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The Block That Saved Cleveland

For LeBron James, one play answered a lifetime of questions

Elias Stein/Ringer illustration/Getty
Elias Stein/Ringer illustration/Getty

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

“I’m not even supposed to be here.”

A life can’t be explained by a moment, but it can be defined by one. That’s never stopped us from sifting through history and biographies for the fateful choices and actions that seemingly capture a person’s character like a scene in a snow globe.

I’ve been thinking about LeBron James’s block in the context of everything that happened before he arrived at that moment — 1:51 left in the fourth quarter, Game 7, NBA Finals, tied at 89 with the Warriors: Growing up without his father around. Having to live with his youth league coach for a time. Then, managing to escape the world of amateur sports — a labyrinth littered with the dusty skeletons of previously anointed Next Ones — to navigate past the minotaurs of AAU moneymen, grasping sports agents, and sneaker pimps, and to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and to do it all by age 17, one year older than Gloria James was when she brought him into the world.

I think about the irony of Klay Thompson’s dad, Mychal, a former NBA player, calling LeBron — who, as a child, watched his house get torn down by the city of Akron — “entitled” after Game 4 of the Finals.

I think about how, when LeBron reached the NBA, every season creaked under the expectations — seemingly impossible to live up to — that he would one day lead Cleveland sports out of the wilderness. How LeBron had to deal with teammates like Ricky Davis, the ignoble and inveterate gunner who once said — and perhaps here’s a single sentence that does sum up a career — “I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score.”

There were the shots he passed up and there was Game 6 against the Celtics in 2010, when he disappeared before everyone’s eyes — a 6-foot-8 ghost, melting into the shadow of his impending free agency. Those four quarters were so desultory it seemed possible they could scar his career forever. Now, they’re just a footnote.

Then, of course, there was The Decision (remember how the enormity of it seemed to gradually etch itself into LeBron’s face); Dan Gilbert’s infamous response (427 words of bile set in a font better suited for a child’s birthday party flier); James’s gasoline-soaked no. 23 going up in a sputtering gout of flame along with his Q Score; the entire universe, minus South Florida, luxuriating in the sweet schadenfreude when James’s Heat lost to the Mavericks in 2011; and Pat Riley, the mafia don mastermind behind James’s two titles in Miami, (allegedly) telling LeBron that going back to Ohio — going home — would be the biggest mistake of his career.

Any one of those moments could have been the one to define James’s career. Many of them, for a time, did. Until the Block.

In retrospect, it’s strange that a player as great as LeBron James didn’t have a signature playoff moment until his 13th season. With radar vision, the skills and unselfishness of a guard, and the physical presence of a bionic power forward, LeBron’s game has always defied easy categorization. He’s hyperbole in human form. As The Ringer’s Danny Chau wrote, LeBron’s greatest rival has always been the idea of LeBron James. Compared with our mental image of the player, a generic LeBron night — 28 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, do-everything-but-fly-the-team-plane — feels like just another day at the office. Maybe it was James’s remarkable performance against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals — when he scored 48 points at the Palace, including the Cavaliers’ final 25 points — that prompted the question, which has haunted the perception of LeBron, to form in the back of everyone’s mind: “Why doesn’t he do that all the time?”

Why doesn’t he scream through opponents like a sonic boom all the time? Why doesn’t he leave the best defenders in the world utterly shaken all the time? Why hasn’t he averaged a triple-double? Why doesn’t he dunk on every possession? Why doesn’t he take over every game like the resurrected folk memory of Michael Jordan? Why doesn’t he average 40? Why does he get tired? Why won’t he play point guard? Why won’t he play shooting guard? Why won’t he play center? Besides physics, why won’t he play every position at once?

The Block changed the LeBron narrative. It was the moment when the idea of LeBron James, founded on decades of hype, merged with the reality of the man. The score was tied at 89 for what felt like forever, but was actually only about three minutes. The cumulative score of the nearly seven full Finals games to that point was 699–699. Not much was on the line, just whether the Warriors would become the greatest team of all time or whether LeBron James would fulfill the destiny foisted onto him by the state of Ohio and the rest of world since he was a teenager: to deliver Cleveland from more than 50 years of fruitless postseasons.

In the alternate universe where Andre Iguodala’s layup goes down, the question would’ve been something like, “Why doesn’t LeBron, after 40-plus minutes on the court, take off at a dead sprint from the half-court line, leap from a step outside the restricted area, and, fingertips above the square, block last year’s Finals MVP’s shot?”

LeBron wasn’t supposed to be there. Only he was.