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Stop hating LeBron: Enough

The biggest blocked shot in Finals history cements a legacy beyond hoops

Most Undefeated stampWith less than two minutes to go and Game 7 of the NBA Finals tied at 89, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were in the midst of a two-on-one break. Their team, the Golden State Warriors, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, were struggling to score for much of the fourth quarter, so it felt as if the next team to do so would win. And for Warriors fans, seeing the league MVP and last year’s Finals MVP racing down the court against helpless Cavalier J.R. Smith, you had to like your chances.

Iguodala to Curry, back to Iguodala for the layup, and then …

We began mocking Cavalier LeBron James for his receding hairline during his first stint in Cleveland. His decision to try to mask it with his headband and then use some sort of balding concealer didn’t help.

We accused James of running down to Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat because he couldn’t win “on his own” — as if any superstar who has ever won an NBA championship did it “on his own.” Many of us sided with Cleveland fans when they burned his jersey after he went to Miami. And we celebrated with Dallas Mavericks fans when James, Wade and Chris Bosh and the Heat fell short in 2011.

When he finally won his first championship, with the Heat, in 2012, it came with an asterisk.

When LeBron and Company repeated in 2013, much of the credit went to Ray Allen’s miracle 3-pointer to force overtime against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6.

When the Spurs got their revenge in 2014, we anointed small forward Kawhi Leonard some sort of king slayer.

It is indeed curious that for the past six seasons we have found reason after reason to explain why James was not better than Michael Jordan, ignoring the fact that if Jordan was the barometer, then we were witnessing greatness.

When Iguodala received the pass from Curry and began making his move for the layup, poor Smith was all turned around. His hand was up and he was off the ground but he wasn’t stopping anyone except maybe a few bitter New York Knicks fans hoping he fails at life. As the play was unfolding, it looked like a guaranteed bucket and, as I said earlier, an insurmountable lead given how anemic the offense for both squads was.

James’ block did more than stop a score. It dismissed the two players — Curry and Iguodala — who had made the previous 356 days so painful for him. It exorcised The Decision. It took all of the snarky remarks ever said or written about him not showing up in the big moments, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire.

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James cries as he holds the trophy after the Cavaliers bet the Golden State Warriors during their NBA Finals game seven at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, USA, 19 June 2016.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James cries as he holds the trophy after the Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors during the NBA Finals Game 7 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, on June 19.

EPA/MONICA M. DAVEY

 

Now, there is an argument to made that the Warriors choked. They didn’t score in the final 4:39 of the game. They had a 3-1 lead in the series and were home for two of the final three games. And they did have the league’s leading scorer.

They just didn’t have LeBron.

And while the world was busy mocking him for the firing of coach David Blatt, the disappointing play of Kevin Love, cryptic tweets and a midseason trip to Miami that was deemed traitorous, we had forgotten one thing: He’s by far the best player in the world, whether we liked him or not.

When the horn sounded and the Cavaliers became the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, the first road team to win a Game 7 in the Finals since 1978, the first professional sports franchise to end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, all James could do was collapse on the floor and cry. It reminded me of the time when Jordan, after winning his fourth title, also on Father’s Day, did something very similar in 1996. It was his first championship after his father was murdered, and during the postgame interview, Jordan said: “This is for Daddy.” As a mixture of sweat and tears streamed down James’ face, he said: “Cleveland, this is for you.” I had a tough time not getting choked up watching the scene unfold in 1996. I had a lump in my throat last night.

It’s more than fitting that as James blocks Iguodala’s shot he pins the ball just over a sticker of the U.S. flag on the lower right side of the backboard. Fitting because the father of three is every bit an inspirational American story as one could hope for. Here you have a young black man from a single-parent household graduates from high school, enters the NBA and becomes the highest paid non-soccer player, according to Forbes. It gets better. James takes his childhood friends with him. But instead of being a negative influence — a story we’ve heard numerous times — they become his business partners, forming LRMR. He owns a piece of Liverpool FC. He signed a $1 billion marketing deal with Nike. He’s sending 1,100 kids from his hometown to college for free. He married his high school sweetheart.

Honestly, the worse thing anyone can say about the man is he did a drawn-out TV special about his free agency. And even that raised more than $3 million for charity, helping to place 1,000 new computers in 59 Boys & Girls Clubs around the country.

The Associated Press has a photo of Iguodala’s face as he’s coming to terms with what just happened to what was supposed to be the go-ahead basket. We’ve seen James do these well-timed blocks from behind in the past, even in Game 7. He’s caught Curry’s shot so many times this series that they may want to check him for post-traumatic stress disorder before the start of next season. But clearly this block was something so much more significant because the stakes were so much higher. Not just for the outcome of the game, but for the outcome of a legacy. Just when we were ready to mock James for another Finals loss, he races across half court, scoots past Curry, leaps over his teammate Smith and gets the biggest block in Finals history. He later ices the game with a free throw after absorbing a hard foul from his other nemesis, Draymond Green.

None of which will stop people from mocking LeBron.

But it has stopped me from listening.

LZ Granderson is an ABC contributor and a Senior writer for The Undefeated. LZ's work has been recognized by the Online News Association, Lone Star Emmy, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communication and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association which named him Journalist of the Year in 2011.