, "the mistake by the lake", a place where the joy of victory has long taken its leave, never to return.

This depth of feeling can be summed up by what happened in the Cavs locker room after Game 6. They had just levelled the series at 3-3, and the post-match conflab involved the players circling LeBron, waiting for instructions and verbal inspiration from their leader. Yet LeBron said - almost to himself - "One more. Just one more. Get me one more." And little else.

Even his teammates were taken aback at this. Was LeBron beseeching his colleagues? A higher power? Himself? However it was interpreted, it had a galvanising effect. An audience with LeBron at this moment was like having an audience with the entirety of Cleveland. If you could have spoken to any Cavs fan after Game 6, one imagines their sentiments would also have been something along the lines of "One more."

Game 7 was the tale of a team that wouldn't be shaken off. The Warriors had a lead for most of the first half, a slightly wider lead at half-time, and were ahead by 7 points early in the 3rd quarter. But they never had a lead that was fully secure, any time they threatened to put the match out of sight, LeBron, Kyrie Irving - who also had a superb series - or even J.R. Smith would cling onto the Dubs coattails, ensuring they couldn't break free.

And then we had a 4th quarter for the ages. Both teams were as close to collapse as they could be without toppling over. This was demonstrated by the fact that with 4:40 of the game left, Klay Thompson scored a layup to level the scores at 89-89. We didn't see another basket for nearly 4 minutes.

Think about that. A game of basketball, and you don't see a single point scored for 3 minutes and 47 seconds. But like a great football cup game[1] where the scores are level, the absence of points was filled with the most delicious tension. Who cared if Game of Thrones was on? No scripted drama could match this.

And we may not see a sporting moment this year to match the moment that validated the legend of LeBron. The Dubs had a 2 on 1 fast break, it was a certain layup that would give Golden State the lead, and break the drought of points. Yet moving at 19mph, LeBron turned the 2 vs 1 into a 2 vs 2, and produced a block on Andre Iguodala that still leaves the mouth agape, inducing a litany of tweets, many of them gleefully hyperbolic.

The Block? LeBlock? Who cares what it's called? It was a play that defies accurate description. It would be an astonishing play at any time, but at the end of a marathon season, at a point in the match where both sides were drowning in fatigue, LeBron's leap dragged himself, his team, and his city upwards, away from suffocation, and towards the pearly gates of sporting glory.

It was a massive pin into the Golden State balloon, puncturing their own hopes of greatness. Optimism flowed out of the Oracle Arena. If you hooked the place up to a lie detector, they would all admit LeBron's block was the moment that they knew. This wasn't to be their story. They were to be supporting characters in someone else's.

It would be imprudent to not acknowledge Kyrie Irving's dagger of a trey that cut through the points deadlock - and his key contributions in the Cavs comeback. LeBron put the Dubs in a coffin, but Kyrie shut the lid.

The iconic image will probably be LeBron as the time ran out. He was overcome with emotion to the extent that the wasn't just crying, he was bawling. His face was the perfect visual representation of a dam bursting.

But this shouldn't mean we totally ignore the Warriors. When the regular season ended, I nearly posted a blog on here saying that this would be their season, regardless of what happened in the playoffs. And while I wouldn't make that same argument now, I think their part in this campaign shouldn't be forgotten. The simple fact is that the Dubs can win another title, and are currently favourites to do so next season. But will we ever witness a 73/9 regular season again?

And now we will see what Golden State are truly made of. We know they can play, but now we'll see the size of their hearts. Through their sublime play, they've largely had things their own way for the past 12 months. But every great champion has to learn how to get knocked down, and learn how to get up again. This will be a long summer for the Bay Area, stewing in myriad regret. One suspects Draymond Green's powerhouse display in Game 7 was in response to his careless absence from Game 5 - the game where Cleveland's comeback began.

The spotlight of sports shade will now be shone on Steph Curry. As the talisman for the Warriors, he will go into next season under more pressure than he ever has before. How he reacts will likely determine how he will be remembered.

It's something LeBron knows all about. Backlash is an unfair inevitability when you're in the public eye and talented. LeBron was thrust into the fire of scrutiny and came out the other side a legend. It will be fascinating to see if Steph can do the same.

Steven Gerrard - another athlete who endeavoured to try and win with his hometown team - reputedly asserted that one title with Liverpool would be worth 10 anywhere else. Gerrard was unsuccessful in his quest, but the averment holds weight in this instance. While the competitor in LeBron won't let him rest easy, he never needs to win another title again[2]. MVP of the Finalsleading the stats in every category. This achievement has locked his legacy firmly in place.

There truly is no place like home.

[1] - See the Manchester United/Arsenal game I referenced at the top of this piece.

[2] - Just look at the turnout for the Cavs victory parade to see the level of joy and relief.

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