On the eve of the 2006-07 season, LeBron James stood along the baseline at Quicken Loans Arena and looked up toward the ceiling.
"Man," James said, scanning the rafters, "we've just got to start putting some banners up there."
James was coming off his first taste of the playoffs. He recorded a triple-double in his first game, made a game winner with less than a second left in his fifth game and nearly pulled off a historic comeback before losing to the Detroit Pistons in seven games in the second round. He tasted some success, and as he embarked on his fourth season, he started to feel his place.
As James scanned the upper reaches, there was a single banner marking a Cavs accomplishment, a Central Division title in 1975-76. That was the so-called "Miracle of Richfield" team from 30 years earlier, a team that won 49 games and one playoff series and was a legend in Cleveland for it. The bar for such status was not high.
There were six jerseys retired next to the lone banner, only one of them belonging to a Hall of Famer. That was for Nate Thurmond, who played 114 games with the franchise near the end of his career. He was beloved for those 114 games, but again, the bar was relatively low with a team history essentially devoid of greatness.
When James was a teenager, he started attending games at the arena, and he couldn't believe how bad the Cavs were, how empty the arena often was, with its bright blue seats seeming like a neon sign of disinterest. During his senior year of high school, he went to several games, was given courtside seats and visited the locker room. His thought was pretty clear after he watched that 17-win team with the lowest attendance in the league: They were awful, and he didn't want to be a part of it.
When James made his first trip to Boston two weeks into his rookie season, his then-coach Paul Silas pulled him aside after the morning shootaround and showed James the 1974 and 1976 championship banners that Silas helped the Celtics win. It took him a moment to find them; there were so many hanging that they were hard to locate. As the old coach pointed, his wide, proud smile emerged.
"You'll get one of them someday," Silas said to James before bellowing out one of his famous laughs. "But you'll never be better than I was!"
Before the 2015 playoffs, James wanted to illustrate to his teammates what they were playing for. In 2011, when he was about to start his first playoff run with the Miami Heat, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had displayed the team's 2006 championship trophy in front of the players as a symbolic reminder. This time around, the Cavs didn't have anything to show off, so James brought his championship rings to practice. His teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had never been in a playoff game before. Now, it was James taking on the mentor role and showing off the proud symbols of his work.
Fifteen years after he hoped he'd never play for the Cavs, 14 years after Silas shared some of his proudest accomplishments, 10 years after James lamented the gaping holes in the rafters and two years after he declared he was coming home, a banner will go up Tuesday night. It will be an 8-foot-wide, 14-foot-tall flag placed in the center of all the other banners.
Once the championship banner is raised, the Cleveland rafters will have nine titles represented: five Central Division, three Eastern Conference and one NBA. The Cavs had to order a trophy case to be built in their facility to house all the hardware James has helped them win.
"I'm looking forward to seeing that banner go up and it saying world champions," James said. "And another one for Eastern Conference champion and for a division title. It's great to see those accomplishments and be a part of it."
The rings are special; they are a player's private piece of the championship. They are treasured, they are counted, they are worth so much more than the actual value of the gold and diamonds that make them up.
But rings cannot be shared. Rings cannot be looked at as a reminder during difficult times in future big games that are sure to be played in the arena. Rings cannot be pointed to 40 years later with swelling pride to the stars of the day.
That is why, out of everything James has won in his career and with all the other banners he helped raise for another franchise, seeing the wine and gold pennant unveiled is a moment James has been looking forward to.
"It means so much to me for my own personal goals," James said. "And I know it means a lot to everyone in Northeast Ohio and anyone who has anything to do with Cleveland sports history."