John F. Russell: Cleveland lands title, Lebron earns my respect
Steamboat Springs — It’s been nearly 30 years, but Earnest Byner is finally off the hook.
On Sunday night, sports fans watched as the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first NBA team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the title with a 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA finals. In the process, Cleveland erased the sting of John Elway’s drive and the hangover that many felt after Byner fumbled and ended the Browns’ chances of going to the Super Bowl in January 1988.
I’m happy for the fans of Cleveland who can finally taste the flavors of watching a team from their town collect a title — something that hasn’t happened in 52 years. They also found a hero in LeBron James — a man who did something that is rare in a sports culture that’s built on egos, fame and money.
On Sunday evening, I not only found myself cheering for the city of Cleveland, but I was indeed cheering for James — something that never would have happened just three short years ago.
For me, James represented everything that was wrong with sports when he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010. He announced his intentions on a nationally televised show called “The Decision.” It was a one-word summation that sports fans in the sports-jinxed town of Cleveland could easily understand after living through “The Drive” and “The Fumble.”
All I could see was a guy who walked away from his hometown team in search of glory and championships. He was a guy I felt traded his allegiance for sponsorships, fame and titles — something that seems all too common among sport stars these days.
But two years ago, the man I loved to hate had a change of heart, and instead of ignoring his mistake, he chose to try to make up for it. In 2014, he came back home, and he promised the same fans that had burned his jersey after ‘The Decision” that he would bring Cleveland a title.
It wasn’t an easy move for the NBA superstar, but his actions have won over this one-time skeptic. It was more than clear that James wasn’t playing for a paycheck, and that he wasn’t even playing for himself the last three games of the NBA’s championship series.
At times, it seemed as if he could feel the hunger of the Cleveland fans, and on Sunday, it was as if he could hear those fans cheering as he stood on the free-throw line at the Oracle Arena during the closing seconds of the game that would determine the champion — forget that Oakland was more than 2,500 miles away.
I’m not a LeBron fan, and I’ve spent more than a few words criticizing him in my columns over the years. But I was rooting for Cleveland this week and for the fans who have endured so much over the years.
As a Broncos fan, there are times when I feel guilty about “The Fumble.” Truth is I totally admire Byner, a guy who exemplified what an NFL superstar, or any sports superstar, should be. He was a late-round draft pick who built his career on hard work and team. It was a career that should never have been defined by a single play, but after Cleveland lost to the Broncos that year that’s exactly what happened.
So this week, as Cleveland celebrates its first title since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964 (that’s two years before I was born), the fans can thank LeBron James who came back and delivered on his promise to bring the town a title.
It was a moving moment in a world where most players are consumed with how much they will be getting paid to play a game and often forget that without the fans there would not be a game, or those multi-million dollar contracts.
Sunday night was a refreshing moment for a sports world turned upside down, and it was a moment when you couldn’t help but feel happy for the sports fans in another city.
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