OAKLAND, Calif. -- As his last on-court television interview of the night wrapped up, LeBron James walked off the finally silent Oracle Arena floor where he'd put up a triple-double in the clinching Game 7.
He made a long, winding trek through barren concrete tunnels until he reached the Oakland Raiders' locker room in the neighboring O.co Coliseum, which had been transformed into a makeshift studio for the Cleveland Cavaliers to snap photos holding their newly captured Larry O'Brien Trophy.
There were three portraits James wanted to take, the same as after his other two championships: one with his wife, Savannah, and children (this was his infant daughter Zhuri's first); one with his lifelong friends Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims; and one with his mother, Gloria.
With each step, champagne squishing in his sneakers from the postgame celebration that was but a teaser for the rager that awaits the Cavs back in Cleveland, the best basketball player in the world verbally replayed the sequences of the most important basketball game of his life.
He started by focusing on a miss, a 5-footer in the lane with 1:25 to go and the game tied at 89, cursing himself for leaving it short after re-enacting the spin move that got him free to attempt it. Paul, walking alongside, steered James' mind back to the positive, bringing up the block -- to be forever known to Cavs fans as The Chasedown -- he had on Andre Iguodala the possession before.
"Iguodala is a bad m-----f-----," James snapped. "I had to go chase it down."
He raised both arms, just as he did when he pinned Iguodala's would-be layup against the glass with his right arm, and his 11-year-old son LeBron Jr. did the same (making it no wonder why he already has standing scholarship offers from both Duke and Kentucky, according to a source).
When the corridor eventually opened up to the Raiders' space, James sipped on a bottle of Moet and chomped on a cigar when Richard Jefferson approached. "Tell me, was that the most stressful game ever?" Jefferson said, finally a champion after 15 years in the league.
They both brought up Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, when Ray Allen hit his legendary shot. James shrugged. "It was close," he said.
Then he proceeded to replay the final sequences of that game, played three years ago this week, out loud the same way he had just dissected Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors, played an hour ago.
"Listen, we're down five, they got the ropes out with 20 seconds to go ..."
His stint in Miami made him a two-time champion, but it also made him feel unappreciated on his way out the door. Ever since James left the Heat, the way his exit was received there nagged at him.
"There were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career."LeBron James, on his secret motivation after leaving Miami
During last year's Finals, after tying up the series at 1 with an undermanned Cavs team, James hinted at it, saying, "I have some other motivation that I won't talk about right now. ... I hope we win so I can tell y'all."
They didn't win, and the Warriors took Games 4 through 6 and celebrated on the Cavs' floor. James didn't tell.
He held on to the secret motivation for 12 more months, declining to elaborate even when asked privately, allowing the intrigue to grow. Sunday, finally, it was time to tell the whole story.
"When I decided to leave Miami -- I'm not going to name any names, I can't do that -- but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career," James told ESPN.com just outside the Raiders' locker room.
"And that s--- hurt me. And I know it was an emotional time that they told me that because I was leaving. They just told me it was the biggest mistake I was making in my career. And that right there was my motivation."
One could guess that one naysayer was Heat president Pat Riley, who in not-so-subtle fashion took a dig a James a year ago when he said his franchise was free of "smiling faces with hidden agendas."
James never saw his decision to return home as a mistake; he actually saw it as a legacy play, a chance to do something greater than what he could do in Miami by taking on what seemed like an impenetrable Cleveland drought.
"I knew what I was doing," James said. "I knew what I was doing, and I mean, tonight is a product of it."
What he was doing -- erasing a 52-year championship drought in Cleveland; averaging 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks in the last three games of the Finals to help the Cavs become the first team ever to rally from a 3-1 series deficit and win the title -- was unprecedented. And his smile -- in the portraits he posed for -- genuine.
His vision complete. His decision validated. Even if the journey was harder than he expected.
"I didn't know it was going to happen this way, though," he said. "Oh my God! Down 3-1, versus a team that's 73-9, that lost one game in the playoffs at home ..." He was out of words.
Paul, his agent, approached James to show him a quote on his cellphone, freshly tweeted from Kyrie Irving's postgame news conference. "I watched Beethoven tonight," Paul said, reading Irving's words about James.
Irving, of course, was just as responsible for making the night a classic. He'd made the shot of his life just an hour before, a laser 3-pointer with 53 seconds left that broke an 89-89 stalemate and proved to be the winning points. It came over back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry's outstretched arms just ahead of the shot-clock buzzer, the type of cold-blooded dagger that lives forever in highlight reels.
"All I was thinking in the back of my mind was Mamba mentality," Irving said in a nod to an idol, Kobe Bryant. "Just Mamba mentality. That's all I was thinking."
For Irving, who watched the end of the Finals last year from bed as he recovered from knee surgery, it was a satisfying moment.
"Everyone had an answer for what the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to do," Irving said. "Now I just remember when we were down 3-1, I think [ESPN Basketball Power Index] was a 92 percent chance for Golden State to win it and us for 8 percent. Then it goes 3-2, then it goes 3-3, and now the odds change completely.
"I'm glad it happened this way, but I'm really thankful that we got to play against a great team like the Golden State Warriors that I can tell my daughter about."
Back in the Cavs' locker room was a case, a container that had been carrying a secret for the past eight weeks. It was a 4-foot-long golden puzzle that ultimately formed an image of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
This was veteran James Jones' idea; he was looking for a symbol for the Cavs' playoff run, a way to form a collective spirit. In shades of the movie "Major League," the puzzle had 16 pieces, one for every victory it was going to take for the Cavs to win the title.
"We needed something to bring us together," Jones said. "Every guy was a piece. We assembled this team. So we had to assemble the puzzle." Jones imported this idea from Miami, where he and James were part of a ritual in 2012 when coach Erik Spoelstra had a secret black trophy, which every player on the roster signed at the start of the playoffs and on which each victory was marked with golden notches.
"Together, that's how you win a championship. Individually, we are all just a piece. Everyone had to have their role; everyone has to have their piece."James Jones
For Cleveland's special secret trophy, there was another ritual. After each win in the playoffs, a different player would come forward to add his piece to the puzzle. During the Finals when there were constant cameras in the locker room, the players would kick the media out to keep it secret. Sometimes the honor went to the hero of the win. Sometimes it went to a player who needed a pick-me-up. Kevin Love slid his piece into place after he had to miss Game 3 with a concussion.
With the real trophy in the room and champagne flying, it came time for the 16th piece. All 15 players had placed their piece, leaving a hole in the middle. The last piece was in the shape of the state of Ohio. As cheers raged, coach Tyronn Lue placed the final piece into place.
The puzzle, the trophy, the journey was finished.
"Together, that's how you win a championship," Jones said. "Individually, we are all just a piece. Everyone had to have their role; everyone has to have their piece."
Carter, who manages James' various non-basketball businesses, marveled at a photo as he studied it on a cellphone. As bar taps were surely simultaneously being pulled back in Cleveland, there were tears falling down James' face in the moments after he'd finished leading the greatest comeback in Finals history.
In the middle of the chaos, Carter found James, and the pair hugged under the basket with "0.0" shining in red fluorescent lights on the game clock above them.
"Wow," said Carter, who was a high school teammate with James at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. "That's a great photo. Wow. That moment was one friend feeling fantastic, exhilarated, exhausted and another friend just telling the other friend, 'Nobody in the world deserves it more than you.'"
Carter has been there for the entire ride with James and had the clothes on to prove it: a black Nike "Witness" T-shirt and a pair of LeBron's ninth Nike signature shoe.
"I wore this T-shirt to Game 7 in '13," Carter said, referring to James' leading the Heat over the San Antonio Spurs. "And the sneakers are, too; don't forget the sneakers. These are the 9s. I wore 10s last game. I wore championship sneakers [tonight]."
James added a pair of championship sneakers to the collection Sunday. It was a big night for Nike, its burgeoning battle with upstart Under Armour was personified by James against Curry. When James saw Lynn Merritt, a Nike vice president who oversees James and acts as a mentor to him, he reminded him of how he told him at the start of Cleveland's postseason run that the Cavs would need three great games out of him -- games when James was the "hero" -- and the championship would belong to them.
"I gave them back-to-back-to-back," James said with satisfaction.
Carter, back on the court, started to add up his friend's accomplishments.
"What's LeBron now? 3-4 in the Finals? Not bad," Carter said. "He's pretty dope."
What's next for James, Carter was asked, now that the monkey is off his back and the city of Cleveland is a winner again?
"It's LeBron James," Carter said. "What else is left? Do it again."
Mark "Cobra" Cashman, the Cavs' director of team operations, is one of just a couple of members of the franchise to share the locker room with James through both his stints in Cleveland. Having spent the past 15 years responsible for the team's equipment -- from bags to balls to uniforms -- his duties have expanded to become the team's unofficial director of fun, as he takes it upon himself to plan adventures to mix things up throughout the long season.
Sometimes it's as simple as setting up football targets outside the practice facility for the players to toss the pigskin through. Sometimes it's as silly as surprising someone by arranging to have a mascot visit their hotel room on the road. (Rowdy, the Dallas Cowboys' mascot, dropped in on James this season, while Mr. Met surprised assistant coach Jim Boylan.)
After Game 7, Cashman planned his coup de grace.
"There's another surprise that they don't know about," he said in the postgame locker room as the players drenched their jerseys in champagne and beer that Cashman will happily wash out in the days to come.
Ever since they won Game 6, the Cavs planned on leaving California on Sunday night, hoping to return Monday to a happy fan base in Cleveland. In the event of a win, the plane ride back would be a blast in itself. But Cashman wanted to up the ante.
"It's kind of the way the playoffs go," he said. "You always are planning for the next game, and you don't know if it's going to get there. So, it's hard. You kind of trick yourself into thinking it's going to happen, it's reality, versus there's still chance. So, that's hard. But there's a big surprise waiting for them tonight."
After being assured his secret wouldn't be revealed before the players found out about it, Cashman divulged the plan.
"We'll stop in Vegas for a little while," he said with a sly smile, explaining how he had buses waiting for the team at McCarran Airport that very minute, ready to whisk it away to the Strip upon its arrival. "We were always going to fly back [Sunday night] no matter what. A few of us kind of had a powwow after Game 6 and were like, 'What are we going to do?' So, the decision was, that's what we're going to do."
"They'll enjoy it," Cashman said. "It will be a nice surprise for them."
Outside the training room, team athletic trainer Mike Mancias gripped a cigar as he received hugs and congratulations. Mancias started working for the Cavs in 2004, when one of his duties was to translate instructions from coaches to then-rookie Anderson Varejao, as they both spoke Spanish.
It was the second cigar Mancias would smoke over the weekend.
Mancias is one of the people James trusts the most. He's been his personal trainer for years. He followed him to the Heat and then came back to Cleveland with him. It was at Mancias' summer wedding in 2014 in Miami where Riley had hoped to meet with James and seal his re-signing. There was a signing that night; James acted as the witness for their marriage license.
This past Thursday night, the Cavs won Game 6 in Cleveland. James needed extra treatment, as he'd been kneed in the thigh. Mancias stayed late at the arena to do it, knowing the vital importance of the recovery time before Game 7.
A few hours later, Mancias was at a hospital to be with his wife, Heather, who was in labor with their first child. It lasted a brutal 26 hours, into Saturday. James and the Cavs flew in to San Francisco without him.
Finally, little Malcolm Ray Mancias came into the world. Mother and baby were fine. After they shared their moment with their son, Heather turned and said: "Go, go to Game 7."
Mancias took a charter with Cavs employees Sunday morning. He came to the arena right from the airport. Fifteen minutes later James arrived, and Mancias was there to stretch and tape him.
He'll never forget his first Father's Day.
J.R. Smith will never forget this Father's Day, either. He started weeping on the podium after the victory when talking about his family. When he got to talking about his father, he almost couldn't continue as he described the support he's gotten during difficult times in his career.
"I mean, my dad is easily one of my biggest inspirations to play this game," said Smith, who scored eight straight points in the third quarter to begin the Cavs' second-half turnaround.
"To hear people talk bad about me, it hurts me because I know it hurts him, and that's not who I am. And I know he raised [me] better, and I know I want to do better. Just everything I do is for my parents and my family.
"The cars are nice, the houses are nice, but none of this matters without them. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. I don't know where I would be, honestly. If it wasn't for them, if it wasn't for the structure and the backbone that I have, I wouldn't be able to mess up and keep coming back and being able to sit in front of you as a world champion."
Smith cheered up quickly. He struck a pose for pictures with a wrestling-style championship belt over one shoulder, a bottle of beer in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. Security guards tried to get him to put out the cigar, but Smith had no intention of doing so.
Within minutes, other Cavs had joined him. The visitors locker room filled with smoke. Timofey Mozgov towered above all, standing 7-foot-1 and blowing smoke straight toward the ceiling. When the Warriors played in Cleveland in January, Stephen Curry had joked that he hoped it still smelled a little like champagne from their title celebration there last year. The Cavs left the locker room at Oracle smelling of victory cigars.
Cavs owners Dan Gilbert, Nate Forbes and Jeff Cohen walked through the locker room with magnum-sized champagne bottles with their names engraved on them and a Cavs logo bedazzled with tiny gemstones. Gilbert is the majority owner, but these three have been friends for decades and act as a support system for one another. They're all also very superstitious.
When the Cavs came back for Game 5, there was a mix-up with the courtside seats, and there were only two. So Forbes ended up sitting behind the Cavs' bench for the first half and Cohen for the second half. The Cavs pulled out the victory, starting what would become the greatest comeback in Finals history.
They had all the necessary seats Sunday night, but Forbes was back in the same seat in the first half, and Cohen moved there for the second half and mostly watched on the scoreboard because he ended up behind Channing Frye.
Another minority owner, singer Usher, joined the Cavs for their celebration after the game.
Gilbert and his ownership group have spent about $850 million in salaries and luxury taxes over the 10 years since he bought the team. This season the team spent more than $160 million, the second-highest all time.
"For him to come back here and go through what he did, it's just pretty remarkable, and we're very proud of him, and we love our leader."Kevin Love, on LeBron James delivering a title to Cleveland
As he prepared to leave the arena, James kissed his wife goodbye. She had playfully scolded him earlier when he took his daughter to his postgame news conference while he was drenched in champagne. First a shower then into the night, a three-time champion already on the lookout for a new challenge.
"I want to continue to be great. I want to continue to lead the 14 guys that I got on my team. I want to continue to lead this franchise. I got to continue to be great," James said. "That's it. I owe that to myself. I'm true to myself. I'm my biggest critic. All the other conversation that goes on out there, yeah, that's fine and dandy, but I'm my biggest critic. I owe it to myself to continue to be great."
His teammates, euphoric in the moment, had no thoughts of the future. They were finally content to be in the present and in James' presence.
"He protects every single one of us, and we are just very, very thrilled for our team," said Kevin Love, wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt but sounding warm and fuzzy.
"But for him to come back here and go through what he did, it's just pretty remarkable, and we're very proud of him, and we love our leader."