Cleveland remains the fitting backdrop to Lebron James’s magnificence
World’s best basketball player is operating at a supreme level for the sake of the Cavaliers
LeBron James: scored 51 points in an extraordinary display against the Golden State Warriors but Cleveland still lost in overtime in game one of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Photograph: Monica Davey/EPA
Yes, he slips into pomposity and even smugness sometimes and there are moments on the court when he will throw that furrowed brow – the most famous unhappy-prince look in all of sport – to make it clear not just to a hapless team-mate but to the millions watching around the world that they have screwed up.
And, yes, he whines about every bump and elbow all the time and he can be preening in the way he carries himself and he will use that incredible physique (6ft 8in and 17 chiselled stone packed into the compact build of an NFL wide-receiver) to bludgeon his way to the hoop when he has to.
And his trademark pre-game ritual where he blows the talc powder from his hands into the air as if to say “ behold the magic” never was and never will be cool. The nostalgic and bitter alike resent him for behaving as if he could be Michael Jordan, for even as basketball’s original #23 recedes in vividness, critics are adamant that for all the superhuman physical prowess he lacks the era-defining poise of Jordan and he will never quite achieve that eerie athletic perfection of Jordan in mid-air with the ball; grace and fury backlit by global worship.
But still who can deny that, now, in his 33rd year, LeBron James, hasn’t risen to become the most to become the most compelling sports person on this troubled planet and that what he is attempting to do, over the next ten nights, has him operating beyond the limits of ordinary human endurance?
After James played all 48 minutes of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ decisive game seven victory over the Celtics, hushing the wildly partisan expectant Boston crowd, some footage and photos emerged of the scenes in the Cleveland dressing room afterwards.
One showed James sitting down, exhausted, his legs submerged in ice buckets and most of his body wrapped in ice-packs. The light is harsh and slumped and at rest he looks as if he has lived every one of those 33 years.
Somewhere else in the room, JR Smith and a few others among the Cavs team are passing around the Eastern Conference trophy and mugging like school kids for Instagram, listening to Meek Mill.
Someone posted the two images with the caption: LeBron Does This so They Can Do This. The image crystallised the public perception that James is appearing in his eight consecutive NBA finals in spite of rather than because of his team-mates.
There are two ways of regarding James’s support cast at Cleveland. Either they are a collection of deeply talented individualists who together feel slightly addled by the demands of sharing a ball and the concept of a team with the most high-profile and best basketball player in the world.
Or else they are a group of hopeless misfits. In the early hours of Friday morning, James carried the brutally majestic form that killed the Celtics into game one of the NBA finals against the Golden State Warriors, the fourth time in a row that those teams have met in the finals.
James was an extraordinary force in finding an answer all night long against the Warriors’ trinity of superstars; Steph’ Curry, Kevin Durant and Clay Thompson. He finished the game with 51 points and did everything else besides score. With just five seconds left, something happened with perfectly encapsulated the sense of dysfunction within the Cavaliers and the impossibility of James’s situation.
The Cavaliers’ George Hill was fouled and had two free throws with the Cavaliers trailing by one point. He made the first, leaving the score tied at 106 apiece. Hill is an exceptionally good player and free-throws are strange shots: at once very easy but also in circumstances of intolerable pressure, potentially terrifying.
The ring shrinks. Hill missed. JR Smith, though, grabbed the rebound and had a chance to go straight back up and make what would have been the winning shot from no more than three feet out.
Instead, Smith inexplicably dribbled away from the basket as though running the clock down while James frantically pointed at the goal. The game went to overtime, the Warriors won comfortably and the night finished with Curry and Thompson trash-talking with James in a gloating display.
It was hard not to imagine that the Cavaliers’ best chance of winning the series had disappeared right then. In the best of seven series, four games will be played in Oakland, three in Cleveland. As well as winning all their home games, the Cavaliers will have to steal one in Golden State. That may have been the one.
The look of near-resignation on James’s face after Smith’s blunder said it all. He had manifestly put his team on his back and all but dragged them to an improbable win. And still they found a way to mess it up.
The backdrop to all of this is where LeBron James will play next season. The Warriors are to NBA basketball what Real Madrid are to European football. In acquiring Durant last year, they have tipped the scales in a way which is not just unfair but almost obscene; the playground jokers turned bullies.
James, as a free agent, could theoretically go anywhere but his likely choices would appear to be a move to revive the blue-chip Los Angeles Lakers team or to join up with James Harden, Chris Paul at the Houston Rockets and create another ‘super team’ capable of challenging the Warriors.
His third choice is to stay put. It’s impossible to exaggerate what James means to Cleveland. His return to the city and the Cavaliers, ahead of the 2014 season, instantly transformed the worth of the club from $500 million to $1 billion.
Cleveland is one of the many cities across the American interior left bewildered by the decline of the 20th century industries and certainties that facilitated its growth.
James himself was raised in Akron, a fading town in the rust belt. His mum worked around the clock which meant he was accountable for himself. He would recall that in 4th grade he skipped 82 days of school.
“I didn’t have to be home when the streetlights came on” he would remember. “I’d go into the house at two o’clock in the morning. I was nine years old. But sport saved my damn life.”
After he won his first NBA title in 2012 with the Miami Heat, he stood on the podium and said with unmistakable defensiveness: “I’m from the inner-city. I ain’t even supposed to be here.”
By then, he was used to being routinely savaged as a choker who had failed to deliver a title after spending seven years there. His return to the caveliers and the city resembled a scene from the mass prayer gatherings in the Bible Belt. The King had returned. The people were euphoric. James was the exception to the Tomas Wolfe observation that you can’t go home again.
Now, James has matured into a significant black-American voice in social and political life: outspoken, fearless, principled, a conscientious objector to the grotesqueness of the Trump presidency.
And in 2016, Cleveland won its first major sports title since 1948. He delivered. That may not happen again this summer. But James is more important to Cleveland than any city mayor or state governor. He is a force of inspiration and he matters in a way that is incalculable.
It’s his city; they are his people. For better or worse, it is his legacy and the hope must be that he doesn’t settle for the easier path to future titles or the allure of L.A. Forgotten, struggling Cleveland is the backdrop to James’ magnificence – and the best move of his basketball life would be to stay local.