CLEVELAND — Cheered by a sea of fans spilling off sidewalks and choking the streets, LeBron James and the Cavaliers paraded and rallied as NBA champs in a once in a generation party for Cleveland.
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The city’s title drought is over. The party — and procession slowed to a crawl by a mass of humanity — is just getting started.
“For some crazy reason, I feel like I’m gonna wake up and it’s going to be Game 4 again” with the Cavs down 2-1 to the Warriors, James told hundreds of thousands of fans before thanking each of his teammates one by one.
James gave those hometown fans even more reason to celebrate Wednesday by telling reporters he intends to stay in Cleveland, skipping the drama of previous splashy announcements when he decided to go to Miami in 2010 then come back to the Cavaliers four years later.
“I’m just one man. I’m one man with a plan, with a drive, with a determination,” James said.
The crowd, some fans arriving Tuesday night to camp out so they could get as close as possible, overwhelmed downtown Cleveland to celebrate with James, Kyrie Irving and their teammates. The Cavs made history by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, ending the city’s 52-year championship drought.
The team delivered again Wednesday with a raucous celebration filled with selfies and shirtless ballers, new nicknames for fresh moments — rare positive memories — for Cleveland sports lore.
Irving gave props to James’ block that set up his shot. James raved about Irving but Kevin Love’s defense against NBA MVP Stephen Curry. And Richard Jefferson, who said after Game 7 that he planned to retire, got caught up by crowd chants and told them if they wanted him back, he’d return for another year.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Irving said.
This was the parade Cleveland has waited to throw since 1964, when the beloved Browns owned the NFL. There were lean years — and so many close calls — in between before James, born in nearby Akron, made good on his promise to bring home a championship.
Fans stood on rooftops, portable toilets and hung out of office building windows hoping to get a glimpse of James, who rode in a Rolls-Royce convertible with his wife, Savannah, and their three children. Near the start of the route and just feet from where his iconic, 10-stories-tall banner hangs, James stood and posed with his arms outstretched just as he does on the giant mural — life imitating art, the photo op of a lifetime.
With the parade slowed, J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving hopped off their trucks to mix it up with the crowd, giving high-fives, taking selfies. Smith also waved to crowds stacked in a nearby parking garage and blew cigar smoke high into the air.
The parade’s start was delayed more than 30 minutes because of the swarm, which blocked the streets near Quicken Loans Arena and temporarily prevented the open-air vehicles that carried the Cavaliers from getting to the staging area.
The crowd was packed so tightly that fans could reach out and high-five their heroes.
Love wore a golden-studded WWE championship belt, one that was out of Cleveland’s reach for so long.
The rally ended with Browns great Jim Brown passing James the Larry O’Brien trophy, a symbolic passing of the torch for Cleveland sports icons.
When the Browns won Cleveland’s last major sports championship, Lyndon Johnson was president.
No major city had endured more pain with its sports franchises. The Browns, Indians, Cavs and Barons — yes, there was an NHL team here for a brief time in the 1970s — went a combined 146 seasons between sips of championship Champagne.
When the Browns won their last title, there was no major celebration. After all, championships were routine as the Browns, led by coaching great Paul Brown and a roster of future Hall of Famers, won seven titles from 1946 to 1955.
Cleveland’s close calls since then have gained infamous nicknames: Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and The Decision are a part of the city’s troubled sports lexicon. The Browns lost three AFC titles to Denver from 1986-1989; the Indians were beaten in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in extra innings; and the Cavs got swept in the 2007 Finals before losing to the Warriors in six games a year ago. Art Modell packed up the beloved Browns in 1995 and moved them to Baltimore.
Cleveland was so desperate for a parade that the previous one held for a sports team came in 1995 after the Indians made it to the World Series for the first time since 1954. They lost to Atlanta.
A parade for second place.
However, James, Irving and their teammates, who survived a coaching change midway through the season and finally fulfilled expectations in the postseason, have taken Cleveland back to the top.
There’s a new nickname — The End.
“I’m nothing without you all. I love all of y’all,” James said. “Get ready for next year.”
Pacers, Jazz & Hawks in three-way swap
The Indiana Pacers have traded one Indianapolis native for another Wednesday — sending George Hill to Utah and acquiring Jeff Teague in a three-team swap that also includes Atlanta. While the deal cannot be announced officially, Hill’s agent, Bill Neff, confirmed the details Atlanta receives the No. 12 overall pick in Thursday night’s draft. In Teague, Indiana gets the true point guard it has long wanted. Hill adds defense and depth to a spot that could be in flux for the Jazz if point guard Dante Exum comes back slower than from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2015-16 season.
Hill and Teague both have one year left on their current deals and each is scheduled to make $8 million this season.