The Cleveland Cavaliers: The journey from the curse to the championship
Rejoice Cleveland, the curse is over. After 52 years of hurt, the Cavaliers ended the city's long and arduous wait for a championship from one of its professional sports teams. The city of Cleveland has three of those; the Cavs, the Browns in the National Football League (NFL) and the Indians in Major League Baseball (MLB).
The three franchises endured an unprecedented 147-season title drought since the Browns won the NFL Championship Game in 1964, which was two years prior to the first Super Bowl, to give you an indication of just how long ago that was.
"After so many miserable endings here in Cleveland over the past 52 years, we've begun to grow numb to the pain. Losing has pierced its way into our blood, no matter how much we've fought it," said Greg Swartz, a Cleveland Cavaliers columnist for Bleacher Report and a lifelong fan of the team.
Therefore, it was hardly a surprise that 1.3 million people took to the streets of Cleveland, Ohio to celebrate and thank the 2016 Cavaliers for bringing the 'curse' to an end, and in dramatic fashion.
The entire city came to a standstill for this moment of both relief and jubilation. The Cleveland Municipal Court even allowed for some court cases on that day to be automatically rescheduled if people involved in hearings were unable to appear. The 15 players on the Cavs roster, from LeBron James to Sasha Kaun, no matter how small their contribution was to the championship-winning campaign, will go down in history and will never have to pay for another drink in the entire state.
It wasn't just the title win that made the occasion special, it was the manner in which it was done. Trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1, the Wine and Gold fans had a familiar feeling. In 2015, without the injured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the Finals against the same opponents, LeBron was able to will them to a 2-1 lead in the series - which included one win at the Oracle Arena - before succumbing to a 4-2 loss.
With Irving and Love healthy, it was supposed to be a different story this time around and revenge was on the agenda. But, after going down to a 3-1 deficit and bearing in mind, with the exception of the one win at home, they hardly putting up much resistance against the dominant Warriors, it seemed certain that the curse would enter its 53rd year. There was a feeling of "here we go again", and the Ohio faithful couldn't be blamed for feeling that way. They're not used to seeing their sports teams win and no team in NBA Finals history had ever overcome a 3-1 deficit.
The chances of Cleveland doing so, against a team who surpassed the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best regular season record of all time with 73 wins, and had won 68 of its last 73 games at home, seemed slim, if not virtually impossible. The Cavs, however, proved that nothing is impossible and they were ready to make history.
The most common phrase used by those with a vested interest in Cleveland's sports teams was "there's always next year". With the help of Nike, the Cavs fans bought into the idea of changing that to "there's always THIS year" as the major sports brand created the slogan and unfurled a giant banner at the Q during the player intros before every Finals game.
With their backs against the wall and the weight and expectation of a city on their shoulders, they delivered. Behind the offensive outbursts of LeBron and Kyrie, Cleveland would not be denied. King James, in particular, would not allow himself to fail and lose in the Finals for the third consecutive year. Behind the superstar, the Cavaliers made the impossible become their destiny and won three straight games to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history.
"The strength and determination displayed throughout the season, post-season, and championship game are truly the embodiment of our city and its people," Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.
That inaugural championship victory would not have been possible without the return of the local hero who knew and shared the pain of Northeast Ohio.
THE PRODIGAL SON
In his now famous Sports Illustrated article “I’m Coming Home,” LeBron said: "Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realise that four years ago. I do now.
"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
The Akron, Ohio native made a promise and he delivered. Unlike "The Decision" when he decided to take his talents to South Beach in acrimonious circumstances, his return home couldn't be met with any derision or criticism. No individual can be faulted for wanting to return to his hometown and better still, raise a family there. But LBJ had his reasons and on that historic night 12 days ago at the Oracle Arena - that still feels like it was yesterday - he fulfilled his main one.
Even when the three-time Finals MVP decided to bring his talents back to Ohio, many were able to forgive but never forget that infamous moment in 2010. That's all changed now. To come back and carry the burden of a suffering city on his back was admirable and, though the achievement still won't endear him to some, everybody should be unanimous in respecting him for what he's accomplished.
His legacy hinged on winning a title for Cleveland. He came into the Finals with a 2-4 record. If he'd failed and ended the series with a 2-5 record, his critics would have queued up to bury him. But he created his own headlines and cemented his legacy in the process.
He may not have won the five, six, or seven rings he'd regretfully stated he wanted to win in Miami, but the victory in Cleveland almost amounts to as much. In his first stint with his hometown franchise, he was drafted straight from high school and was dubbed "The Chosen One". He wasn't part of a championship-winning organisation and didn't have much by way of veteran leadership in the locker room to guide him.
He had to figure things out as he went along which, as a youngster who was expected to carry the hopes of an entire franchise, wasn't ideal. This is one of the reasons why he decided to join the Miami Heat, an organisation that had won and had the infrastructure to just allow him to play basketball and do what he does best.
"I knew what I was capable of," LeBron said. "I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone. And when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get to a place we've never been. That's what it was all about."
In Florida, he was happy to be led and shown the way in an organisation that was impeccably run by owner Micky Arison and president Pat Riley. They had groomed a talented young coach in Erik Spoelstra who is now the joint second longest tenured coach in the league with Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks and behind only Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. Those three teams have one obvious thing in common; stability.
That experience in the Sunshine State gave him the confidence to come back home and implement those same ideologies and beliefs into the Cavaliers organisation and lead the team to a triumph that continued to look like a dream rather than a reality.
But, once James produced one of the greatest blocks in Finals history on Andre Iguodala, and Kyrie Irving produced what will go down as the biggest shot in the team's history and the buzzer sounded to conclude a 93-89 win, the prodigal son could only drop his knees and weep. A dream had come true.
"To be able to have a dream, to be able to have a vision, to make it come into fruition, it's a beautiful thing," James said.
His moment had arrived. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the NBA World Champions. No, that isn't a typo.
In March 2005, businessman Dan Gilbert purchased the Cavaliers from Gordon Gund and inherited the anguish of an entire city. According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, one thing that frustrated him when he bought the Cavs was the general pessimism about the team and the city.
"It was like they were always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Gilbert said.
Gilbert was only two when the Browns won Cleveland's last sports title in 1964. He may have lived through the majority of the 52-year drought, but as a Detroit, Michigan native, it hadn't been his concern for much of his life. He'd lived in an era where he'd seen his hometown Pistons win three championships; in 1989 and '90 with the "Bad Boys" and in 2004, the year before he'd purchased the Ohio-based outfit.
In his 11 years in charge, it's fair to say he's become an adopted Clevelander and over that time, he shared in the pain of shortcomings when it mattered most. When success seemed so close but yet so far.
The 54-year-old has invested heavily in the team and can never be criticised for not backing them and doing whatever it took to bring the city a title. When he took over, LeBron was into his third year in the league and began his rise to superstardom having been selected to the All-Star team for the first time.
In 2007, the four-time MVP led the Cavs to their first ever NBA Finals appearance after producing some memorable performances in the Eastern Conference Finals against, coincidentally, Gilbert's hometown Pistons. In game five against Detroit, James notched 48 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, and scored 29 of Cleveland's last 30 points including the game-winning lay-up with two seconds left.
In 2012, ESPN ranked the performance the fourth greatest in modern NBA playoff history. Unfortunately, it was all in vain as they were swept by the Spurs in the Finals to give Gilbert his first taste of what the Cleveland faithful had endured for so many years.
The billionaire and the hometown player were united in wanting to desperately end the franchise's wait to win an inaugural title. Despite the 12-time All-Star going on to win two of his four MVP awards in the three years that followed, he couldn't guide them back to the Finals no matter how hard he tried. Then, after an agonising playoff defeat to the Boston Celtics in 2010, he chose to turn his back on Gilbert and his city, which caused the Cavs owner to unleash his wrath.
Before James' departure, the businessman largely conducted himself in silence, but after LeBron's decision (no pun intended) to reveal his next venture live on ESPN, Gilbert decided to emerge from the shadows. He received national attention for producing an open letter - dubbed "The Letter" - where he strongly criticised the manner of the small forward's announcement.
He described it as a "cowardly betrayal" and a "shocking act of disloyalty". He went on to say, "But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called "curse" on Cleveland, Ohio."
His biggest statement on the letter read: "I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former 'king' wins one."
Of course, he was wrong. Then NBA commissioner David Stern fined him $100,000 for the remarks and he was widely criticised by sections of the media. So when "The Chosen One" made the decision to return home, he and Gilbert had to address their previous indiscretions and somehow put it behind them for the greater good of the team.
When the 31-year-old small forward decided to opt out of his contract with the Heat, he agreed to meet Gilbert privately. The Cleveland owner apologised and stated: "LeBron, we had five good years together and one bad night, like a marriage that's good and then one bad thing happens and you never talk to each other again."
James also expressed regret for his poor choice to sit in front of the ESPN cameras. The duo embraced and set out to achieve the one thing that always bonded them together; their wish to bring a championship to The Land.
“I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” LeBron said in his SI announcement.
In the summer of 2014, the Cavaliers were in a win-now mode, as a team with LeBron on its roster should be. After missing out on the playoffs in the previous season, the team secured the number one draft pick where they selected Andrew Wiggins. Before the youngster could even get his feet under the table in Cleveland, he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.
There was no doubting Wiggins' potential, but the franchise didn't have time to wait for him to blossom, they wanted to win immediately. Therefore, Gilbert was prepared to OK any moves the front office wanted to make to try and ensure it happened. He placed his trust in general manager David Griffin and backed him to do what was needed.
After finishing second the in the east behind the Atlanta Hawks in head coach David Blatt's first year in charge, the Cavs duly swept them in the Conference Finals and returned to the Finals for the first time since 2007. Despite the heroics of LBJ - who led them to two wins over the Warriors even with Kyrie and Love going down with injuries as mentioned earlier - the Cavaliers ran out of gas and their efforts ended in disappointment again.
That wasn't going to stop Gilbert, though. Last summer, he was committed to keeping the roster together as they felt that with All-Stars Irving and K.Love healthy, they had a real shot at beating Golden State. The Cavaliers spent approximately $160 million in salaries and luxury taxes - the most in the entire league.
The team went on to make a 31-11 start, but that included a 34-point humiliation at home at the hands of the defending champions from Oakland. Even with the best record in the east, Griffin informed Gilbert that a coaching change was necessary. The owner didn't hesitate.
"It was a ballsy move in the middle of the season when we're 31-11," Gilbert said. "It's just, for this team, at that point, it was David Griffin who made the call, and we backed it. That's the thing, if you're going to believe in your general manager, you either believe in him, or you don't. If you believe in him, then you gotta back it, because if you don't, he'll start changing his behaviour. He'll start acting differently."
He was right to back him as the decision to promote associate head coach Tyronn Lue to take the reigns had the desired effect and, as they say, the rest is history. Literally, in Cleveland's case. But, make no mistake about it, the ultimate goal couldn't have been reached without the two most important men in the franchise burying their famous hatchet.
"Everybody made mistakes for years, but by making them everybody learned, myself, the franchise, coaches, players, LeBron, everybody. And now, here we are, only because we learned," Gilbert said.
EXORCISING THE CURSE
Though much of the Cleveland sports curse centred on the Browns in the NFL - those of you familiar with the sport will be aware of "the Red Right 88", "the Drive", "the Fumble" and so on - the Cavaliers certainly played their part. Before the arrival of LeBron James - easily the best athlete to ever hail from The Land - the franchise was only really remembered for one memorable moment and, unsurprisingly, it wasn't a positive one.
In 1989, the Cavs faced the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. In the decisive fifth game of a best-of-five series, shooting guard Craig Ehlo gave the Cavaliers a 100-99 lead after a driving layup with three seconds left. From the resulting inbounds play, Chicago put the ball into the hands of Michael Jordan.
M.J. took two dribbles, pulled up at the foul line and sank a game-winning jumper over Ehlo to clinch the series for the Bulls. That play - in front of 20,273 stunned Cleveland fans - was simply dubbed "The Shot", and was added to the long list of heartbreaking moments that had built up since 1964. The lasting image of Jordan's clutch bucket was his wild, emphatic celebration; a leap into the air as Ehlo crumpled to the ground in despair a short distance away.
For the Wine and Gold, this was followed by "The Sweep" at the hands of the Spurs, "The Decision" and most recently, the aforementioned injuries to Kyrie and Kev. But, thanks to LeBron and his troops, it's time to change the narrative and lay those demons to rest once and for all.
The championship win has seen the Cavs fans do exactly that by creating special moments of their own from that unforgettable game seven in the Bay Area. It all begins with the most memorable play from the encounter. We alluded to earlier, but it deserves another mention and in more detail to give it justice.
With the game tied at 89 and neither team able to buy a bucket, Golden State's Iguodala - who was named the 2014 Finals MVP largely for his impressive defence on James throughout the series - led a two-on-one fastbreak and, after exchanging passes with Curry, went up for what looked like a simple layup.
King James had other ideas, however, and produced a chase down block that will rival any that have gone before it as the best in the league's history. It was a play born out of sheer relentlessness from a man who was determined not to be denied his destiny. It wasn't just any block, it became "The Block". It was christened as such by media outlets in reference to the famous moments in Cleveland's sports history that had gone before it. Only this time, it was in their favour.
That block allowed for Irving to create his own version of "The Shot" by draining a game-winning three over Curry. For good measure, and in a slightly over the top fashion, that was followed by "The Stop", which saw big man Love, who is not the most gifted defender in the world, switch out onto Curry and play the best defensive possession of his life and force the three-point marksman into a miss. The Cavaliers eventually closed out the win and the curse was over.
"The people of Cleveland deserve this more than any people I've ever seen, met or felt. Thank God that God loves Cleveland, Ohio." Dan Gilbert
"All I know is that no group deserves this more, no fan base deserves this more, and I'm speechless and proud of everybody. It's like a fantasy for everybody," Gilbert added.
The word "curse" should never be uttered in the city of Cleveland again, in relation to sports, at least.
As LeBron said when he recently took the Larry O'Brien trophy to his hometown of Akron in front of his adoring public: "It was 50-plus years that the Cleveland drought was going on, but guess what? It took a kid from Akron, Ohio to end it."