When Jim Brown and the rest of the Cleveland Browns walked off the field of Cleveland Municipal Stadium after defeating Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts for the NFL Championship on December 27, 1964, nobody knew that it would be nearly fifty-two years before a major professional sports franchise in Cleveland won another title.
However, on Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the city’s long championship drought after completing the greatest comeback in the history of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the defending champions who set the all-time record for wins in the regular season. This historic feat was only made possible through the extraordinary effort and play of LeBron James, who cemented his legacy as an all-time basketball great and Cleveland sports legend. LeBron demonstrated three outstanding leadership qualities that made this improbable success story a reality.
1. He accepted the challenge to do something great.
When LeBron James was drafted straight out of high school by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 as the first overall pick, expectations for him to deliver a championship were high. After failing to deliver in his first stint with the Cavs, LeBron broke the hearts of many in northeast Ohio by leaving for Miami and winning a couple of championships there. In the meantime, the Cavaliers regressed into one of the worst teams in the league.
Nevertheless, while it might have been easier to stay away, win championships, and build a legacy with other clubs, the Akron native showed the character and determination of a born leader by taking it upon himself to give back to the city and region that had such high hopes for him and had supported him throughout his early years. It was a daunting challenge, but like any great leader, LeBron was confident in himself and his abilities, and he didn’t shy away from it just because it would be difficult. Instead, he saw opportunity in obstacles, and he capitalized on the opportunity and strove to achieve greatness. As LeBron’s former high school basketball coach and current University of Akron head coach Keith Dambrot stated in a May interview with Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer, “He never wanted to leave the Cavs, but he had to leave. Then when the chance came to come back, he knew he had to come home. Winning a title in Cleveland would finish his legacy.”
2. He made everyone around him better.
One of the characteristics that makes James a great leader is his ability to help those around him. USA Today reports that Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, “The biggest thing with LeBron and the reason why I say he deserves it is because of the person that he is. He’s a giver. He’s always looking to take care of people. He’s always been nice to everyone. If anyone deserves it, LeBron James definitely deserves it.”
What Coach Lue said indeed rings true, for this is what James said about the grateful fans of Cleveland after the final game: “Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.” In addition to the joy he brings to fans on the court, people in Cleveland and Akron are well acquainted with LeBron’s philanthropic endeavors, too.
Perhaps more impressive than all of these notable traits is LeBron’s ability to get the most out of his teammates. Coach Dambrot said, “Physically, LeBron is in the top percentile. But he’s playing against a lot of guys who are great physically. What separates him is LeBron being in the top percentile mentally. He has the ability to rally people, to help people who had problems on other teams play well with him. That’s special.” That is certainly a valued trait in a great leader, and its impact was demonstrated in the play of his teammates coming from behind against a truly outstanding Golden State squad. It’s no wonder that James said, “My guys believe in me as their leader every single day.”
3. When things were not going well, he proactively responded and made changes.
One of the reasons that Cleveland’s win in the series was so improbable is that they twice trailed the Warriors in the seven-game set by two games, trailing 2-0 and 3-1 at different points in the series. After the decisive game, LeBron mentioned that he put in a lot of time watching video of the early games and studying what had been going wrong to figure out how to best correct it. He then took action through additional practice and preparation. USA Today reports that David Griffin, the general manager of the Cavs, confirmed the amount of time and effort LeBron put in between games in the series, stating, “He got his work in before we flew. Nobody does that … His single-mindedness and focus, I’ve never seen before.” LeBron James didn’t let setbacks discourage him or stop him; he used them to make himself and his team better.
LeBron James himself may have summed up this last leadership quality best in the on-court interview that took place after the seventh game:
Throughout my thirteen-year career, I’ve done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I’ve got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I’m capable of doing. So that was a little icing on the cake for myself to just let me know that everything I’ve done, it results in this. They say hard work pays off, and that’s what happened tonight.
In the championship series, LeBron James led all players in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocks. In the last game of the series, he amassed a “triple-double” (reaching double figures in points, rebounds, and assists). His performance in the Finals was truly remarkable and deserving of the MVP honor he won for being the best player in the series, but what the stat lines will not show are the outstanding leadership qualities LeBron James displayed that were every bit as important in ending the “Cleveland Curse” as his physical attributes and basketball skills were.