What started off as fantasy has become reality. The black-and-white images of a city swarming LeBron James in a heartwarming Nike ad upon his return to Cleveland came true at the city’s historic parade, when 1 million fans flooded the streets to swallow James and the Cavaliers in delight.

The Cavs’ NBA championship wasn’t just the first in the team’s 45-year history; it absolved a city and fan base of a lifetime of sports devastation. The broken road to get here took too many detours to count, but it ended with James pounding the court in disbelief, tears in his eyes and joy in his heart.

“Just knowing what our city has been through, Northeast Ohio has been through as far as our sports and everything for the last 50 years,” James said. “Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on. They continue to support us. For us to be able to end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them.”

One of the most pivotal days in this journey was the night before the trade deadline in 2011, when the Cavs traded Mo Williams to the Los Angeles Clippers and received an unprotected lottery pick. They turned that 2.8 percent chance into the top overall pick and Kyrie Irving, then added Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick on the same night.

Nobody knew it at the time, but the climb back to the top was starting. Irving won the Rookie of the Year award and has grown into one of the league’s top point guards. Thompson evolved into a defensive weapon athletic enough to defend guards while possessing an uncanny knack for rebounding. The fact he is represented by Rich Paul, James’ agent and close friend, certainly didn’t hurt James’ chances of coming back.

There was plenty of pain, losing and frustration along the way, including a 26-game losing streak the year after James left for Miami. The drywall was ripped off, and the roster was stripped to the studs with names like Samardo Samuels, Manny Harris, Christian Eyenga, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody — many of whom never again played in the NBA.

The stories from those years are endless, from former coach Byron Scott yelling to Eyenga during a defensive possession, “Christian! Where is your man?” as Eyenga looked around bewildered, to Harangody missing a 3-point shot so badly he hit the American flag in the lower right corner of the backboard.

Harris cost himself a roster spot on the worst team in the league when he wore wet socks into a cryotherapy chamber — despite warning signs all around not to wear wet clothing inside — and Samuels couldn’t travel to Toronto for a game against the Raptors because he lost his passport during the lockout.

As painful as it was to endure, the Cavs’ plan was to lose. They knew they had a four-year window while James was in Miami to stockpile the franchise with a war chest of draft picks and trade assets. One general manager and two coaches were fired in that four-year stretch, but the end result was James in a Cavs jersey, enough assets to surround him with the talent to win a championship (Dion Waiters in exchange for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) and a check big enough to make it all possible.

There were plenty of mistakes made along the way from ownership to the front office to the court, but none of that mattered when Dan Gilbert walked out of Oracle Arena with a 3-liter bottle of champagne under his arm for the plane ride to Las Vegas.

“I just hope people can understand there’s no straight line to success,” Gilbert said. “You make a mistake, you learn, make a mistake, you learn, make a mistake and learn. We all make mistakes. If you don’t fail at things, you don’t go anywhere. I’m sort of glad it didn’t come real fast, because now the lessons are even more real.”

Gilbert went out on his own and hired David Blatt weeks before James returned. Blatt’s learning curve to the NBA was steep. Warriors personnel laughed during last year’s Finals at how Blatt would call plays from the bench and James would ignore them, instead choosing to run whatever he wanted.

The start to this season was disjointed. Irving and Iman Shumpert were out recovering from surgeries, Timofey Mozgov was working his way back from a knee cleanout, Thompson was a training camp holdout and James barely played in the preseason after he needed an injection in his back.

All of that created a disjointed start to the season, although the Cavs quickly rose to the top of the East despite issues between the players and Blatt. The whispers about player unrest grew into a quiet roar following a Christmas Day loss at the Golden State Warriors. Within weeks, Blatt was gone despite the Cavs being atop the Eastern Conference, and the rest of the league erupted.

Opposing coaches chastised the Cavs for the move. Removing Blatt and promoting Tyronn Lue certainly didn’t guarantee a championship, but privately those within the organization at least felt as if they had a chance.

“Ty has done his homework. He is aware of how things have been in the past here. But I don’t think he feels any pressure,” Cavs assistant coach Larry Drew said on the eve of the playoffs. “Ty is one of them guys, ‘I’m going to do my best and give it my best shot and if it doesn’t work, so be it.’ It’s not an arrogance, it’s not a cockiness. It’s just how he feels. He believes in himself and he knows the situation he’s in. He’s not feeling any pressure.”

Lue shined in the early rounds of this postseason, drawing up plays and rotations that befuddled opposing coaches with far more experience. James, meanwhile, held the reins on the Cavs’ chariot. He patiently played through Irving and Kevin Love even when both missed shots and didn’t play well at times.

The Cavs responded by making an NBA-record 25 3-pointers in a conference semifinal win against the Hawks before needing six games to get through the Toronto Raptors and fulfill their end of a rematch against the Warriors.

If Draymond Green wasn’t suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, there very well may not have been any parades in Cleveland. The Warriors had all the momentum going home 3-1 and even the idea of a Game 6 at home, not to mention an NBA championship, seemed unrealistic. But the Cavs believed enough to fight another day. Then another and another.

James’ cricial block on Andre Iguodala late in Game 7, coupled with Irving’s huge 3-pointer from the wing and Love’s defense on Steph Curry officially altered the course of Cleveland sports.

There were tears shed during an emotional postgame celebration and disbelief at the sight of 1 million fans flooding the streets of downtown.

“I’m nothing without y’all,” James told the assembled crowd. “I love y’all. Let’s get ready for next year.”

Jason Lloyd can be reached at jlloyd@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.