Akron. If you asked someone where this was on a map 15 years ago, no one besides a few people from Ohio would know where it is. 15 years ago people said the Cavs had the same chance of winning a championship as the Browns had of winning the Super Bowl. Yet no one could have predicted this effect that LeBron James would have not only on a city, but on the entire game of basketball. Yet to fully understand and appreciate how he changed the NBA and a community, it is important to reflect on the NBA the year before LeBron was drafted.
This was after the Lakers three-peat (2000-2002), and there were multiple issues. The first major issue was that the league did not appear to have a recognizable face. Yes, there were many great players (Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Jason Kid and Allen Iverson to name a few), but the league was still yearning to find a superstar like Michael Jordan. A player that would not only inspire the next generation of players, but would also be a recognizable face that the public could recognize and would propel the sport forward.
I hear what the Laker fans are already saying- “Kobe and Shaq clearly filled the void.” And admittedly, for their 2000-2002 championship stretch, they were the clear faces of the league. But after that three-year stretch the Lakers were affected by multiple controversies, including ongoing Locker room disputes and Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case. These issues all culminated in a 2003 NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets, that despite being competitive (6 games), only averaged 9.86 million viewers per game. This was a significant dip in viewership from the year before, where the Lakers- Nets commanded 15.68 million viewers per game. The NBA had a clear problem, and they needed to do something to reignite interest in the League.
These prayers would be answered in the stacked 2003 draft with that featured a high schooler from Akron, Ohio. LeBron was drafted #1 that year by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a draft filled with multiple future Hall of Famers (Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh). This marked a significant change for the history of the league. In LeBron’s first year alone he was able to double the number of wins of the Cavs had from 17 wins to 35 wins.
The next season (2004-2005) he led Cleveland to a winning season but was unable to make it into the post-season due to how completive the East was during that time. This would be the last season where NBA fans would not see LeBron play in the NBA playoffs. For the next few years, LeBron would single handedly make Cleveland a yearly title contender. He was even able to lead a weak Cleveland team to the 2008 NBA finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Despite getting swept in the Finals, future hall of famer Tim Duncan reassured the young super star that “this is going to be your league in a little while.”
Little did Duncan know that LeBron’s era of NBA dominance would occur quicker than anyone expected. After three more years in Cleveland, LeBron was simply tired of the organization’s ineptitude and “took his talents to South Beach.” From here, everyone knows the story of his dominance over the Eastern conference and the 2 championships he was able to win after going to four straight NBA Finals. You could write all day about the many amazing moments that he had during this stretch. From the clutch shots, to the high-powered dunks, to the number of records he continued to break year after year.
Yet tonight, knowing that this could easily be the last time we as NBA fans see him in a Cavs’ jersey, it is important that fans savor this potential last few moments and more importantly, remember all the great things he has done for the organization. This includes winning the Cavaliers their first ever NBA Championship and finally ending the winning drought in Cleveland. To put it in perspective, Cleveland had not won a professional sports championship since the Browns won the Super Bowl in 1964 prior to the Cavs’ 2016 upset victory. LeBron single handedly changed the Cavaliers’ culture and perception from being a laughing stock to being contenders nearly every year he has played for the organization. And lets not forget his impact on the game of basketball.
Remember how the year before LeBron was drafted the average viewership for the finals was around 9 million? For the last three years, average NBA Finals viewership has been 20 million viewers per game. Furthermore, the league went from accumulating a $2.1 billion dollar per season, to accumulating over $7 billion per year thanks the work that LeBron has done to popularize the game. He is a type of player that is already on the “Mount Rushmore” of NBA greats, and will have statues dedicated to his greatness.
Yet in spite of all of LeBron’s greatness, there are still people that are excited to see him fail (*cough cough* Skip Bayless). Of course the man is not perfect, and there are a lot of things to question in terms of his legacy; considering everything he has done to make his eight straight finals appearance it is time for all of us to simply enjoy this moment. LeBron has dedicated his whole life to the game and has done this without any major scandals. He’s helped in his local community and has been a role model for many young children across the world- showing that if they work on their craft long and hard enough, they too can make a difference and put their own city on the Map.
It is going to be an interesting summer and regardless of where LeBron lands, expect to see him continue to make an impact in the league for years to come. Long live “The King”!