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LeBron, Cavaliers "coming home" NBA Champions
5:35 | NBA
LeBron, Cavaliers "coming home" NBA Champions
Tuesday June 21st, 2016

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ALL OVER — The following is a photo diary from my travels over the last two months, as the NBA playoffs took me to Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and many airports in between. All told, I saw 22 games in five different arenas, including the final 19 games of the Warriors’ attempt to repeat as champions and the greatest triumph of LeBron James’s career.

Note: I took all of these photos, unprofessionally and with an iPhone.

These NBA playoffs felt like they took forever to unfold, in part because the league added extra off days to the Finals schedule, because the Finals went the full seven games and because the playoffs started early for the Warriors.

• Get SI’s Cavs commemorative package | LeBron keeps title promise

Although it already feels like years ago, the defending champions spent the final weeks of the regular season in hot pursuit of the 1996 Bulls record mark of 72 wins. On the final night of the regular season, as Kobe Bryant was in the midst of an epic 60-point, 50-shot finale, the Warriors captured No. 73 with a blowout 125–104 win over the Grizzlies.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

That victory marked the high point of the Warriors’ invincibility. Sports talk radio hosts floated the possibility of a perfect 16–0 run through the playoffs. Stephen Curry hadn’t yet suffered the ankle, knee and elbow injuries that were coming and the Oracle Arena crowd was accustomed to a near-perfect home record.

Here, one courtside fan celebrates Golden State’s record regular season with a giant “Crying Jordan” sign, one of many times during the postseason that internet memes made their way into the real life action.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​​Needless to say, the start of the actual playoffs didn’t quite match the excitement of “73” night. Game 1 between the Clippers and Blazers tipped at 7 PM, early by southern California standards, and the crowd was pretty sparse just 15 minutes before tip. The Clippers would go on to win Games 1 and 2 in blowout fashion—appropriate given that one-sided games were a recurring theme throughout the playoffs, including the Finals—before losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to injuries.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​After knocking off the undermanned Clippers, Damian Lillard and the Blazers found themselves in an entertaining showdown with the Warriors, who opened the second round without Curry due to his knee injury. Portland’s young roster looked overwhelmed in Game 1, before getting its bearings in Game 2, but it was hard to blame them given the unfriendly territory. Here, the Blazers are a small patch of red in a sea of yellow. Strength in numbers, indeed.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Portland enjoys its own home-court advantage, though, and Rip City was revved up for the Blazers’ 120–108 Game 3 win.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Before tip, the Blazers hosted a block party complete with the requisite signage and a band that drew exactly one dancing fan. For whatever reason, this man’s “Dance like no one is watching” carefree vibe stuck with me for weeks. He was going to town.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​The real story in Portland came during Game 4, when Curry made his much-anticipated return from injury. The back-to-back MVP’s pre-game warm-up routine drew a crowd of hundreds who breathlessly waited for the news that he would be cleared. After hoisting one-legged jumpers, Curry was mobbed by autograph seekers on his way back to the tunnel.

​The Blazers’ long-standing “Us against the World” mentality—reflected here by the “Doubters Beware” sign—held up far longer than most expected during a season that was supposed to be a rebuilding effort.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Curry dashed the Blazers’ hopes with a record 17 points in overtime that reestablished the Warriors as firm title favorites. The performance, which left fans and media members alike gasping in disbelief, would go down as the high moment of an up-and-down postseason run.

Just as Draymond Green guaranteed, Golden State put away Portland 125–121 in Game 5. The only thing left to do before the Western Conference finals was to sweep up the confetti.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​My first trip of the year into America’s heartland, for Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City, was jarring to say the least. There was no traffic and no price gouging for parking. Gas was roughly half the price. After loading up on veggie-friendly food on the West Coast, I ate my first meal in Oklahoma at Cracker Barrel, where I ordered a “Vegetable Plate” that consisted of dumplins (No “g”), steak fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cheese grits.

I then stumbled into Boot Barn—basically, a large barn that sells boots—and found this patriotic American flag set composed of colored shotgun shells. Somehow, I never encountered one of these in San Francisco or Portland. I didn’t buy any cowboy boots; in many cases, they were more expensive than Air Jordans.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Years ago, while visiting Oklahoma City for the first time, a cab driver insisted that I check out the city’s Banjo Museum. I never did, and the idea of a Banjo Museum became an on-running joke among friends outside Oklahoma (“Of course they have a Banjo Museum”) and inside Oklahoma (“No, of course we haven’t been to the Banjo Museum”).

I decided this was the year: I took the plunge. A cardboard cutout of banjo aficionado Steve Martin greeted visitors at the front entrance, and the museum featured hundreds of banjos from various eras. An upstairs area had been converted into a concert venue with signs bearing the name of old banjo groups, like the “G-String Strugglers” and the “Mustache Stompers.” As crazy as it sounds, the cab driver was right. You should go.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Despite the many differences, there is one obvious commonality between Oakland, Portland and Oklahoma City: an obsession with the home team. Outside Chesapeake Energy Arena, with the Devon Energy tower and gigantic posters of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook looming, hundreds of fans gathered to take in music before Game 3.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

That game, of course, is where the playoffs really went off the rails. Green kicked Thunder center Steven Adams in the privates, narrowly avoiding a suspension but sparking a controversy that would carry over into the Finals. Before Game 4, Thunder fans donned mustaches in support of Adams and held up signs taunting Green, who played poorly amid the firestorm. With two blowout losses, Golden State fell into a 3–1 hole, facing three straight do-or-die games to keep its record season from ending prematurely.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated
Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

After Game 4, a downtrodden Curry declared that, “We’re not going out like that.” The next game, back in Oakland, I stumbled across this mural of a sneering, afro-rocking Curry. The timing couldn’t have been better: the mural’s defiance matched the Warriors’ refusal to go down without a fight. Golden State rallied to take the next three games, setting up a Finals rematch with James and a Cleveland supporting cast that was healthy this time around.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Oakland’s bootleg T-shirt makers were in fine form with the Finals approaching. Down the street from Oracle, makeshift vendors sold Warriors-themed shirts that hailed Curry as the MVP and celebrated the dethroning of the 1996 Bulls.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated
Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

The Finals commenced on a somber note, with boxing great Muhammad Ali passing away in between Games 1 and 2. A pregame tribute showed Ali smiling down on an arena that honored his memory with a moment of silence.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

When the series shifted to Cleveland with Golden State holding a comfortable 2–0 lead, the biggest question floating around was whether the Finals would end in four or five games. Much like the omnipresent construction workers preparing the city for the upcoming GOP convention, the Cavaliers seemed stuck in a rut.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

At the same time, there was still one good cause for hope.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Before Game 3, I made a pilgrimage to basketball’s most famous high school this side of Power Memorial and Laney: Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary. The school’s receptionist greeted me with a smile, adding that I was hardly alone in wanting to see where James’s career began. Sure enough, within five minutes, a Japanese reporter with two cameras in tow showed up with the same idea.

From the SI Vault: LeBron James is a high school phenom (2.18.02)

After securing a quick approval from the LeBron James Family Foundation (seriously), St. V’s athletic director Willie McGee was gracious enough to give me a tour of the school, its new gymnasium (“The LeBron James Arena” after its benefactor) and the basketball team’s locker room. The school is a veritable shrine to James, with his name and jersey No. 23 visible at every turn, and the gym is immaculate.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated
Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Summer school PE classes were in session when I visited, and students shot hoops near this biographical mural next to the gym’s main entrance.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

James’s old high school locker room looks a bit different from the ornate setups found throughout the NBA. According to McGee, James’s locker is the second from the right.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Can you think of better motivation for a high school player than this washed out photo of a young James, with a determined scowl on his face, going through pregame introductions?

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

McGee, of course, was James’s high school teammate. His office is adorned with photos of James and his former St. V teammates, and he had St. V’s 2003 yearbook at the ready.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated
Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

This group photo was my favorite find from the entire playoff run (including the Banjo Museum).

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

There’s no overstating James’s ubiquity in Ohio. After my side trip to Akron, I returned to Cleveland for Game 3, where local artists were hard at work on James-centric paintings.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Here, artist Michael Miller poses with his work.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Inside Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland won Game 3 but lost Game 4, James was everywhere too. Here, he pumps up his teammates, and the incredibly loud crowd by extension, before tip.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​At 3–1 heading back to California, the Finals seemed all but over, at least until the NBA dropped the bombshell that Green would be suspended for Game 5. Undaunted, the Warriors took a few shots at James over his altercation with Green that had prompted the suspension: Klay Thompson pointed to his “hurt feelings” while Marreese Speights implied that he was a baby. Meanwhile, due to a scheduling conflict, Finals practices were moved for a day to the Warriors’ downtown practice facility, where James and company went through their paces under a giant banner depicting Curry and Andre Iguodala kissing the Larry O’Brien trophy following their 2015 title in Cleveland. How much more fuel did James need?

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

James responded with a cool 41 points in a 112–97 win, sending the series back to Cleveland for Game 6. There, Green was absolutely swarmed by reporters when he addressed the media for the first time in days. In this scrum, Green said he had a “strong belief” that the Warriors would have won Game 5 if he had played.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Green played in Game 6, James scored 41 again, and the Cavaliers won again. It was James’s night.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Golden State was suddenly left with just one more chance to save its dream season. Nevertheless, the Oracle crowd showed up early and confident for Game 7. This fan toted a sign of a crying James surrounded by a flexing Green, a celebratory Curry and a skeptical Riley Curry.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​A few hours later, James was indeed in tears, but they were tears of joy. After posting a triple double in a 93–89 Game 7 win, prompting Kyrie Irving to compare James to Beethoven, James clutched the third Larry O’Brien trophy of his career and said that he couldn’t wait to get home to Cleveland.

The Ultimate Triumph: LeBron delivers on title promise to Cleveland

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Emotions are never greater in the NBA than immediately after the conclusion of the Finals. Here, Curry stood with a bowed head for more than a minute as he waited for Green to exit the post-game podium. The back-to-back MVP had plenty to think about after a rough Finals performance and a forgettable Game 7.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​From the agony of defeat straight back to the thrill of victory. In a memorable postgame speech that immediately went viral, J.R. Smith broke down in tears as he thanked his parents for supporting him throughout “a lot of dark spots” in his life.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

After he exited the podium, Smith collapsed into his father’s embrace. On Father’s Day.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​James was named Finals MVP, becoming just the fifth player in league history to win the award at least three times, and he rushed off the court with his hard-fought trophies. His Cavaliers had become the first team to dig out of a 3–1 hole in the Finals, they had upset the record 73-win Warriors and they had snapped Cleveland’s 52-year championship curse in stunning fashion, all in one fell swoop.

After spending nearly two months straight on the go, the long-awaited, storybook ending—much like this last picture—was a bit of a blur.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​As a footnote, this year’s playoffs served as another reminder that the United States can be absolutely, spectacularly beautiful. I love taking panorama photos, and here’s one from each of the five cities I visited over the last two months.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Point Mugu State Park in Malibu near Los Angeles.​

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

Willamette River waterfront in downtown Portland.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Pigeon Point Lighthouse south of San Francisco/Oakland.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Lakeshore Park near Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City.

Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated

​Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland.

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