I don’t know how you could do anything on Sunday night except await the moment when the great big ugly dad shoe would come crashing down on Cleveland once again, when the narrative would once again reinforce itself, when the overwrought woe-is-me sufferings of northeast Ohio would recycle into yet another self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in those final seconds of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, with the Cavaliers on the verge of victory, I thought perhaps LeBron James had shattered every bone in his body when he went crashing to the floor; I thought for sure that with that sore wrist, he would miss the free throws that could seal the game for the Cavs and Stephen Curry would hit a 3 to tie it and James would once again go down as the choke artist so many amateur Skip Baylesses around the nation wish he actually was.
But do you want to know the best thing about this, perhaps the most fascinating wire-to-wire NBA season we’ve ever witnessed? It didn’t conform to our expectations at all. It shattered every stereotype about a league that so often tends toward predictability. (Unless you happen to think the whole thing was rigged, in which case, Adam Silver is still the best commissioner around, because has anything ever been rigged so expertly since the movie The Sting?) Did you really think the Cavaliers could rebound from a 3-1 deficit and win two home games against one of the best home teams in NBA history? Hell, I wrote on this very website about the possibility of it, and even I didn’t think it would happen. Because, you know, this is Cleveland we’re talking about, and something always happens to quash those dreams, and because this whole LeBron James narrative felt too impossibly complicated to reach its zenith in such a simple moment of Herculean effort and triumph.
But then: Nothing. No choke jobs at all in Game 7. The whole time, minute by minute, the Cavaliers kept coming up with big shots and big plays to keep themselves in it against a crowd that had paid far too much for its tickets, in a region that has come to stand for everything Cleveland hasn’t stood for over these past 50 years: rich, moneyed, overconfident, successful. There’s probably something to be said for that, or at least there will be when they make the 30 for 30 about this season: Of course Cleveland broke its title drought against the trendiest NBA team in modern history. Of course Cleveland did it largely because LeBron (along with Kyrie Irving) hauled his teammates on his considerable back, and busted up the beauty of the Warriors by essentially rolling over them like a runaway dump truck.
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And of course it was LeBron James of Akron, Ohio, who finished it, hitting one of those two free throws to bring the Cleveland lead to 93-89 in the final seconds, and the Warriors missed one last-ditch effort at a 3-pointer to narrow the gap, and then it was over, the whole damn thing, half-a-century of misery in Cleveland along with the aspirations of the greatest regular-season team in NBA history. The thing that none of us saw coming had happened, and even for those of us who have grown quite attached to this Warriors team, it was hard to feel anything but O.K. about it all.
At some point, of course — some point very soon — this whole thing will congeal into finger-pointing on the Warriors side, because that’s how sports work: The argument model of sports television assures us that someone will have to be blamed, because it is not enough that the Warriors provided nearly two straight years of unalloyed bliss and then came up a few possessions short of a second straight title, and it is not enough that they validated an NBA regular-season that is overlong and often played at a stultifying half-speed, and it is not enough that they brought picturesque basketball back to a league that often feels as if it is bogged down in blunt physicality. And on the Cleveland side: Well, winning tends to alter the character of a city that hasn’t won a damned thing for decades, and not always for the better, and if you don’t believe me, allow me to purchase you a one-way ticket to Boston for an afternoon.
But can we take a moment before we get there? Can we just take a breath today and allow for the possibility that maybe nobody choked anything away this time, that yes, the Warriors ran out of steam, but that Cleveland pretty much earned this one? Here were two colliding narratives, one about the (potentially) greatest team in NBA history (and the most ascendant region in America), and one about the most accursed city in America, and both imploded in the same moment on Sunday evening. There aren’t many moments where sports transcends simple expectation, but this felt like one of those times. This whole saga felt rife with beauty and complexity, and if you’re too single-minded or too nakedly cynical and full of Hot Takes to see it, then I guess you deserve the narrative you get.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinrebLeBron James became the first player in NBA history to lead all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Watch here.