The Franchise: How LeBron James Saved Cleveland

David WilliamsSenior Analyst IApril 11, 2008

The clock winds down.  The game is tied at 107 in double overtime.   LeBron James has the ball at the top of the key.

In a series tied at 2-2, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a chance to steal a game from the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills. James has scored 29 of the Cavs' last 30 points. Everyone in the stadium knows he's going to take the last shot.

And he doesn't care.

With a strong left-handed drive and a powerful move through four Pistons defenders , James encapsulates his greatness in a matter of seconds.

Cavs fans know the truth about LeBron. He’s the Chosen One. The King. The Heir Apparent.  The Franchise.

James has averaged 27.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists since being drafted in June 2003.

As the 2007-2008 NBA regular season comes to an end, the Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the playoffs for the third straight year under the leadership of this 23-year old local phenom.  Not only has James transformed a basketball team that was struggling under mismanagement and a long rebuilding process, but he has invigorated an entire city.

The late '90s were not kind to Cleveland fans.  The Indians were in the midst of an extended rebuilding phase, the Browns were experiencing the woes of an expansion franchise, and the Cavaliers were one of the worst teams in the NBA.

As Michael Jordan won his final NBA Championship for the Bulls in 1998 and John Elway and Terrell Davis led the Denver Broncos to two straight Super Bowls, Cleveland fans had little reason to celebrate.  But a kid from Akron would change all that.

Local writers Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst have followed James since his high school years, and have now documented his rise to stardom in a book called The Franchise.

From the get-go, people knew LeBron James would be a special player.  As his former high school coach Keith Dambrodt put it, “[LeBron is] a basketball genius…He knew where everybody was supposed to be on every play! He doesn't just see the whole court; he knows what's supposed to be happening.

In their book, Windhorst and Pluto chronicle the life and times of a superstar in the making. They’re particularly insightful in describing the big-money shoe endorsement squabble between Reebok, Nike, and Adidas—summarized neatly in an exchange between Adidas’ Sonny Vaccaro and Nike’s Phil Knight at one of James’ games.

Vaccaro’s message to Knight?

“Be ready to fight.”

The co-authors interweave James’ story with that of the Cavs in the first years of the new millennium, when the team was led by the likes of Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, and Chris Mihm. After years of futility, the turning point came on May 22nd, 2003—the day of the NBA Draft Lottery.

When discussing the ramifications of landing the No. 1 pick, Cavs representative Warren Thaler tried to put the lottery in perspective.

Thaler told owner Gordon Gund, who is blind, “You know, Gordon, this isn't like finding the cure for blindness.”

Gund responded, “It's pretty damn close.”

You should know the story from there. After selecting James as the #1 overall pick, the Cavs evolved from a 17-win team to the 2007 Eastern Conference Champions.  Windhorst and Pluto make a special point to detail the transformation of the Cavs into a popular, profitable franchise, with length commentary from new owner Dan Gilbert.

Though the book ends abruptly—only a short final chapter describes the 2007 playoffs—The Franchise is a must-read for any LeBron James or Cleveland fan.  All told, it’s an informative study of how one individual has changed the marketing landscape for professional athletes—and resurrected a Midwestern city that was dying for a star.

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan once said to James, “Someday this league is going to belong to you.”

By some accounts, “someday” has already arrived.