OAKLAND (California) • Vilified when he left and celebrated when he returned, LeBron James had spent the past two seasons lugging his city's championship dreams like a bag of rocks.
The weight had only grown more cumbersome - the weight of history, of disappointment, of missed opportunities. He could feel it all on his sturdy shoulders.
On Sunday, before a dazed and defeated crowd at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, he delivered on the grandest stage of his superlative career, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship in franchise history with a 93-89 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals.
James collected 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists to produce one of the most remarkable individual performances in Finals history.
Still, the Finals' Most Valuable Player got ample help from team-mate Kyrie Irving, whose three-pointer with 53 seconds remaining gave the Cavaliers the lead - and an improbable title.
A WIN FOR HIS HOME TEAM
I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city.
LEBRON JAMES, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar, on his decision to return to his home state team in 2014.
TAKE THE BAD WITH THE GOOD
I don't think people imagined it this way - the route that we've taken - and that's fine. Like I always say, every day is not a bed of roses, and you have to figure out how to get away from the thorns and the things of that nature to make the sun shine.
JAMES, on the numerous adversities the Cavs had to overcome to win the NBA title.
Improbable because the Cavaliers became the first team in the 70-year history of the NBA to rally from a 1-3 series deficit in the Finals and win a championship.
Improbable because the Warriors, after setting an NBA record with 73 victories in the regular season, had spent months making the case that they are the most dominant team since Dr James Naismith first affixed a peach basket to a wall.
And improbable, above all, because of Cleveland's rag-tag history as an also-ran. Not since 1964, when the Browns won the National Football League, had the city claimed a major sports title.
Now James, who grew up in nearby Akron, has changed all of that. He stuffed the series with thunderous dunks and fade-away jumpers, blocked shots and glowering expressions, towing his team-mates along in his ferocious wake.
He had won two championships with the Miami Heat, but this was his first with the Cavaliers.
Not even the Warriors, who were pursuing back-to-back championships in a repeat of last year's Finals match-up, could slow his march.
Irving finished with 26 points for the Cavaliers, who survived three elimination games.
In Cleveland, fans jammed the streets around the Quicken Loans Arena for a watch party from afar. Draymond Green had 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists for the Warriors, and Stephen Curry scored 17 points but shot just 6 of 19 from the field. In the final minute, Curry missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game.
With 10.6sec left, James made one of two free throws to seal the win. The Cavs formed a raucous mob at the buzzer - joy and disbelief, all at once. On the post-game dais, James clutched the championship trophy to his chest and choked back tears. At the news conference, he wore one of the nets around his neck.
"I came back for a reason," he said. "I came back to bring a championship to our city."
The Cavaliers are no strangers to adversity.
Sensing what he described as dysfunction, general manager David Griffin fired the team's head coach, David Blatt, midway through the season and replaced him with Tyronn Lue, one of Blatt's assistants.
Griffin made the move despite the Cavaliers sitting firmly atop the Eastern Conference standings. It was championship or bust for these Cavaliers, who, make no mistake, were formed in James' shadow.
Not that his journey was without its share of hard feelings and trapdoors. Drafted by the Cavaliers in 2003, James famously left for the Heat as a free agent in 2010.
Fans who felt scorned by his departure burned replicas of his jersey in the streets of Cleveland, as the Cavs slipped back to being the worst team in the NBA.
But he rejoined them in 2014, vowing to lift the franchise to new heights, to do something that had never been done.
"I don't think people imagined it this way - the route that we've taken - and that's fine," James said on Saturday. "Like I always say, every day is not a bed of roses, and you have to figure out how to get away from the thorns and the things of that nature to make the sun shine."
NEW YORK TIMES