OAKLAND, Calif. — The cozy basketball locker room at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School is loaded with motivation in every corner. There are bible verses in the lockers and along the side walls, a John Wooden quote in the back and blow-up photographs of the program’s most famous alum plastered everywhere. But the first thing visitors see upon entry is a simple, tall poster with Fighting Irish green lettering that reads: “Discipline: Do what has to be done; when it has to be done; as well as it can be done; do it that way all the time.”
Four virtues are built into the message: Responsibility, timeliness, excellence and consistency. Those same four virtues carried LeBron James, the alum whose photos grace the locker room’s walls, to the greatest achievement of his career: his first NBA championship in his native Ohio, the first title in the Cavaliers’ 46-year history, and the first title in 52 years for the cursed city of Cleveland.
The Cavaliers defeated the Warriors 93–89 in Game 7 at Oracle Arena on Sunday, pulling off the greatest comeback in Finals history by digging out of a 3–1 deficit and spoiling the most successful regular season the league has seen.
“Our fans ride or die, no matter what’s been going on,” said James, who broke into tears on the court after the final buzzer sounded and was named Finals MVP for the third time in his career. “No matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs. They continue to support us. For us to be able to end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. It was for them.”
The Cavaliers did it thanks to some resourcefulness from rookie coach Tyronn Lue, a gigantic late-game three-pointer from Kyrie Irving and unexpected contributions from the much-maligned Kevin Love. They had a little help from Draymond Green’s Game 5 suspension and multiple shaky outings from Stephen Curry.
Most of all, though, the Cavaliers shocked the world because James did what had to be done, when it had to be done, as well as it could be done, and he did it that way all the time.
James did it in Game 5, pouring in 41 points on the road to spoil Golden State’s party. James did it again in Game 6, scoring 41 points again and dishing 11 assists, while blocking Curry in emphatic fashion. And James did it again in Game 7, posting 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, to notch the seventh triple double in his Finals career and the first triple double in a Finals Game 7 since James Worthy in 1988.
“I watched Beethoven tonight,” Irving said. “LeBron James composed a game. He had a freakin’ triple double in Game 7 of an NBA Finals game.”
The play that will live for years on the highlight tapes came with just under two minutes left. For nearly three tense minutes, neither team scored, but the Warriors broke out on a two-on-one fast break, threatening to get an easy go-ahead bucket. Andre Iguodala dribbled hard to half-court and then passed to Curry on the left wing, who returned the pass in textbook fashion without dribbling. Iguodala took the ball in full stride, with a crease to the basket past J.R. Smith, and tossed up a double-clutch layup off the glass.
As that sequence unfolded, James, who had been in the right corner, found himself trailing the play, caught up briefly by Klay Thompson. When Curry received the ball, near the three-point line, James had only just crossed half-court, and yet he already had a vision for how the play would end. When Curry returned the ball to Iguodala, James gathered in stutter-step fashion, preparing to plant for a swooping block attempt. He leapt from outside the protected circle, floating across the paint to pound the shot against the backcourt and keep it in play.
The Cavaliers needed a block, they needed a block at that exact moment and only a superhuman effort would make it happen. James delivered on all counts, just as he had all series, just as he has throughout his 13-year career. No one else on the Cavaliers could make that play. No one else would even think to make that play. James thought about it, made it and made it look easy.
James has been a bigger, stronger and faster physical force since his prep school play landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 17, but he’s always been smarter too. A huge part of his basketball intelligence is his vision, which manifests itself in many ways. He saw that it was time to take a backseat to a scorching hot Irving late in Game 5. He saw the impossible passing angles throughout Game 6. He saw the chasedown block opportunity in Game 7.
His vision, unlike any other current athlete, has extended well outside his 94' by 50' office. James saw that he made a mistake with how he executed The Decision in 2010, he saw what it took to win a title in Miami, he saw the possibility of a return to Cleveland when many others didn’t, and he saw that he could use his leverage as a player to build a roster and reshape a coaching staff to his liking. James saw that he had no equal in the Eastern Conference, he saw Irving’s precocious talent, he saw Love’s desire to start fresh outside Minnesota, he saw Tristan Thompson’s undervalued skills and he saw that Dion Waiters and former coach David Blatt weren’t going to be a part of the equation.
“I came back for a reason,” James said, wearing the net around his neck, his Finals MVP trophy in front of him, his daughter in his arms and his two sons by his side. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. 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.”
That blueprint and those maneuverings put James and the Cavaliers in position to strike when the Warriors’ dream season fell to pieces with Green’s suspension and Curry’s subpar play.
See classic photos of three-time NBA Finals MVP LeBron James
Down the stretch, as James blocked Iguodala and Irving broke the long-standing tie with an incredible three-pointer, Golden State missed nine straight shots and didn’t score in the final 4:38. During the regular season, the Warriors had been the league’s most clutch team; here, in a winner-take-all Game 7, they spent crunch time back on their heels, overwhelmed. Curry, who finished with 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting, said he was “aggressive, but in the wrong ways,” as he went 1 of 6 in the final period and carelessly flipped a behind-the-back pass out of bounds down the stretch.
“We’re stunned,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We thought we were going to win. I was extremely confident coming into tonight. This is why you can’t mess around. … James is one of the great players of alltime and obviously he was the key to the turnaround. He had a great series.”
This championship is a long time coming: 16 years after his first high school state title, 14 years after the Chosen One” SI cover, 13 years after he was Cleveland’s No. 1 pick, six years after The Decision and three years after his most recent title with the Heat. James has, without hyperbole, spent more than half of his life in direct preparation for this moment. So too has Akron, Cleveland and the rest of Ohio.
There’s no doubt that this is and will be remembered as the high point of his career to date, and nothing that comes afterward will be able to top it. This is the peak, the pinnacle, the ultimate triumph.
“He deserves it,” Lue said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s been the face of the NBA for 13 years. To leave Miami to come to Cleveland to give the city of Cleveland a championship, just shows you who he is. He’s a giver. He’s always looking to take care of people. He’s always been nice to everyone. If anyone deserves it, LeBron James definitely deserves it.”
Back at St. V, James has donated enough money to fund a new gymnasium, dubbed The LeBron James Arena. His No. 23 jersey is everywhere—from the backs of the school’s students, to the student store, to the gym rafters—and his old basketball teammate Willie McGee is the school’s athletic director.
“I can’t wait to get back home,” James said from Oracle, thousands of miles from the Akron high school gym that put him on the map and then on the globe. Halfway across the country and more than a decade later, his play had perfectly embodied the message that can be found next to his old green, metal locker.
James put the Cavaliers on his shoulders. He saved their season from elimination three straight times in unprecedented fashion. He played the best and most complete basketball of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, earning unanimous Finals MVP honors by leading all players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. And, on Sunday, he played 46-plus minutes in the 199th postseason game of his career—that’s 199 out of a possible 199 games, because he’s never once missed a playoff game due to injury.
Responsibility, timeliness, excellence, consistency.