On Sunday night, though, James and the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship, the first title of any sort for Cleveland in more than a half-century. To do so, they beat the Golden State Warriors, who’d won the most regular-season games in league history and had held a 3-1 lead in the Finals, forcing the Cavaliers to pull off the unprecedented feat of winning all of the last three games. For the team and the city, it was pure joy. For James, who put together an all-time performance and was named the unanimous Finals Most Valuable Player, it was something even more. Thirteen years into a career marked as much by attendant grumbling as by displays of on-court genius, he’s achieved an unequivocal triumph, one beyond even the most cynical reproach.
The play that sticks in my mind came late in the sixth game of the Finals, with the Cavaliers holding an 11-point lead. James dribbled at the top of the key, some 25 feet from the rim. He looked to be in no particular hurry, pushing the ball from one hand to the other and bouncing on his feet, but the Warriors grew tense watching him, and with good reason. In Game 5, James had totaled 41 points, 16 rebounds, and seven assists, and already in that evening’s game, he’d added 36 more points to his ledger. Twice he’d dropped in three-pointers; three times he’d bent the rim with two-handed dunks. So even as James stayed put, the Golden State defense shifted towards him ever so slightly, girding itself against a drive. He flicked a pass overhead to the center Tristan Thompson, who caught it and laid it in, more or less putting the game out of reach.
Other sequences will surely prove more iconic than this one—James’s blocking Stephen Curry’s shot out of bounds seconds later, for example, or his racing down the court in the closing minutes of Sunday’s Game 7 to smother a would-be go-ahead Golden State shot against the backboard—but none is more illustrative of his particular genius for the sport, especially as it announced itself over the past week. He did everything a basketball player can do, switching tacks at the opportune moments. The way others might maneuver within a single play, feinting one way and then going the other, James seemed to manipulate the larger patterns of the game. During one stretch, he’d bull his way to the rim again and again; when the defense adjusted to that, he’d spend the next little while sending passes to the shooters stationed around him. Over the course of the Finals, he played more minutes than anyone on either team, scored more points, dished more assists, grabbed more rebounds, and blocked more shots.
In press conferences immediately after games and on the days in between them, though, he was not self-congratulatory but calm. Asked about the possibility of giving Cleveland a long-sought title, he said, “I’ll give everything I’ve got and live with the results.” Asked more pointedly if he thought the outcome of the series would define his legacy, he said only, “No.” If this was evidence of the hard-earned wisdom he’d gained over the years—upon arriving in Miami, he’d infamously announced his attentions to win “not five, not six, not seven” championships—it also seemed like the Zen of someone who’s learned not to find his worth in public favor.