LeBron James is arguably the best player who has ever played the game of basketball. Surely he is the best of this era. When he was young and fresh out of high school, where he racked up some of the best scoring numbers ever, he was the #1 draft pick for the pros and, naturally, the team with the worst record in basketball got to pick him. That was the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In some ways, at that time, this seemed to seal his fate in the same way that another great athlete had his fate sealed. Just out of school, football player O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest college running backs of all time (among other things) had to start his professional career playing for the worst team in football—the Buffalo Bill—because they had the first pick at the draft. Without help from comrades—both football and basketball are team sports—Simpson couldn’t put up good numbers for several years against teams that just ran right over his blockers, and later with him as the star, Buffalo never won any championships
The Cleveland Cavaliers, in their entire 45-year history, had never won a championship and were often mired near the bottom, especially recently. LeBron James came and tried to change that, but who could he pass the ball to? The team floundered in his first two years, and though rising up a bit after that, couldn’t win the championship. In some ways, this was even worse than what happened to Simpson. Simpson was not from Buffalo. He just got forced to go there. But LeBron James was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, just around the corner from Cleveland. He had to go home every night to face the same questions for which they had no answer. Why can’t you win for us, LeBron?
Finally, when LeBron James turned 25, he bolted. He stood up Cleveland and made a deal for more than $100 million with the Miami Heat, a contender near the top of the league, and he picked up and almost overnight disappeared from Cleveland to perhaps never be seen again. The people of Cleveland said they would never forgive LeBron James for abandoning them. And when the Miami Heat came to town, they booed LeBron mercilessly.
At Miami, however, assisted by several near-great teammates, James fulfilled his goal. He was to stay there for four seasons. The team got to the playoffs the first year James was there, and in the three years that followed, the team got into the Finals to play for all the marbles. And they won two of them. With James scoring record numbers of points, the team became a dynasty. And now it was quite clear that LeBron James was surely the best player to ever play this game. He was big and strong, very fast, very accurate and very aggressive. Anything other than light contact brings a foul. James figured out how daring he could be down to the millimeter without getting a foul called on him. For this reason, sometimes when he played, the opposing team just let him score. They played against everybody else, trying not to let the ball get passed to LeBron.
Had LeBron James continued to play for the Miami Heat I would have thought of him as a superstar, but not a nice one. Babe Ruth was not considered very nice. Ted Williams was not very nice. We know today that Tom Brady has not been very nice. They are or were superstars all, and I had put LeBron James in that category last year, not least of all for what he did to Cleveland. I wouldn’t root for him. If anything, I wanted to see him falter and fall for what he had done to his hometown five years earlier. I have always rooted for the underdog, and if sports are about bravery, determination and winning in spite of shortcomings, I had other people to watch. My favorite during that time was Jason Kidd, a basketball player who was small and lithe but played the game as if it were a game of chess. He knew where everybody was and he was wonderful to watch, surprising the other team and the fans too with completely unexpected bounce passes to teammates. But when he came up against James, he had no answers. LeBron James was a freight train that could not be stopped.
But then a strange thing happened. Last summer, LeBron James made a jaw-dropping announcement. He was now 29 years old, heading toward the midlife of his athletic career. And he wanted to set a new goal for himself. He would leave the Miami Heat and go back to his old stomping grounds to rejoin the Cavaliers for the year 2014-15. He had a new goal. He wanted to bring a championship to Cleveland. He would do this with a team that had never won the championship and during the last four years had achieved the fewest wins and the most losses in a league where there are 36 teams. In other words, his goal was to take the team that had often finished near the bottom and take it up to #1.
It seemed preposterous. For one thing, for the first month after this announcement some people in Cleveland said they would boycott the arena. They would never forgive what he had done to them. Then they thought better of it. Why not open their arms and take him back? They changed their minds.
James had his conditions with management. He would only come back if the management spent money to bring in some excellent players from around the league to assist him. The management brought in a Russian player named Timofey Mozgov. They brought in three-time All Star Kevin Love. They brought in Iman Shumpert. Probably the best thing they did was trade for J.R. Smith, a man causing problems wherever he played, showing up late for practice, mouthing off, sometimes playing poorly. The New York Knicks were glad to get rid of him. Smith suddenly found himself playing next to the greatest player of all time. He couldn’t believe it.
The Cleveland Cavaliers floundered the first half of this season as the players tried to adjust themselves to James and to their new coach, David Blatt, who had never coached NBA basketball before, but who James said could do the job.
The second half of the season was a complete turn-around. It was amazing. They set a record for the most wins of any team ever in the second half of any season. As a result, in a classic come-from-behind effort, the Cavaliers rose up through the standings and won the Eastern League Championship by beating the Atlanta Hawks four straight games.
They are now playing the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference champions for the championship. If they win, this will be the third championship for LeBron James, two with Miami and the third with this often losing team that he has fixed up and inspired.
It doesn’t even matter if the Cavaliers win. Bringing his teammates this far makes LeBron James a sports hero like no other. And frankly, along with about 20 million other believers, I am watching this team and rooting for them. What LeBron James has done has been a lesson in setting a goal, achieving it and then setting an almost impossible goal and achieving that too.
If there was ever an inspiration as a role model for the youth of America, he is it. Watch him this week on your television. And tell your kids this story and have them watch, too.