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Wojo: James, Gilbert build bridge to title

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, hoists the Larry O'Brien trophy with owner Dan Gilbert, right, after defeating the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA title in Oakland, California.

Detroit — It’s the unlikeliest of pairings, and it somehow created the unlikeliest of comebacks. LeBron James and Dan Gilbert are strong-willed men who want it all and do it all, on the basketball floor and in business. But fans are celebrating in Cleveland today because James and Gilbert, despite their famous differences, are competitive likenesses.

Neither wanted to be defined by one controversial decision. Neither had a way to fix it without the other.

So as the Cavaliers bask in their NBA championship, as James climbs higher up the legacy ladder, as Gilbert builds in Cleveland and in his hometown, let this be a lesson for success. Winning is fine, as James showed with his two titles in Miami. Renovation is rewarding, as Gilbert has shown with his unrelenting development in downtown Detroit.

But success doesn’t guarantee fulfillment, and that’s what both finally got. The basketball superstar got a chance to repair his biggest blemish, coming home after a messy departure and delivering Cleveland’s first pro championship in 52 years. And the billionaire owner got to figuratively bury the angry script he penned when James bolted to Miami six years ago.

Both were roundly lampooned at the time. After James made his lavish announcement on ESPN, he was branded a selfish egomaniac. When Gilbert responded with his infamous Internet diatribe, calling James’ decision a “cowardly betrayal” among other things, he was an embarrassed, angry tyrant.

When I talked with Gilbert a year ago, it was clear he couldn’t wait to rewrite.

“We’re doing a lot of things, and yet someone pointed out, ‘Dan, when I Google you, after all you’ve done — the gaming business, Quicken Loans — the first thing that comes up is the letter,’” Gilbert said. “It has a way of disproportionately defining who I am.”

Mission to succeed

The letter pops up fourth now, and I’m guessing it will continue to drop. After the Cavaliers’ staggering rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors in Game 7, it can be assigned to the colorful pages of sports history.

No one is calling James and Gilbert best friends, but as business relationships go, it ultimately, remarkably worked. It worked because both have outsized egos that allow them to conceive of greatness. And both were willing to stow those egos to do something that seemed unfathomable a few years ago. No matter how much James had won elsewhere, his story would have been incomplete, unembraced in his home state, so he returned to make things right.

Good for him, and great for Cleveland. It’s amazing how a superior athlete — or businessman — can be driven by unfulfilled promises.

“I came back for a reason,” James said after Sunday’s Game 7 victory in Oakland. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing, I knew what I’d learned the last couple years I was gone.”

James was asked about the “Greek drama” aspect of his career, returning to a place where spurned fans once burned his jersey.

“It don’t matter,” James said. “That’s yesterday’s newspaper. I don’t think anybody’s reading yesterday’s newspaper. They’ll be reading tomorrow that I’m coming home with what I said I was gonna do.”

So is Gilbert, returning to both his towns. His vision of a revitalized Detroit continues to form, as he reveals plans practically daily for more than 80 buildings he controls. That should be what defines him, although helping deliver a title to the most title-bereft city in America isn’t bad, either.

In the raucous Cavaliers locker room, Gilbert celebrated with the team and the rest of his ownership group, donning goggles to protect against the champagne spray.

“I am so happy for the people of Cleveland, Ohio,” Gilbert said to Fox 8 TV. “Over the years, getting letters and emails, people telling me about how their grandparents watched the Browns in ’64. … The hell with that curse ... it’s over! It’s done! I’m so happy, I can’t even describe it.”

Gilbert blamed himself for the fallout after James’ departure, then went about fixing it, flying to Miami when James became a free-agent two years ago. From there to here, they were doubly driven.

Learning from failure

What James did was incredible, as the Cavaliers became the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. Pick any astonishing number you wish, but this will probably suffice: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, James is the first player to lead all players on both teams — both teams! — in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots in any playoff series ever.

James did a lot by himself, but he didn’t get there all by himself. Kyrie Irving blossomed, and Kevin Love returned to his rebounding ways at the end.

And remember, months earlier, the Cavaliers were a picture of dysfunction. Gilbert and GM David Griffin fired the coach, David Blatt, and installed assistant Tyronn Lue to improve the team’s chemistry.

Gilbert isn’t known as a hands-off owner, or a half-way owner. The Cavaliers had the highest payroll in the NBA at $108 million, and paid an additional $54 million in luxury taxes to add Love and other role players.

And there’s no sign the run will end anytime soon. James likely will opt out of his $24 million contract, but only as a mechanism to assure a higher salary with the Cavaliers. Well removed from one historic breakup, the two key figures now wear the look of fulfillment.

“In today’s world, social media, people get judged so much by the last thing that happened,” Gilbert told late Sunday. “I almost feel in a way, young people get to see that not only is it OK to fail, that’s the way you get to championship success, whether it’s sports or business or life. Everybody made mistakes for years, but by making them, everybody learned — myself, the franchise, coaches, players, LeBron, everybody. And now here we are, only because we learned.”

James defied how he was defined, and so did Gilbert. And now here they are, differences aside, redefined by their competitive similarities.