LeBron James biography details run to championship with Cavs

The following is an excerpt from the book LeBron by Jeff Benedict, which details James’ time with the Cavaliers, as well as James’ time in the NBA overall. You can buy the book HERE

From the start of the 2015–2016 season, LeBron James kept a close eye on the Warriors, recording their games and watching them in the middle of the night. He got accustomed to hearing the play-by-play announcer say the same three words: “Curry. Three. Good.” With Stephen Curry knocking down three-point shots at a record clip, the Warriors looked like a team that might never lose. The NBA record for consecutive wins to open a season was fifteen. It had stood since 1949. But the Warriors shattered the mark. By mid-December, Golden State was 24-0. “They have by far the best player in basketball right now in Steph Curry,” NBA analyst David Aldridge told NPR. “And I say that knowing that LeBron James is incredibly talented and gifted and is a great player, but what Curry’s doing is remarkable.”

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, struggled to play up to LeBron’s standards. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference. Nonetheless, midway through the season, the team fired head coach David Blatt and replaced him with Tyronn Lue, who was more popular among the players. In the second half of the season, the team lost more games under Lue than it had under Blatt. LeBron was at wit’s end.

Although he was living in Los Angeles and had his hands full running SpringHill, Maverick Carter kept close tabs on the situation in Cleveland. He recognized what was happening. Some of the Cavs players weren’t as committed as LeBron felt they should be. But Maverick also knew that LeBron was a perfectionist. Toward the end of the regular season, Maverick called him. “You get paid a lot of money to do something you’re better at than anybody else in the world,” Maverick told him. “So just do that. Don’t worry about this guy or that guy, or what anybody else is. Just play.”

The Cavs finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 57-25. The Warriors, meanwhile, finished with the best record in NBA history at 73-9. Curry led the league in scoring, set the NBA record for three-pointers made in a season, and was voted MVP for the second straight year. The Warriors were the only team with three players – Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Greennamed to the All-Star team in 2016. And Steve Kerr was named Coach of the Year. The Warriors were so dominant and so popular that some writers started referring to them as America’s team.

LeBron had heard enough about how great the Warriors were. And it irked him when Curry was characterized as the best player in the world. Curry was a newly minted star who was known for freakishly accurate long-range shooting, handling the ball as if it were a yo-yo, and steals. He was a master showman who’d had two phenomenally entertaining seasons, and he was deserving of the MVP honors. But LeBron had been the most talented basketball player on the planet for thirteen years. For most of that time, he had to carry his team. His ability to play all five positions made him difficult to categorize. And his overall body of work from the NBA to the Olympics was on a different plane from Curry’s. In LeBron’s view, the words most valuable were open to interpretation, and there was a difference between being the most valuable player and being the best player in a particular season.

Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports agreed. He suggested that Curry wasn’t as important to his team’s success as LeBron had been in Miami or Cleveland. “I’m not sure this league has ever had a single player as valuable as LeBron James,” Cowherd said. He added: “Steph Curry should win ‘Best Player of the Year,’ while LeBron is the real MVP.”

The Cavs gelled at the right time and breezed through the playoffs, sweeping two teams and never being challenged. The Warriors, on the other hand, were nearly knocked off by Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. After being down, 3-1, the Warriors came back and won the series.

A rematch between the Cavaliers and the Warriors was a gold mine for the NBA and its network partners. The 2016 NBA Finals pitted one of the best teams in NBA history against one of the best players in NBA history. The Warriors were trying to repeat as champions. LeBron was on a quest to win a championship for Cleveland. And the debate over who was the superior player – Curry or LeBron – would be settled on the floor. From a rating standpoint, ABC had the best drama on television.

The Warriors trounced the Cavs in Games 1 and 2 in Oakland, winning both games by a combined forty-eight points. In Game 3 in Cleveland, the Cavs responded, pounding the Warriors by thirty. But in the pivotal Game 4 on June 10, Curry erupted, nailing seven three-pointers and scoring thirty-eight points. Thompson added twenty-five, silencing the crowd and giving the Warriors a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Splash Brothers were all smiles when they left the Q.

The Cavs looked doomed. No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. And the Warriors hadn’t lost three games in a row all season. But an altercation between LeBron and Draymond Green near the end of Game 4 proved to be a turning point in the series. Green had been verbally and physically harassing LeBron throughout the game. With less than three minutes to play and the Warriors up by ten, LeBron had had enough. When Green set a screen, LeBron pushed his way through it. Green went down, and LeBron stepped over him in his pursuit of the play. Attempting to stand up while LeBron was straddling him, Green swiped at LeBron’s groin. LeBron took exception. They went chest-to-chest, exchanged words, and started shoving. Both players were whistled for fouls that had no impact on the game’s outcome.

The altercation between LeBron and Green escalated in the postgame press conferences. When asked about LeBron’s reaction to Draymond Green, Klay Thompson mocked LeBron by saying that the NBA was “a man’s league,” and that trash talk was part of the game. “I don’t know how the man feels,” Thompson said. “But obviously, people have feelings. People’s feelings get hurt. I guess his feelings just got hurt.”

While Thompson was talking to the press, LeBron was in the locker room, assuring his teammates that they had the Warriors right where they wanted them. He told his teammates that they were not going to lose another game. Then, when LeBron entered the media room, a reporter referenced Thompson’s words and asked him if he cared to comment. “What did you say Klay said?” LeBron asked. “Klay said, ‘I guess he just got his feelings hurt,’ ” the reporter repeated. Holding a microphone, LeBron dropped his chin to his chest and laughed. The press chuckled. “My goodness,” he said, grinning. “I’m not gonna comment on what Klay said.” He paused and laughed again. Then he looked the reporters in the eye. “It’s so hard to take the high road,” LeBron said with a smile. “I’ve been doing it for thirteen years. It’s so hard to continue to do it. And I’m gonna do it again.”

LeBron didn’t need additional motivation. But Thompson had manufactured some. Later that night, LeBron wound down with Savannah. Around two thirty in the morning, they watched Eddie Murphy Raw. After laughing hysterically for about ninety minutes, he sent a predawn group text to his teammates. They were due to board a plane for Oakland later that day. But LeBron had a message for them first. “I know we’re down 3-1,” he said. “But if you don’t think we can win this series, then don’t get on the fucking plane.”

LeBron was playing a game within the game. He’d been to the NBA Finals seven times, and he knew how hard it was to win back-to-back titles. He also understood that a seven-game series is a battle of attrition, and mental discipline plays a big part in who prevails. The Warriors were acting like a team that was entitled to the trophy. LeBron thought that was a big mistake.

After the Cavaliers arrived in Oakland, the NBA announced that Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. He’d been retroactively assessed a flagrant foul for a “retaliatory swipe of his hand to the groin” of LeBron. As a stand-alone incident, Green’s flagrant foul didn’t warrant a suspension. But Green was a provocateur, and earlier in the postseason he’d twice been assessed flagrant fouls, once for throwing a Houston Rockets player to the floor, and once for kicking an Oklahoma City player between the legs. Under the NBA’s rules, Green’s third flagrant foul during the playoffs automatically triggered a one-game suspension.

LeBron knew the rules when he had stepped over Green. Longtime New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton suggested that LeBron was essentially saying to Green: “Care to check out my groin?” By goading Green, LeBron had beaten him at his own game. Basketball writers dubbed Green the “Nutcracker.” But Green’s disqualification was no laughing matter to the Warriors. A tenacious rebounder and shot blocker, Green was the anchor of the defense. He was also the team’s emotional leader who set the tone by doing the dirty work that enabled Curry and Thompson to flourish.

Prior to Game 5, LeBron got himself in the right frame of mind by watching The Godfather Part II. One scene — when crime boss Michael Corleone, bent on revenge, pays a surprise visit to Frankie Pentangeli captured the way he felt toward Green and the Warriors.

Frankie: I wish you woulda let me know you were coming. I coulda prepared something for you.

Corleone: I didn’t want you to know I was coming.

In Green’s absence, the Cavs manhandled the Warriors. The big men controlled the paint, and LeBron and Kyrie Irving each scored forty-one points. It was the first time in league history that teammates scored forty-plus points in a Finals game. The Cavs won by fifteen. As the final buzzer sounded, Curry attempted a meaningless layup. Even though the game was over, LeBron blocked Curry’s shot, sending a not-so-subtle message to the league’s MVP. Afterward, the New York Times declared that LeBron “remains the best hoop-playing specimen on the planet.”

The Warriors were still up, 3-2. But now they had to go back to Cleveland, where Warriors coach Steve Kerr was worried that LeBron would take control of the series. As a player, Kerr had won five NBA championships, including three straight with the Chicago Bulls in the Michael Jordan era. Kerr knew the amount of mental toughness that was required to win back-to-back titles. “It just doesn’t happen,” he told his players after Game 5. “It’s harder than that.”

For the Cavaliers, Game 6 was the biggest game in franchise history. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, they stormed to a 31–9 lead. Draymond Green was back in the lineup, but he played tentatively. The Cavs were much more physical, and the Warriors never matched their energy level. During one stretch in the second half, LeBron scored eighteen straight points. He wasn’t just dominating the Warriors. He was bullying them. In the fourth quarter, when LeBron should have needed a breather, he told Coach Lue, “I’m not coming out.” Then, with four minutes remaining and his team up by thirteen, Curry drove to the basket and head-faked, hoping to get LeBron up in the air. But LeBron didn’t bite. Instead, he waited for Curry to attempt a layup and swatted his shot out-of-bounds. He glared at Curry and barked a message: Get that weak shit out of my house! The Q erupted. It had never felt so good to be a Cavs fan.

Moments later, on the other end of the court, Curry tried to poke the ball out of LeBron’s hands and got whistled for his sixth foul. Angry over the call, Curry lit into the referee and flung his mouthpiece, hitting a fan who was seated courtside. The referee assessed Curry a technical foul and ejected him. It was the first time in Curry’s career that he’d been thrown out of a game. He got jeered leaving the court.

In contrast, LeBron played forty-three minutes and scored forty-one points for the second consecutive game. The Cavs won by fourteen and evened the series at 3-3. Afterward, Steve Kerr unloaded on the officials for the way they had treated Curry. “He’s the MVP of the league,” Kerr said. “He gets six fouls called on him. Three of them were absolutely ridiculous. LeBron flops on the last one. Jason Phillips falls for that flop. This is the MVP of the league, and we’re talking about these touch fouls in the NBA Finals.” Meanwhile, Curry’s wife tweeted that the game was rigged. “I won’t be silent,” she said.

The NBA fined Kerr for singling out a referee by name. Curry was fined for hurling his mouthpiece and hitting a fan. And his wife took down her tweet.

The Warriors were unraveling.

In the Cavs’ locker room, LeBron smiled. “They fucked up, mentally and physically,” he told his team. “I’m telling you. They. Fucked. Up.”

Game 7, back in Oakland, was the closest contest of the series. There were twenty lead changes and eighteen ties. And with under two minutes remaining, the score was knotted at eighty-nine when Kyrie Irving drove the lane and tossed up a floater. The play that would define LeBron’s legacy and reverse Cleveland’s sports history had begun.

Irving missed his floater. Warriors forward Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound and took off downcourt, passing the ball ahead to Curry. With a defender in front of him and Iguodala streaking to the basket, Curry bounce-passed the ball back to him. Iguodala was fourteen feet from the hoop when he caught Curry’s pass in stride, took two steps, and elevated for a layup.

Trailing the play, LeBron was on the opposite side of the court and twenty-one feet from the basket when Iguodala caught Curry’s pass. I can get it, he told himself. With a head of steam and a three-foot vertical leap, LeBron took flight. In the air, he had to navigate three obstacles – to stay clear of the rim, avoid fouling Iguodala, and reach the ball before it reached the glass. His chest was level with Iguodala’s head when LeBron pinned the ball against the backboard, next to the square above the rim. The ball then ricocheted into J.R. Smith’s hands. Golden State’s go-ahead layup had been diverted midflight.

The play happened so fast – an analysis would later reveal that LeBron had raced sixty feet in 2.67 seconds, topping out at an estimated twenty miles per hour – that the announcers didn’t grasp the significance of the feat until they watched it on slow-motion replay. “Oh . . . my . . . goodness,” ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy said. “Great pass by Curry. Running hard by Iguodala. And superhuman defensive recovery by LeBron James.”

On the other end, with the shot clock winding down and Curry guarding him out beyond the three-point line, Kyrie stepped back and launched, burying a clutch shot and putting his team up, 92–89. Then Curry, unable to shake Kevin Love, forced up a three that caromed off the back of the rim and into the hands of LeBron, who was fouled. LeBron made a free throw to put Cleveland up by four with ten seconds to play, sealing the victory. Moments later the Warriors missed a desperation heave as the buzzer sounded.

“It’s over! It’s over!” shouted ABC’s Mike Breen as Kevin Love hoisted LeBron off his feet. “Cleveland is a city of champions once again. The Cavaliers are NBA champions.”

The Cavs mobbed LeBron. In the chaos, Maverick Carter raced onto the court and hugged his friend.

Overcome, LeBron crumpled to his knees.

When he’d played on the Heat and finally won his first championship, he had not lost his composure. Nor had he cried after winning the second title in Miami. But this was different, more epic than he had dreamed. Digging out of a 3-1 hole to beat a team that had seemed invincible, against the odds he had delivered for the people of northeast Ohio. Cleveland’s fifty-two-year championship drought was over. This was what he’d come home for.

LeBron put his face to the floor and wept.

From LeBron by Jeff Benedict, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (April 11, 2023). Buy the book HERE

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