Chosen One: From St. Vincent-St.Mary to Game 7


On a spring evening in 2002, I went downtown with my dad to a high school basketball game at the Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans). My high school (and my dad’s alma mater), St. Ignatius, was facing off against their crosstown rival, St. Ed’s, in a playoff game — a familiar matchup that had been dubbed “the Holy War.” The game failed to live up to the hype, a 72-58 loss, but before we could leave, my dad wanted to catch a glimpse of the second game — a matchup between Warrensville Heights and St. Vincent-St. Mary, featuring LeBron James.

A month previous, James had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Chosen One.” Now he was introducing himself to me and 20,500 other fans in a sell-out crowd at the Gund Arena. James, then a six-foot-eight-inch junior, had a game mature far beyond that of the high school rivalry game I had just watched. With 16 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, and 6 blocks, he dominated his opponent defensively. The performance was almost taunting in its stat line. He helped a teammate score a career high 31-points, hit two dunks in the second half to give the crowd what they wanted, and even tried out a three-pointer from NBA-distance. At the time, James was considering opting out of his senior year and entering the NBA Draft. “He could play for us?”, I asked my dad in amazement. With James towering over the guards sent out to defend him, I understood for the first time where NBA players come from. He was just a kid, but he had me, my dad, and 20,5000 Cleveland fans on our feet.

Nine months later, James would play his first nationally broadcast game on ESPN2, the first ever high school basketball game on ESPN, against Oak Hill and Carmelo Anthony, selling out Cleveland State University’s Convocation Center. Ten months after that he’d walk back out onto the Gund Arena’s floor in a Cavaliers uniform. “The Chosen One” had arrived in Cleveland. And now, the Akron-native turned hometown hero was about to write his legacy in the NBA record books.

13 seasons later, James’s legacy continues to be defined by that first Sports Illustrated cover, “The Chosen One.” From his first NBA Finals in just his fourth year in the league in 2007, to now his sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals in 2016, trying to win a championship for Northeast Ohio has been the central struggle of his career. And, after back-to-back 41-point performances, James has brought the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7, the closest the franchise has ever been to an NBA Championship.

Sunday’s Game 7 at Oakland against the Golden State Warriors sets up a storybook ending to LeBron James’s return to Cleveland. A win would be the realization of a goal he set out to accomplish just two years ago when he announced, “I’m Coming Home,” again on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After losing to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on sidelines and hospital beds, the Cavaliers brought back most of a $100+ million roster for a rematch. Since their championship, the Warriors completed a 73-9 regular season, the winningest in NBA history, and just a week ago brought the Cavaliers to 3-1 and the brink of elimination. It’s a series deficit that has never been overcome in the history of the NBA, against a team that uses “historically great” at historically high levels, and all for a city whose entire identity is wrapped up in a 52-year title drought.

There are good stories, there are cliched sports movies, and then there is THIS story. It’s the Neapolitan ice cream of basketball games. It’s a quest for perfection pitted against a comeback fight with history. It’s as if Disney did a combined remake of Remember the Titans, Miracle, and the Might Ducks Trilogy. It’s every Rocky film played simultaneously.

So now for the question, everyone is asking — what does Game 7 mean for James? Or specifically, what would losing another Finals mean for his legacy? Is he a Crying-Jordan-Jerry-West logo?

Winning a championship for Cleveland  in the wish-upon-a-star storyline I just outlined would be the crowning achievement of the “King James” legacy, but what would a 2-5 Finals record mean?

On the loyalist side, there’s the argument that James is still a two-time NBA Champion and Finals MVP, and four-time league MVP. He’s earned his GOAT emoji’s more than the baby bottles that his haters seem to carry for him. LeBron James has defined the majority of the past decade in the NBA, played in seven of the past 10 championship series. He’s 2-4 so far, with a 16-23 record, averaging 26.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 7.1 assists. In 12 games against the Warriors these past two years, he’s had five games with 40 or more points. To get to that point he’s gone 7-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, with an 114-45 record overall in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. And he’s 31 years old. By that age, Michael Jordan was in the minor leagues, 3-0 in the Finals, and still a year away from embarking on his next three-peat. James has more miles than Jordan and fewer rings to show for it, but his legacy still is at least another five years away from a final draft.

On the skeptics side, there’s the Kobe 5-2 to the James 2-5, the inability to close, and the failure to “Defend the Land.” With the championship expectations that James brought back in his return to Cleveland, a failure to win would spell a 0-3 record James and “the Land.” With Golden State ready to run back at a third hypothetical championship, and James entering the last phase of his NBA career, the doubts would certainly settle in.

Still, as FiveThirtyEight pointed out, he’s had less than a 33% chance to win in all three Cavaliers Finals appearances. By those odds, his 2-4 record is about as expected. And from James’s view, he’s beaten the odds:

"“Listen, I can’t worry about what everybody says about me. I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6 with James on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody says about me off the court, don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”"

The odds are still against James and the Cavaliers for Game 7. No away team has won a Game 7 since 1978, they are 3-15 all time. And no team has come back from 3-1. It’s a clash of two ideals. For the Warriors, perfection is everything. It’s the two-hour warm-up routines, the micro-brewery that is Klay Thompson’s shooting form, the switch defense that demands effort from every player on the court. The “choked” headlines are waiting if they fail to complete their 73 win season with a championship. And for the “Believeland,” is the ability to change. The city’s sports teams have gone 52 years without winning a championship, and many wonder if they ever will again.  It’s a city’s beat-the-odds belief and hometown hero that they hope can realize this change. That’s the narrative tension that makes the stakes of this series so high.

Still, no matter what happens in Game 7. The lasting legacy for James in this 2016 season lies with everything that has gotten the Cavaliers to this point.  James means something for Cleveland because of who he is and where he is from. From his start, 14 years ago at Gund Arena with St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, to the homecoming in 2014, and the back-to-back 41-point performances that won Game 5 and Game 6,  James has brought the first Game 7 to Cleveland sports since the 1997 World Series.

The legacy talk demands that we note if the Cavaliers won or lost, and that’s almost disappointing, because win or lose, James has delivered one of the greatest stories in sports. With all his other accolades that he’s earned that should be more than enough.