CLEVELAND -- It was about five minutes before midnight -- a good 20 minutes after the final buzzer had sounded -- when the exit doors ringing Quicken Loans Arena burst open simultaneously and a sea of fans poured outside to join a street party the likes of which I've rarely seen.
City embraces its Cavaliers
All along Ontario Street, in the concourse between the Q and Jacobs Field, and on both sides streets at either end of the arena, thousands upon thousands of maroon-clad fans joined in on a screaming, yelling and whooping festival that rivaled the decibel level heard inside the arena in the final minutes of the game.
You always remember what it looks like when a team and a city celebrate breaking through after years of near-misses -- last year in Miami it was the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of white seat covers twirling through the air as the Heat won the East. A couple of jovial snapshots from Saturday will stick with me.
Outside the arena, it was fans high-fiving police officers, boyfriends embracing girlfriends, husbands hugging wives and a bunch of guys hugging anyone they could find, from their buddies to strangers.
Inside the Q, it was the sight of nobody -- and I mean nobody, from the fans in the premium seats to the folks in the nether reaches of the upper level -- getting up to leave for a full 20 minutes as the Cavs stayed on the court to celebrate the 98-82 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals that sent Cleveland to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
"Man! Oh man!" was all LeBron James could summon when he took the microphone and began to address the fans.
And then, with his voice hitting a high pitch that I never knew he had in him, LeBron played to the fans and gave them what they wanted to hear: "First of all, man, I'd like to thank every single one of the 20,000 fans," James said. "This is special. This is so special, man! This is the best thing that ever happened to me, but listen here: It doesn't stop."
No it doesn't, but it'll stop for a couple days until the NBA Finals begin Thursday night in San Antonio. And in the meantime, the city of Cleveland will awake Sunday morning with what's known as a happy hangover, the euphoria of the previous night not quite worn off, but the reality of the bigger picture -- the fact that this city hasn't had a championship of any kind in any pro sport since the Browns won the 1964 NFL title, which was back in the days before anybody had even dreamed up the idea of a Super Bowl. LeBron's mother wasn't even alive when Cleveland won its last pro sports title.
It'll be interesting to see in the years ahead whether a third generation of the James family, little LeBron Jr., age 2, will remember any of what he saw from his daddy's arms after James picked him up after finishing his mini-speech at center court and went to join his teammates, coach and owner in their celebration.
That coach, Mike Brown, also broke into high-pitch mode as he took the microphone and yelled to the crowd: "I'm in it to win it for this team, and for the fans of Cleveland, Ohio!"
Finally, NBA legend Bill Russell took the mic to hand over the Eastern Conference titlist trophy to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, but before he'd let it go he pointed a finger directly in LeBron's direction and waited for the crowd noise to die down so everyone could hear his message.
"You are no longer just representing yourselves and your city, you are representing the Eastern Conference, and so I'm going to end by saying: Make me proud," Russell said.
The Cavs will enter the finals as fairly prohibitive long shots against the Spurs, who are by far the more veteran, more playoff-tested team. Perhaps it is a bit ironic that this series-deciding victory was clinched by the play of rookie Daniel Gibson, someone probably too young to realize how rare it is that a chance to make the game's ultimate stage comes along.
It was Gibson, not James, who was the Cavs' best player in the final quarter of the game, a period that began with Cleveland leading just 67-66.
Two 3-pointers by Gibson in the first 75 seconds of the quarter quickly got the lead up to six, and another 3 made it 79-67 just 2:17 into the period. Rasheed Wallace's meltdown came 90 seconds later when he drew his sixth and final foul and then got his money's worth on two ensuing technicals, unleashing a stream of profanity at referee Eddie Rush that even made lip-readers cringe.
It was at that moment that you knew the Pistons were a beaten team, although the folks in the stands didn't quite see it that way. Even with the Pistons looking defeated, the nervous energy in the arena was palpable. Cautious fans wondered whether this lead could somehow be frittered away. And, given this city's history, you couldn't really blame them. At halftime, I heard several of them, and several local writers, too, lamenting how the broken scoreboard, which took the fans out of it at the start of the second quarter, could go down in local lore alongside Red Right 88, The Ehlo Shot, The Drive and The Fumble.
But the Pistons (was this the last gasp of a crumbling powerhouse, a clear-as-day sign that their ride atop the East is coming to an end?) didn't have anything left, and Gibson kept going and going (19 points in the fourth on 5-for-6 shooting, including 4-for-4 from downtown). The final minutes and seconds played out in a scene of massive controlled bedlam.
"If I could put into words what's going on in my head right now, man, we would be here for another three hours," James said from the interview podium afterward.
What he was experiencing was elation on a level that he had never witnessed, a high even higher than the endorphin rush that fueled his epic performance in the fourth quarter and the two overtimes of Game 5 in Detroit.
And what he was feeling was also being felt by tens of thousands of locals, who took to the streets and let decades of frustration spill forth from their lungs. It was a scene to behold and a scene to remember, and it'll lead me to move on to the next big question in the days ahead: Are the Cavaliers so happy with what they've accomplished that it'll make no difference what they do in the fourth and final round of the playoffs?
Only the Cavs can answer that question, and only the Cavs can decide if they're already truly satisfied. They sure seemed that way afterward, but we're quickly learning that we never quite know for sure what lies ahead for them. Keep that in mind before writing Cleveland off before the finals even begin.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images/Getty Images
Rasheed Wallace, whose kettle seems always on the brink of boiling over, went into full tirade mode in the fourth quarter, earning an ejection.
Here's how Chad Ford sized up Cavaliers hero Daniel Gibson entering last year's draft:
Draft Projection: Late first to early second
Similarities: Poor man's Ben Gordon?
Positives: Gibson has just about everything you could ask for in an offensive player. He's a smooth athlete who has good size for the position. He has the ability to score from the perimeter or by attacking the basket, and he's great in the open court. He gets to the line. Good on-the-ball defender.
Negatives: Scouts were never totally convinced that he's actually a point guard and his play this season has raised serious concerns. He still makes too many mistakes, has difficulty handling defensive pressure, over dribbles the ball and appears turnover prone. If he is a two, then he's undersized for the position.
Summary: Gibson was ranked very highly by many scouts coming into the season, but his uneven play at the point has given them pause. While there's nothing wrong with Gibson's offensive game, he continues to struggle to run a team sustaining serious questions about whether he can be a full-time point guard at the next level. He may turn into more of a scoring combo guard in the pros. Word is that he's got a promise either with Cleveland at No. 25 or the Rockets at No. 32.
-- ESPN Graphic
AP Photo/Amy Sanc
LeBron James embraces Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who became a Cavalier when LeBron was zipping around Akron at age 12.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
CLEVELAND -- Daniel Gibson might have arrived on the national stage over the past week, but he won over his Cavaliers teammates about eight months ago.
By the end of training camp, not only was the Cavs coaching staff and front office convinced they'd pulled off a steal with the No. 42 pick in last June's draft, but so was LeBron James. By December, Gibson was jamming his foot into the rotation as James gave his full support to the rookie behind the scenes. By February, he was in the starting lineup as a hybrid guard aimed to make defenses pay for double-teaming James.
On Saturday, the 21-year-old Houston native, who tried to steer his way to the Cavs by refusing to work out for any other teams last spring including his hometown Rockets, showed why.
"Once I saw his work ethic during practice, after practice, before practice -- I mean, I get to the gym early and he's there before me," James said while basking in the Cavs' Game 6 victory. "I just knew he was going to be something special."
It was indeed a special performance in Game 6 as Gibson made all five of his 3-point attempts, four of them in the fourth quarter, in scoring a career-high 31 points -- 10 more than his previous career high, which he set all the way back in Game 4.
Combined with his 12-of-15 free-throw shooting performance as the Pistons hacked at him when he attempted to drive, Gibson managed to get his 31 points on a stunning nine field goal attempts.
Not unlike the way Steve Kerr and John Paxson buried Chicago Bulls opponents who camped down on Michael Jordan, Gibson's efforts on Saturday and in the series busted the Pistons' plans to eliminate the Cavs by swarming James.
"LeBron just told me to keep shooting," Gibson said. "He told me from Day 1 he was going to make me special."
-- Brian Windhorst at Quicken Loans Arena
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
LeBron James hoists the hardware given after winning the Eastern Conference championship, the franchise's first conference title in its 37 year history.
Although this couldn't have happened without the overall suckitude of the East and the favorable draw that got the Cavs to the conference finals, Cleveland advancing to the Finals with a less-than-Finals-worthy roster is a fantastic story. For at least three reasons:
1. Few fan bases know sports torture like Clevelanders ... although I feel the need to pay homage here to my old friends in Buffalo, because they've also suffered a bunch and since nearby Olean was my home base until the Braves and the Steins moved to Southern California in 1978.
2. The Cavs have spent the last two years trying to emulate everything that the Spurs do, hiring San Antonio disciples to coach (Mike Brown), run the front office (Danny Ferry) and co-install a program built upon a wear-you-down defense and one transcendent star to take over in crunch time. And now -- even though they couldn't swing that midseason deal for Mike Bibby they were so desperate to make -- we get to see the wannabe Spurs playing their role models in the Finals.
3. LeBron James' mere presence guarantees that this series will actually be watched by the masses now, which might finally give the Spurs some of the overdue spotlight they deserve.
I'm struggling to stomach this new practice of drawn-out podium ceremonies to crown a conference champion, but I'm always ready to listen to Bill Russell and quite enjoyed hearing him inform the victorious Cavs that they were now representing the entire East. "Make me proud," Russell told them.