EACH AND EVERY FAN, nearly twenty thousand in total, was on their feet inside Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Standing in front of their seats. Standing on their seats. Standing in the aisles. They were too nervous to sit, after all.
With two minutes left in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors were tied 89–89. In addition to the twenty thousand in attendance, there were 44.5 million people tuned in to their televisions watching across America, and many millions more around the world.
While all those people were watching, LeBron James was searching—searching for a way to impact the game and seize a championship because he suddenly couldn’t hit a jump shot. During the biggest moment of the biggest series, a series in which he’d averaged almost thirty points a game, LeBron couldn’t make a basket.
In the final five minutes of the game, he missed from twenty-two feet, he missed from thirteen feet, he missed from two feet. He wasn’t alone. The pressure was impacting everyone; the best players in the world were struggling with the intensity of the moment. LeBron’s teammate Kyrie Irving had clanked a shot. So had fellow Cavalier Kevin Love. For the Warriors, Steph Curry had missed; so had Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala.
Cleveland and Golden State had been battling for more than two and a half hours on this Father’s Day. They had been going back and forth over nearly two weeks of this epic June championship clash. The action had been so even that not only was The Finals tied at three games apiece, and not only was this decisive game tied at 89, but at that very moment, each team had scored 699 cumulative points in the series. Everything was deadlocked.
Something had to give, though. There could only be one champion.
For LeBron, losing wasn’t an option. He’d come too far to get to this point, to have this opportunity. He knew it meant too much to everyone not just back in Cleveland, but in all of Ohio, including the city of Akron, where he had grown up with a single mother and been a highly publicized star athlete since he was a kid.
He’d started his career with the Cavaliers in 2003 as the number one overall draft pick directly out of high school. He’d been crowned a basketball king before he ever stepped on a National Basketball Association (NBA) court and, by the age of eighteen, he’d already drawn comparisons to the legendary Michael Jordan, considered by many the greatest player of all time. But after seven seasons, even as he developed into the best player in the NBA, he couldn’t win a championship. So, he left for Miami as a free agent.
Doing so angered fans back home in Ohio. They burned his jersey and cursed his name. They felt betrayed as he won two titles with the Miami Heat. Those should have been Cleveland’s championships, they thought. Those should have been their victory parades, they complained.
LeBron didn’t just win in Miami—more importantly, he learned how to win. He came to understand how it takes more than just scoring a lot of points and grabbing a lot of rebounds to become a champion. Winning requires sacrifice, teamwork, communication, and a mentality of doing whatever it takes—anything at all—to win, especially when you’re losing.
It was a lesson he admits he didn’t fully understand during his younger days with the Cavs. He said his four-year stretch in Miami was like “going off to college.”
Older, wiser, and even more talented, he returned to Cleveland for the 2014 – 15 season, reigniting a love affair between himself and the fans in Northeast Ohio. He came back for one reason: to deliver that long-awaited championship to Cleveland. None of the city’s three major professional sports teams had won a championship since 1964, when the Browns managed to win the National Football League title. By 2016, you needed to be well over the age of fifty to even remember it.
LeBron wanted to end that drought, or, as fans jokingly called it, the “curse.” Cleveland is a blue-collar city of around 385,000 people and sits on Lake Erie. It is home to heavy industry, a major shipping port, and harsh winters. The city and its residents know what it’s like to struggle. Unemployment. Crime. Poverty. Even jokes about its existence. In fact, back in 1969, the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, was so polluted with oil that it caught fire—literal burning water—and attracted insults and cracks from around America. Cleveland was dubbed the Mistake by the Lake.
The area wasn’t a mistake for LeBron, though. It was simply home. Akron sits just over thirty miles to the south, almost a twin city for Cleveland, although smaller and poorer. And LeBron knew about overcoming the odds, about not accepting what others thought possible for you.
He was raised by a single teen mother, Gloria. His father was never around. His family was poor, accepting welfare to help buy food when his mom couldn’t find work. They often couldn’t afford to pay their rent, and were forced to move apartments in the city’s toughest neighborhoods every few months before getting kicked out again. Sometimes, with nowhere else to go, they wound up sleeping on one of Gloria’s friends’ couches. All of LeBron’s clothes and possessions fit into a single backpack. This was before he ever played organized sports or anyone saw him as a future NBA star.
In the fourth grade, LeBron was stuck living on the other side of Akron from his elementary school. His mother didn’t have a car, so it was a true struggle for him to find a ride to school in the mornings. He missed eighty-three days that year and was at risk of dropping out altogether even though he was just ten years old.
From that hopeless place, he rose.
And so regardless of how the outside world saw Northeast Ohio, LeBron knew this place. Yes, he knew the challenges. He also knew the positives, the success stories. He knew the good people in the community, the coaches and teachers who helped him and so many others. He knew his hometown’s good times and happy stories, and the gorgeous summer sunsets. Mostly, he knew what a championship title, at last, would mean to his community.
In June of 2015, in his first season back in Cleveland, he led the Cavs to The Finals against Golden State. Injuries to star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love doomed them, though. The Warriors won four games to Cleveland’s two. Now, twelve months later, it was a rematch.
Everyone on the Cavaliers was healthy and ready to prove they could be champions. It wouldn’t be easy. Golden State had won a record seventy-three regular-season games and was considered possibly the greatest team in NBA history. Beating Curry, Thompson, and the rest of the Warriors felt at times like an impossible task. They had too many offensive weapons. Defensively they played with heart and toughness. When Golden State took a 3–1 series lead, many people wrote off Cleveland. After all, no team had ever come back from a 3–1 deficit in the NBA Finals, let alone against a seventy-three-victory defending champion set to play two of the three final games at home.
LeBron didn’t care about the odds. His motto was about taking everything one possession at a time. In Game 5, facing elimination on the road in Oakland, both LeBron and Kyrie scored forty-one points and Cleveland stunned Golden State, 112–97. Then back in Cleveland for Game 6, LeBron again scored forty-one points, along with dishing eleven assists, as the Cavs won 115–101 to force Game 7.
Despite not being able to finish off the series quickly, Golden State still had confidence heading into Game 7. They still believed they were the best team, especially playing in front of their own fans, who were making a deafening noise cheering them on. Tied at 89, the game—and the championship—was still there for the taking.
With his jump shot failing him, LeBron knew he needed to impact the game in ways other than just scoring. This was part of learning how to become a champion. Since LeBron couldn’t score, the next best thing was to make sure Golden State couldn’t either. This meant he had to play defense.
With 1:55 left in the tied game, Kyrie drove to the net and tried to throw up a running shot. It missed. Golden State’s Andre Iguodala snatched the rebound out of the air and immediately turned up court. Four of the Cavaliers, including LeBron, Kyrie, and Love, were caught out of position. Iguodala immediately realized he had a nearly open court to attack. The only players in front of him were teammate Steph Curry and Cleveland’s J. R. Smith.
In basketball terms, the Warriors had “numbers”: a two-on-one fast break opportunity that might lead to an easy basket that could crush LeBron’s dream of winning a title for Cleveland.
Iguodala began racing toward the basket, Curry following alongside him. J. R. Smith tried to backpedal as fast as possible to play defense. The fans at Oracle began screaming in anticipation. Would this be the end, they wondered?
As Iguodala crossed midcourt he smartly passed it to Curry. That forced J. R. Smith to shift over to guard Curry. It was either that or allow Curry, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, to go in for an easy layup. Just as Curry got the ball and saw Smith moving toward him, he sent a quick bounce pass back to Iguodala, who caught it in full stride. There was now no one between him and the potential championship-winning points.
Iguodala took two quick steps and leaped to the hoop, just past Smith, who tried to recover. A layup seemed inevitable. Then out of nowhere, an arm stretched over the shoulder of an unsuspecting Iguodala. Just as the possible title-winning shot was about to go in, LeBron James, with his head on the left side of the rim but his hand wrapped around to the right, flicked the shot away, coming in from behind at the last second.
“Blocked by James! LeBron James with the rejection,” shouted the excited announcer on ESPN.
All over Oracle Arena, fans and players were in disbelief. Where had LeBron come from? How had he made that block?
LeBron had been way out of position when Iguodala first grabbed the rebound and headed up court for the two-on-one. Stuck deep on the far sideline, almost in the corner, LeBron decided he would find a way to make an impact.
“I was just like, ‘Do not give up on the play,’” LeBron told Cleveland.com. “If you’ve got an opportunity, just try to make this play.”
LeBron James stands six foot eight and weighs around 255 pounds. He is extremely strong, yet plays with the speed of a man much lighter. But his best attribute as a player might be how he thinks about and sees the game—his basketball IQ. In this case, he instantly realized that Iguodala was going to pass it to Steph Curry, and Steph, being a smart player, would make the correct play and pass it back to give Iguodala a chance at the layup.
After processing all of that in an instant, LeBron put his head down and began sprinting powerfully not just back into the action, but exactly toward the spot on the court from which Iguodala would eventually attempt to score. He was a hunter, anticipating the path of his prey. Even the slightest hesitation would allow Iguodala to score. So LeBron went all out.
“‘I can get it, I can get it,’” LeBron said he was thinking at the time. “I was like, ‘J. R., don’t foul him’ and ‘Bron, get the ball before it hits the backboard.’”
“Such a force,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr marveled afterward.
In an instant, the entire NBA Finals changed course. Golden State was stunned. Cleveland was energized. About a minute later, Kyrie hit a clutch three-pointer from the wing to make it 92–89. From there, Cleveland’s defensive intensity continued as LeBron’s teammates tried to match his ferocity. Steph missed two long three-pointers down the stretch, guarded tightly on each one. LeBron hit a free throw to extend the Cleveland lead to 93–89. Then Steph missed another three and Golden State’s Marreese Speights missed a desperation shot at the buzzer. As the ball bounced helplessly away, LeBron began hugging his teammates.
Cleveland had won. At last, Cleveland was the champion.
“Just excitement,” LeBron exclaimed. “Just excitement.”
Growing up, LeBron had, like all young basketball players, dreamed of hitting the winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. In this case, though, the championship was won via defense, not offense. Golden State scored just thirteen points in the fourth quarter and none in the final 4:39 of the game. That was the difference. That block was the difference.
When the improbable, seemingly impossible, was done; when Cleveland’s long, long-coveted title was won; LeBron simply fell to his knees and cried. This was his third NBA championship, but it didn’t matter. He was still emotional.
He wept for the accomplishment. He wept for the comeback. He wept for all the energy he’d expired—averaging 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 9.7 assists while playing an average of almost forty-four minutes in the last three games, each of which were win-or-go-home contests for the Cavs.
He wept because Cleveland’s fifty-two-year-old championship drought was over. He wept for Akron, his humble hometown. And he wept because he understood that a city that isn’t glamorous and is often made fun of deserved to be a winner.
“Just knowing what our city has been through, Northeast Ohio has been through,” LeBron said. “I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. Knew what I learned the last couple of years [while] I was gone. And I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place we’ve never been.”
And all the sporting heartbreak, all the jokes, all the reminders of the oil-slicked burning Cuyahoga River? Cleveland was no longer a mistake.
“That’s yesterday’s newspaper,” LeBron said. “I don’t think anybody’s reading yesterday’s newspaper. They’ll be reading tomorrow that I’m coming home. I’m coming home with what I said I was going to.”
LEBRON RAYMONE JAMES was born December 30, 1984, in Akron, Ohio. He was the first and only child of Gloria James, who was just sixteen at the time of LeBron’s birth. LeBron’s father never married Gloria and was not involved in LeBron’s life. He abandoned the family and offered no monetary or emotional support. It was mainly just LeBron and his mom, who hadn’t finished high school and thus struggled to earn enough money to pay the bills.
At first LeBron and his mother lived in an old home that their family had owned for generations, back to when it was part of a farm just outside downtown Akron. It needed repairs and sat on a dirt road, but there was a lot of family support. LeBron’s grandmother Freda lived there and was able to watch over him as his mother tried to find work and continue her schooling. Money was still tight, but it worked. At least it did until Christmas 1987, when LeBron was about to turn three. Freda died of a heart attack that day, leaving Gloria in charge of not just her son, but two of her younger brothers, too.
Gloria was overwhelmed. As hard as she worked for her family, she lacked the education and skills to get a job that could support everyone, let alone childcare for LeBron. She mostly worked as a cashier at various shops. The family went on welfare, which provided a small check each month. The house quickly began to fall apart, with floorboards cracking in the living room and broken windows causing the cold air to blow in. By midwinter, the heating bill wasn’t paid. Soon a neighbor, Wanda Reaves, discovered this young family sleeping in the cold, cavernous house. She offered to take them into her own home.
Realizing it was their best option, LeBron and his mom packed up what little they had and began sleeping together on Wanda’s living room couch. The city soon condemned their old, now abandoned house, claiming it was a safety hazard. A bulldozer leveled it.
This began a period of uncertainty for LeBron and his mother. They were effectively homeless. They stayed for a little while with Wanda, but that couldn’t be permanent. Mother and son began moving every few months, either staying with friends or relatives, or finding a cheap apartment for a brief stint.
“It was catch as catch can, scraping to get by,” LeBron would write later in his autobiography, Shooting Stars. “My mom worked anywhere and everywhere, trying to make ends meet.”
When LeBron was eight in the spring of 1993, the family moved five times in a three-month span. For LeBron, the constant moving and instability made him shy. It was difficult for him to trust people he didn’t know. He’d look away when spoken to and kept his answers short. Making matters worse, he was always big for his age, so strangers sometimes assumed he was ten when he was really only six. They couldn’t understand why he acted so immaturely, and naively questioned his intelligence.
He’d live in one place and attend one school for a spell, just long enough to make friends. Then he would suddenly move to a new place, often in a new neighborhood. While his teachers said he was a bright and dedicated student on the days he made it to class, he often missed school because he had no way to get there.
What LeBron lacked, like many kids in Akron and across America, was access to opportunities and a larger support system. That would start to change during the summer of 1993. One day, LeBron was outside a housing project where he and his mother were staying, playing with some other kids, when a man named Bruce Kelker pulled up in his car. Kelker coached a youth football team called the East Dragons and was looking for eight- and nine-year-olds to play for him.
“You guys like football?” Coach Kelker asked the kids, according to ESPN.
“That’s my favorite sport,” LeBron responded.
“How much football have you played?” Coach asked.
“None,” LeBron answered.
Coach Kelker didn’t mind. Most kids that age had never put on pads and, like LeBron, merely watched the game on television or threw the ball around with friends. LeBron had never played any organized sports. Not Little League. Not soccer. Not even basketball. His mother was too busy trying to survive. She didn’t have extra money to pay for youth sports leagues.
A lot of boys in Akron were like that, which was why Coach Kelker was out looking for players instead of relying on their families to sign them up. He was eager to teach kids football. LeBron’s mom wasn’t in favor of him joining the team, but Coach Kelker wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said the city recreation department would provide a helmet, shoulder pads, and all the equipment. He promised to come by every day and pick everyone up for practice.
That day he first met LeBron, Coach Kelker told the kids to line up for a footrace and whoever won would be his running back. LeBron beat everyone. With that, he was officially an East Dragon. Not long after, following a few weeks of practice to learn the basics, the East Dragons had their first game. On the first play, the quarterback handed the ball to LeBron, who tucked it under his arm, burst through the line, and raced eighty yards for a touchdown. All over the field, coaches, players, and parents were amazed at his talent. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d mesmerize a crowd.
After spending time with LeBron, Coach Kelker soon realized just how difficult his home life was. One day he would go to pick up LeBron for practice and discover LeBron and his mom had moved. Days later when he’d track them down at a new place, it would only be a matter of weeks—or even days—before they relocated again due to money problems.
Thinking he could help, Coach Kelker made Gloria an offer: Did she and LeBron want to come live with him temporarily? She took the deal.
With that decision, LeBron’s life began to change. His mom became the team manager and would attend practices and games, where she began to love watching her son compete. LeBron scored nearly twenty touchdowns that season, and Gloria became famous in Akron for racing into the end zone to celebrate with her son each time.
Coach Kelker had no children and shared a small apartment with his girlfriend. There wasn’t enough room for LeBron and his mother to stay there for long. As they began to wear out their welcome, another East Dragons coach stepped up with an idea.
Frankie Walker and his wife, Pam, felt bad LeBron was missing so much school. They didn’t just see him as a gifted athlete. He was only nine years old, so the idea of playing pro football, or pro anything, was still a long shot. Education was different. The Walkers saw a smart kid who was painfully shy. They saw a kid who needed a stable base to build his life and they wanted to help.
“The Walkers were concerned that I was being passed from place to place, a nomad at age nine,” LeBron wrote. LeBron was not getting in trouble. He was well behaved. Missing so many days of school in fourth grade put him at risk of never completing his education and making much out of his life, though.
“I was on the edge of falling into an abyss from which I could never escape,” LeBron said.
The Walkers had a good-sized house in a comfortable neighborhood of Akron. They had three children, including a son, Frankie Jr., who was the same age as LeBron. Their plan called for LeBron to live with them during the week, assuring he would get hot meals and attend school daily, and then he’d stay with his mom on the weekends.
Moving in with the Walkers was a culture shock for LeBron. Some of it was great: There were family dinners; the heating and electric bills were always paid; he had the ability to relax and realize that he would be here for a bit and not face eviction or moving. For the first time in a long time LeBron had a bedroom to sleep in, which he shared with Frankie Jr. They even decorated it—hanging posters of NBA stars, such as Allen Iverson, on the wall.
Yet some of it required getting used to. The Walkers were disciplinarians and believed in raising their children with a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility.
Pam Walker would wake the children at 6:45 a.m. sharp for school. Manners were taught and enforced. Chores were a requirement—anything from helping clean the house, washing dishes, or doing yard work. Homework was to be finished. Always. They had to go to bed right at bedtime. There were no excuses for failing to live up to expectations. There was very little sitting around. LeBron gladly accepted the challenge and began to thrive.
“The Walkers laid a foundation for me,” LeBron wrote. “The Walkers became family to me.”
After missing all those days of school in the fourth grade, his fifth-grade experience was different. At Portage Path Elementary School that year, LeBron James had perfect attendance.
Text copyright © 2019 by Dan Wetzel
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Setor Fiadzigbey