The buzzer rings, the sea of gold cries out in dismay and LeBron James lies prone on the floor, weeping his heart into the hardwood.
Humans have always used symbolism to understand the world around them, a president is not just an elected leader but the symbolic face and representation for a country. Likewise the pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China are more than just the summation of stone and physical labour; they are testaments of a nation’s power and culture. Game 7 of the 2016 finals was more than just a 48 minute basketball game, the entire narrative of two teams, two cities were at stake and LeBron James understood the consequences of defeat.
2015 and a vast majority of 2016 belonged to the San Francisco Warriors and in particular Stephen Curry. Slowly, yet surely he had become the poster boy of the NBA, the fast cutting, methodical chaos known as the Warrior’s offense and shooting had turned the game into a spectacle. Basketball had once again entered the public consciousness just like when Jordan was wearing red or when O’Neal and Bryant were dominating in the purple and gold; the Warriors were that good.
In 2011, James destroyed Derrick Rose’ threat to his throne. In 2012-2014 another challenged had arrived, a 6’10 scoring machine with the touch and dribbling abilities of a guard; yet at the peak of his athletic powers, James cemented his dominance over the NBA. In 2015, another player ascended to take Kevin Durant’s position; the 6’2 point guard; Stephen Curry. Slowly you could see the gears of the NBA shift, the league was getting smaller, shooting became more vital to success; Stephen Curry’s emergence was almost meteoric. Then Curry became the only player in league history to win the MVP in an unanimous vote; James’ relevance was slowly being diminished, out shone by the lovable assassin, who had turned three point shooting into a video game.
The narrative had changed; three point shooting wasn’t just important to winning a championship, it was now ESSENTIAL, and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson apparently embodied everything you would want as the foundations of your team.
How did LeBron James translate this? “I’m a 6’8, 250 pound locomotive who is also the most versatile player in NBA history and you don’t think I’m good enough to win a ring because I don’t shoot 5 three pointers per game?… We’ll see.”
However, in the 2015 finals, James was unable to overcome the stacked Warriors team with a depleted Cavaliers squad. The conditions were completely unfair to James, yet history only has time for winners, that’s how society works. We measure every player through milestones, small details eventually fade from the public memory as time goes on; but milestones, they’ll stay. (How many people remember Kobe Bryant shooting 25% in game 7 against the Boston Celtics in 2010? No, we just remember him for his 5 rings)
The Stephen Curry narrative was flourishing.
However, LeBron James rose to the challenge displaying almost superhuman energy and fortitude during the final three games of the 2016 finals. These are his statistics for game 5, 6 and 7 respectively.
GAME 5: 41 Points, 16 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 3 Steals, 3 Blocks, 2 Turnovers, 53.3% Field Goal Shooting, 50% Three Point Shooting, 62.5% Free Throw Shooting.
GAME 6: 41 Points, 8 Rebounds, 11 Assists, 4 Steals, 3 Blocks, 1 Turnover, 59.3% Field Goal Shooting, 50% Three Point Shooting, 75% Free Throw Shooting.
GAME 7: 27 Points, 11 Rebounds, 11 Assists, 2 Steals, 3 Blocks, 5 Turnovers, 37.5% Field Goal Shooting, 20% Three Point Shooting, 80% Free Throw Shooting.
Three images resonate with me when I reflect on this series. Firstly, J.R. Smith’s Alley-Oop to LeBron James in game 6, it was another reminder that despite the growing mileage of his body, James is still one of the most physically imposing human beings, ever. It reminded us that despite how sweet and fast Curry’s release was, he was a full 5 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter. The secondly play was Kyrie Irving’s ridiculous step back three point dagger against the unanimous MVP; when the offense on both teams seemed to stagnant and die, this was the spark that sealed the fate of the Warriors. Finally, I will remember James’ superhuman rejection on Andre Iguodala, rising up like Superman himself, James comes down with the furry of an avalanche and smites the ball into the crowd, all within the span of a second.
We all live vicariously through our athletes, because we want them to succeed and triumph against insurmountable odds. We want to believe that the physical constraints of flesh are nothing when met with an unstoppable will, that trivial things like injuries and age are secondary to blistering passion. We want our athletes to succeed, because they represent the achievements of humanity, because they symbolise what is possible. And in the final 3 games of the 2016 season, James forever etched himself into our conscious, how many years will it be till we find another player of his caliber?
So what does the 2016 championship ring mean for LeBron James?
“James is unclutch”
“James can never win in his own town, he needs to join up with others”
“James will never rise to the moment like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan”
Here are the facts, the Golden State Warriors had a legendary season whilst breaking the 1996 Bull’s record of 72 wins and maintaining the longest winning spree of 24 consecutive victories. Here are the facts, Stephen Curry’s 2016 statistics are mind numbing; 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assist, 5 three pointers per game and being the only person in the 90%-45%-50% club. But this is also another fact, only three teams have ever been down 3-1 in the finals and have managed to reach a game 7 and only one team has won the ring whilst being in that position; 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers.
As of now, James currently sits as the 6th greatest player of all time in my all time list behind Jordan, Jabbar, Russell, Johnson and Duncan. However with the 2016 championship fresh under his belt, James is quickly climbing up the ladder of greatness. Now, more than ever LeBron James is no longer battling his opponents on the court, but rather for a permanent place in the hall of basketball greatness, as one of the most gifted players to ever step onto the hardwood.
“I set out a goal two years [ago], and I came back to bring a championship to this city, I gave everything I had. I put my heart, my blood and my sweat, my tears to this game.”
3 FINALS MVP.
We are all witnesses.
Celebrate hard, Cleveland.