CLEVELAND (AP) — Following a parade choked to a crawl by a massive crowd, after proclamations, speeches and fanfare, Cleveland watched a symbolic passing of the trophy — and the torch.
When Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Cavaliers superstar LeBron James, the city’s long wait was officially over.
After 52 long years, this was a title town again.
Cheered for hours by a sea of adoring fans who first engulfed the downtown streets and then the Cavs, James and the newly crowned NBA champions were honored Wednesday with a parade and a once-in-a-generation party.
The Cavs chased down history by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State in a wild seven-game NBA Finals, a comeback that ended the city’s 52-year championship drought stretching back to Brown leading the Browns to a win over the Baltimore Colts in the NFL championship in 1964.
But on a sun-kissed summer day in this football-crazed town, everyone was a Cavaliers fan and Cleveland wrapped its arms around a team that came together and defied the odds to win it all.
“It still hasn’t hit me that this has happened,” said James, who delivered on his promise to bring a championship to his home state with a magnificent playoff performance. He said he’ll be back with the Cavs next season. “It’s so surreal. For some crazy reason, I feel like I’m gonna wake up and it’s going to be Game 4 again.”
Moments later, James cradled the shiny, golden trophy in his arms like a newborn. This was his baby — and Cleveland’s.
The city’s first championship parade since the Indians won the World Series in 1948 will long be remembered for a crowd that halted the procession, forcing police to use bicycles and a horseback unit to create enough space for cars, bands and floats to pass. The swarm spilled off the sidewalks, people packed so tightly that fans could reach into the vehicles and high-five their heroes.
Cleveland police did not have an immediate estimate on the crowd’s size, but the team and officials at the rally said more than 1 million people attended. Regardless, fans packed in 50 deep in spots along the 2-mile parade route, and snarled traffic badly enough to delay some outgoing flights at Cleveland’s airport because crews couldn’t make it to their planes.
Once he reached the stage and rally, James spent nearly 20 minutes thanking each of his teammates during a sometimes profane speech. He gave his fans even more reason to celebrate by telling reporters he intends to stay in Cleveland and go for another title next season. James is expected to opt out of his contract and become a free agent soon to take advantage of a new TV deal that will push maximum NBA salaries higher.
“I’m nothing without this city. I’m nothing with you all,” he said. “Let’s get ready for next year.”
Some fans camped out Tuesday night to get as close as possible to the parade route, which began near Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs’ home.
Fans stood on rooftops, portable toilets and clung to ledges on parking decks hoping to get a glimpse of the Cavs and 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-story 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.
There were other raucous moments along the way with Kyrie Irving and a shirtless J.R. Smith hopping out of their vehicles to slap hands with fans and even take selfies. Some of the loudest ovations were for Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova, who couldn’t wipe off his smile while soaking in the ride. Kevin Love wore an “Ohio Against The World” ball cap and two pro wrestling belts strapped across his body.
While the crowd at Mall B waited patiently for the Cavs to arrive at the rally, they watched replays on giant screens of Cleveland’s epic Game 7 finish over the Warriors.
During his remarks, owner Dan Gilbert revealed that general manager David Griffin had written to players after Game 4, telling them not to give up.
“He said, ‘This is going to happen,'” Gilbert said.
Griffin then mentioned three plays that will live forever in Cleveland lore: James’ block on Andre Iguodala in the closing minutes, Irving’s 3-pointer over Stephen Curry that gave Cleveland a 92-89 lead and Love’s defense on the two-time MVP.
Irving modestly credited James with making his moment possible.
“There is no shot without the block,” he said.
While waiting since 1964 to throw this parade, no city has endured more suffering with its sports franchises.
Cleveland’s close calls were tagged with infamous nicknames like Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and The Decision. Reminders of past failure that don’t hurt as much anymore.
As he watched the Cavs celebrate, Browns running back Earnest Byner, who has been haunted by his fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship against Denver, felt relief and joy.
“It’s a championship for the Cavs, but it’s a championship for the people,” said Byner, wearing his No. 44 Browns jersey. “All of us can claim this.”
Associated Press writer Mark Gillispie contributed to this report.