LeBron James and the power to change legacies

On the morning of Dec. 3, 2010, Chris Grant sprawled on a couch in his darkened office at Cleveland Clinic Courts. The building was quiet and it was gray and snowing outside, the start of another long winter. Next to Grant was a trash can in case he needed to vomit again.

The night before, the then-Cavaliers general manager had watched LeBron James put up 38 points on his team in James' first game back since signing with the Miami Heat. It was a crushing blowout loss and would destroy the Cavs' spirits, kick-starting what turned out to be a 26-game losing streak.

Grant had woken the next morning with the stomach flu.

Understanding what James signifies to Cleveland means understanding the pain of losing him. It can be hard to remember just how low the Cavs fell when he left, emotionally and otherwise, and no one wants to remember that anyway. In those four James-less years, the only time the team was relevant was at the annual draft lottery, where their run of wins was both fascinating and humbling as they came back year after year.

Meanwhile they watched -- and the ratings showed they were indeed watching -- as James became a champion twice over.

The city had loved and lost and assumed that was going to be the end of the story. Love, lost and loved again? Those are the three acts of a romantic comedy, not the story of Cleveland sports.

During the depths of that 2010-11 season, the idea of a championship banner hanging in Cleveland within a decade seemed farfetched. Even after Grant acquired Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, the true first steps out of the mire and two eventual starters on a title team, the Cavs remained forgotten and forlorn.

It was one, long, gloomy winter day with occasional bouts of nausea.

So seeing James march down the fence line at Cleveland Hopkins Airport on a bright, warm day, hoisting the golden Larry O'Brien Trophy as thousands of fans screamed at the sight of it shining in the sun, tangible proof of the end of the city's five-decade title drought -- it was all a bit surreal.

It was biblical stuff. The greatest story ever told in this town.

The night before, in the locker room at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, 2,000 miles away, Mo Williams smoked a cigar in the winning locker room and reminisced about it all. Williams experienced the same highs and lows that Cleveland did as he and the city lived through the once-in-a-lifetime James tale.

He was the sidekick for two years, two 60-win seasons, before becoming part of the collateral damage when James left. The two fell out badly, along with most of James' former Cavs teammates, and Williams was later traded for the draft pick that became Irving. He lived through that losing streak, which left a scar that everyone involved carries to this day.

"Can you believe this?" Williams said through a cloud of smoke on Sunday night. "LeBron, man. LeBron."

All the discussion of legacy that has surrounded James for years -- and likely will for many more -- cannot calculate the value of Williams' simple words. Count the rings, count the failures, count the stats. James may never win the math against some of the ghosts he now competes against, but the hearts and minds are a different story.

On May 13, 2014, David Griffin got the job as Cavs general manager. On his first day, he fired a coach and immediately began looking for the third man to lead the team in a three-year span. Several he would offer the job to over the following month turned it down. He called Kevin Love's agent and asked if he'd be willing to sign a long-term contract if the Cavs traded for him and didn't get the answer he was hoping for.

In July, when he got the call that James was coming back, Griffin was so overcome with emotion that he fell to his knees. When he got over the shock, he scrambled over to his desk and put another call in to Love's representatives. This time he got a different answer.

LeBron, man. LeBron.

James is 31 years old. His prime continues to march on with no end in sight. If he re-signs with the Cavs as expected this summer, the team will likely be favored to return to the NBA Finals next year for what could be the seventh consecutive time for James. How is an era defined?

Consider that the past 36 Finals games have featured James in the starting lineup.

If the main street where the Cavs are holding their first-ever championship parade were renamed in his honor tomorrow, there would no complaints. If the Cavs were to unveil a statue of him next fall when they receive their rings and hang their banner, it would seem appropriate. After the Game 7 victory, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert proposed James run for president. There's at least one state he'd carry in a landslide.

In the 24 hours following Game 7, the videos poured onto social media. Teenage boys leaping in unison as they watched the final seconds. Strangers hugging in a mass of humanity outside the team's arena. A shirtless man doing pullups on a traffic light he reached from the top of a commandeered fire truck. Longtime Cavs broadcasters Austin Carr and Fred McLeod weeping in the press box. People parking their cars and walking a mile down a highway just to see the team's plane land.

Legacy indeed.