Great athletes find inspiration wherever and whenever they can, and LeBron James used the 2016 passing of an icon to push the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA championship.
Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016, the day after the Cavs lost the opener of that year’s NBA Finals.
“A number of Cavs personnel, including Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and LeBron James, were seated together, engaging in a familiar activity from that season: sipping a vintage red,” wrote Joe Vardon of The Athletic.
What the NBA superstar did after hearing the sad news had a major impact on his teammates.
“We’re sitting there with the Nike folks, our regular crew, having a glass of wine, and we had been there an hour or two — so, it’s like a couple of glasses,” Frye said. “Somebody whispered something in (James’) ear, and he was like, ‘All right, y’all, see you,’ goes up, changes his clothes and goes and works out for like two hours.”
Frye was pretty confused about James’ actions, as the Cavaliers had practice scheduled for the next day. The group had also enjoyed several glasses of wine.
“I was like, ‘What the (expletive) is wrong with this dude?’” Frye said. “And they were like, ‘Muhammad Ali had such an influence on him.’
“To me, that’s what changed his attitude about the sense of urgency of what was happening at that moment.”
The Cavaliers would go on to lose Game 2 and then split Games 3 and 4 at home to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
But James’ renewed sense of urgency eventually paid off. He scored 41 points in a Game 5 win and scored 41 again in a Game 6 victory that led to a deciding Game 7 at Golden State. Cleveland won that game 93-89 and to date remain the only team to rally from 3-1 down to win the NBA Finals.
James was named Finals MVP, fulfilling the vow to bring his home state a championship after returning to the Cavs following his first two NBA crowns with the Miami Heat.
Golden State had defeated Cleveland in the Finals the year before, and much like Ali won a heralded rematch against Joe Frazier, James succeeded in the Cavs’ second chance against the Warriors.
The 38-year-old recently announced he will return to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in his 21st NBA season. He will be trying for his fifth NBA championship after also winning one with the Lakers in 2020.
Among Ali’s many accomplishments, he was the first boxer to win the lineal heavyweight championship three times. Like James, he also is an Olympic gold medalist.
James often made mention of the role Ali played outside of sports to pave the way for opportunities for athletes, including speaking out on social issues. James’ production company actually won a 2020 Sports Emmy Award for a documentary about the legendary boxer, who died at the age of 74.
The two men will not only forever be linked by their statuses among the greatest of all time in their respective sports, but for the boost Ali’s memory provided to the Cavaliers in winning their only NBA championship.