OAKLAND, California: Long-suffering Cleveland fans, who have not cheered a major sports champion since 1964, are on the brink of seeing the drought end, thanks to the LeBron James-led NBA Cavaliers.
Trying to fulfill the dream that brought him back to Cleveland from the Miami Heat two years ago, James will power the Cavaliers into a winner-take-all NBA Finals showdown on Sunday (Monday in Manila) against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
James was drafted by the Cavaliers and led them to the 2007 finals, where they were swept by San Antonio. In 2010, James left for the Miami Heat, winning two titles and making four finals before returning in 2014 vowing to make the Cavaliers a title team.
“I came back for a reason, and that is to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland,” James said. “That has been one of my goals. But I don’t add too much pressure on it. I go out and trust what I’ve been able to do, the work I’ve put into it, my teammates have put into it.”
He scored 41 points in consecutive games to spark Cleveland triumphs and pull the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series into a seventh game. It is only the third time a team down 3-1 has gone the distance and no such team has ever claimed the crown.
“To be in Cleveland, even when we were down 3-1, it was eerie how optimistic they were. It really was,” said Cleveland’s Richard Jefferson. “It was the messages — ‘We believe in you guys, keep going, we’re just so proud of you.’ It’s very encouraging to be part of that.”
It is the love of a town for a team that could bring Cleveland a thrill it has not enjoyed since the 1964 Browns won the NFL crown in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Part of something ‘very special’
“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can be a part of something that’s very special,” said James, a former prep star in nearby Akron.
“I don’t think people imagined it this way, the route that we’ve taken, and that’s fine. Every day is not a bed of roses and you have to be able to figure out how to get away from the thorns and the pricklers and things of that nature to make the sun shine.
“If we take care of business, that’s something that our city hasn’t had in a very long time.”
The 52-year wait, the longest ongoing drought among US cities for a champion, has the Great Lakes metropolis yearning for a breakthrough.
“I love our fans,” Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving said. “I know they are diehard in terms of the years, the amount of time that has gone by for Cleveland, not delivering a championship.”
It will take mere minutes to decide the crown for a season that began nine months ago, but for some, it could be a trophy quest more than half a century in the making.
“This is what we’re playing for,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “They are really into their sports. This will be very important and very big for the city of Cleveland and for the state of Ohio to bring this home.
“I know it’s going to be going crazy in Cleveland, so hopefully we can stay the course and bring them a championship home.”