LeBron James was present at two Game 7 thrillers in 2016 but played in only one of them.
It was on the night of June 19 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., where James and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the N.B.A. Finals.
Before bringing the trophy home to Ohio — as promised — James and his teammates had to find a way to win on the road, just as they had in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
History was against them. No team had rallied from a 1-3 deficit in the Finals to win the N.B.A. title. And the Cavaliers, founded in 1970, had never won the title, not even when James — the greatest basketball talent of his generation — first led them to the Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, when he could jump a little higher, recover a little faster and dominate with more margin for error.
But this time James, at 31, was part star, part missionary, and what elevated this into the game of the year from an international perspective was James’s drawing power and his throwback sense of community.
There was a glut of transcendent games in 2016: Portugal’s first major title at the Euro, secured in extra time in France; Brazil’s cathartic grudge match in Rio with Germany that secured its first men’s soccer gold medal; the Cubs’ curse-terminating victory in the Game 7 that James would attend as a spectator just four and a half months after the N.B.A. finals while wearing a T-shirt that read “Cleveland or Nowhere.”
But in a thoroughly mercantile, increasingly globalized sports world, players are still the sum of their actions, and James — who returned from Miami to Cleveland in 2014 — was not only honoring his roots with his old-school loyalty and hunger-pang hustle, he was honoring others’ roots, too.
“Look, the city of Cleveland needed this,” said Tony Godsick, the Cleveland-based agent who has long represented Roger Federer. “It’s been the butt of so many jokes for so long, all unnecessary to be honest. A lot of the things people make fun of were years ago. But LeBron was able — and he was not alone with that great supporting cast — to find a way to change the direction of the series and probably a lot more.
“Harvard Business School can do a study in a few years and really delve into the economic and psychological impact of that win, what it did to a city and a region.”
The Cavs’ Game 7 was a fine spectacle even without the backstory — 20 lead changes in total; players succumbing or rising to the big occasion.
Cleveland led by 1 when the first quarter ended; the Warriors by 7 at halftime when the Cavaliers coach, Tyronn Lue, made it clear in front of his team that James needed to be a bigger presence.
James was not amused: not after scoring 41 points in Game 5 and 41 more in Game 6. Not after all the team-building and load-carrying he had embraced throughout the season and the series.
“I didn’t really think he was playing that bad,” Lue later told Sports Illustrated. “But I used to work for Doc Rivers in Boston, and he told me, ‘I never want to go into a Game 7 when the best player is on the other team.’ We had the best player. We needed him to be his best.”
But what was so telling about how much this particular Game 7 meant was that none of the main men were truly at their best down the stretch. Even James forced and missed too many shots in the fourth quarter, but with the scored tied at 89-89 with four and a half minutes to play, Golden State went even colder.
The Warriors — the offensive juggernaut that dominated the regular season with a record of 73 victories — failed to score so much as a point the rest of the way.
That was a reflection of Stephen Curry’s dip in form and confidence in the playoffs; a testimony to the nerves that a Game 7 can jangle. But it was also a tribute to the Cavaliers’ defense and above all to what James did with 1:51 to play.
With the Warriors on a fast break and Andre Iguodala heading for what looked very much like a routine layup, James altered that reality by swooping in from behind, touching the ball an instant before it hit the backboard — an instant before James would have been called for goaltending.
“The Block” will not soon be forgotten, and the other play of the game soon followed when Kyrie Irving broke the tie for good with a 3-pointer over Curry with 55 seconds left.
On Cleveland’s next possession, James was fouled on an attempted dunk and fell hard, wincing and clutching his right wrist on his shooting hand as he writhed on the floor. It looked bad, bad enough to make you wonder whether James had now given all he had to give to this phenomenal series and phenomenal game.
But that was selling him and the moment short, and he was soon back on his feet and back at the free throw line, where he went 1-for-2 to give the Cavaliers — and his city — the 4-point cushion they needed.