So the NBA Finals are here again, and for the fifth straight season, they feature LeBron James, the NBA’s preeminent star. It’s been a storied first-half of James’ career, beginning with his 2003 entrance to the league straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. In genuine fairytale style, LeBron of course joined his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, wearing, of course, number 23, in honor of his boyhood hero, Michael Jordan, who had strangely enough, just completed his 15th and final NBA season with the Washington Wizards. 40-year-old MJ played all 82 games with Washington that season, remarkably averaging 20 points per game.
From that point forward, the comparisons between James and Jordan would never end. In the spring of 2007, after finishing just his 4th season, LeBron led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a place they had never been – the NBA Finals. Residents of a hard-struck city (both in the financial and sports departments) at the dawn of the 21st century, Clevelanders were desperate for a winner. A Cleveland sports franchise had not won a championship since 1964, when Jim Brown led the conveniently-named “Browns” to the NFL Title before Super Bowls were played. Oh, and then there were the 1948 Indians, who defeated the Boston “Braves” (yes, before they moved to Milwaukee and eventually Atlanta) – the last Cleveland team to win a World Series.
The 2007 Cavaliers were greatly overmatched by Tim Duncan’s Spurs, who swept Cleveland away in the Finals. However, James and Duncan would meet twice more in the championship series, but in the most unlikely of settings for the Cleveland die hards. At the end of the 2010 season, after the second in the past three years the Cavs had fallen to Boston in the playoffs and watched the Celtics take their place in the Finals, LeBron made a “Decision” that would alter the course of NBA history.
In a nationally-televised press conference (the proceeds of which would benefit the Boys & Girls Club of America), LeBron uttered the famous words that would be echoed for the next 4 years – “I’m taking my talents to South Beach!” And just like that, the King leapt upon his magic carpet and departed Cleveland, seemingly forever. Clevelanders erupted in rage, burning James’ game jerseys in the streets. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert angrily proclaimed that LeBron would never win a championship in Miami, just like he had never hoisted the trophy in Cleveland.
But Gilbert was wrong. Paired with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James guided the Heat to 4 consecutive Eastern Conference Championships from 2011-14. In 2011, Miami was outshot by a sharp Mavericks squad led by Dirk Nowitzki. But in 2012, LeBron finally reached the NBA pinnacle, dominating Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to win his elusive NBA Championship.
It had now taken LeBron 9 seasons to win his first crown, versus Jordan’s 7 seasons. At this point, LeBron was 1-2 in the NBA Finals, while Michael had been a perfect 3-0. Remember, the comparisons would always be on the periphery of the King’s career.
In the 2013 NBA Finals, James would once again face off against Tim Duncan’s Spurs, previous winners of 3 Larry O’Brien Trophies. Like MJ, Duncan was also undefeated in the Finals. With San Antonio leading 3 games to 2, the series shifted back to Miami for its concluding act. That’s when LeBron took the Heat on his back (ala Larry Bird in the ’84 Finals against Magic’s Lakers). The King posted 32 points in Game 6 (an overtime Miami win) followed by 37 more in the decisive Game 7 to finally show the Spurs the taste of bitter defeat in the championship round.
Miami and San Antonio would square off for a rematch in last year’s Finals. But this time, the Spurs would overpower the Heat, taking the series easily.
And that is when the pendulum of … Cleveland, of all places, would swing yet again. For the second time in his career, the King was a free agent, and he decided to return home, just as in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s third trilogy installment.
A year later, LeBron’s New Cavaliers (no players or coaches remain from his first stint) lead the NBA Finals 2 games to 1, with Game 4 tomorrow night (9 pm, ABC) at Cleveland’s QuickenLoans Arena. At this point, NBA experts can argue that James’ performance in these 2015 Finals versus the upstart Golden State Warriors is currently more impressive that Games 6-7 in 2013 against San Antonio. That’s because Cleveland’s second and third-best players (Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) are both injured, out for the remainder of the series. In face, Love has been out since the first round against Boston, back in April!
Yet, LeBron has this time taken the Cavs on his back (ala MJ in the ’98 Finals versus Utah when Scottie Pippen was wearing down with injuries). In three games, all decided by 8 points or less, the Cavs and Warriors have split 2 games in Oakland before LeBron thwarted a spirited Golden State rally last night in the Rock N’ Roll City. James is averaging 41 points per game.
We don’t know if Cleveland will finally win a basketball championship this or next week, and we surely know that the comparisons between LeBron and Jordan will ever end. But let’s all relish that we are enjoying something special here. Although it doesn’t seem like it to those in their thirties, this is like when Jordan danced between Magic and Worthy in the ’91 Finals and reversed hands before tossing the ball lefty, over his head, into the basket. This is like when Michael couldn’t stop nailing three-pointers versus Portland in the ’92 Finals, and shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know? I can’t miss.”
And although Jordan’s 6-0 championship record cannot ever be matched by James (who will be 3-3 in the Finals if Cleveland holds on), let’s remember that LeBron has now reached his 6th Finals in only a 12-year career. And Jordan never had to compete in the Finals with his next best and second-best teammates both out for virtually the entire series.
The point is: We can make all the comparisons we want. Let’s enjoy these last days of basketball this spring for what they are – an NBA Finals Classic.