CLEVELAND — As Channing Frye wraps up his 13-year NBA career, the first part of the Cavaliers’ tribute Sunday was filled with fun and laughter.

But the jocularity of Frye's two-game retirement party as the season ends Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena should not overshadow an undeniable truth — the Cavs would not have won the 2016 NBA title without him.

That season, the 7-foot center/forward arrived in a Feb. 18 trade with the Orlando Magic, reuniting him with his best friend in the league, Richard Jefferson, whom Frye had met at a Phoenix basketball camp when he was 14.

Frye’s 3-point accuracy lured opposing big men away from the basket and flummoxed foes on how to guard the Cavs, who had surrounded LeBron James with shooters. Frye and Jefferson became valuable members of the Cavs’ second unit, with Frye pouring in 27 points in Game 3 of a conference semifinal sweep of the Atlanta Hawks.

But what Frye, now 35, did behind the scenes was more important.

The Cavs were a team of cliques, a collection of strong and not always united personalities. James had his circle, which included Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. Kevin Love had not really found his place. Former General Manager David Griffin said the Cavs would not have hoisted the trophy, rallying from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, if Frye had not broken down those walls.

“I guarantee you we don’t,” Griffin said during a phone interview Friday. “It’s impossible that we would have had the fortitude we did as a unit if he doesn’t do what he did.”

As Jefferson said in May 2016, “Channing’s that new kid in school that doesn't know there's cliques and he just sits at the table with everyone. His personality and how happy he is to be here. ... He doesn't care about any of this stuff on the outside. He just laughs and jokes and has a good time and is really enjoying this experience."

What Frye did was not intentional. Frye being Frye was enough to stir the pot and create a championship chemistry.

“It’s not like he set out with the mission of ‘I need to unite everybody,’ ” Griffin said. “He was just Channing. He was silly and fun and made fun of everyone for acting like everything was so difficult. He made everybody laugh at themselves. Once they started doing that and coming at it from a viewpoint of gratitude, things got quite a bit easier.

“We didn’t roll 15-deep to dinner until Channing got there. When you’re going through the playoffs having team dinners and everyone shows up together so they can all make fun of each other, that’s a really powerful emotional currency. And Channing and RJ did that together. Neither one of them could have done it alone, but they were perfect together.”

Frye became the life of the parties at Love’s house. Frye turned into their social media watchdog, scanning Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat more than any teammate Love ever had, Love once said.

Because Frye was still a good player, he had what Griffin called “sweat equity” and quickly earned the respect of the Cavs, including James. Then when Frye started to echo some of the things Jefferson had been telling his younger teammates, it resonated more.

But just as important was the fun that lightened the mood of a team under pressure.

“He made RJ a sillier version of RJ,” Griffin said of Frye. “RJ was trying to be friendly with the cool kids, and Channing got there and made him his normal, silly self. As soon as he cut loose and was himself, the fact that RJ had built a relationship with Kevin opened up the floodgates when Channing got there.

“Because he made RJ even more slap-happy, it furthered the hold they had on Kevin and ... we were off to the races at that point.”

All was not easy for Frye during his time with the Cavs. His parents died 28 days apart in 2017. Jefferson was traded in October 2017; he played his final season in Denver. Frye was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in February 2018, missing what would have been his third consecutive trip to the Finals.

“I’ve won a championship here. I watched a kid be birthed here that happens to be mine. [Had] great teammates,” Frye said Sunday. “Then on the other end, both my parents died while I was here, actually at Richard’s house. Just having those highs and lows, going to the Finals, losing in the Finals, getting traded, coming back, these injuries this year. ..."

There were other rocky times during his career, most notably when he missed all of the 2012-13 season with the Phoenix Suns because of an enlarged heart. Frye went to the playoffs only four times — also with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009 and the Suns in 2010 — and won just one title.

But the Cavs were thrilled when Frye signed a one-year, veteran minimum contract to return on July 19. He is one of 12 nominees for the NBA’s 2018-19 Twyman-Stokes Award, which recognizes the best teammate. (The list also includes ex-Cav Kyle Korver, now with the Utah Jazz.)

Drafted eighth overall by the New York Knicks in 2005, Frye came to be known for his honesty and irreverence, always laughing and appreciative of his lot in life, even while injured or absorbing endless digs from Jefferson and Love.

When his cellphone rang during his postgame interview Sunday and television play-by-play man Fred McLeod jokingly suggested it might be the president, Frye said, “No, Obama, I’ve already seen him.”

Talking after shootaround on March 18, Frye said, “You all went to the dollar store to get an interview. What do you want?” then proceeded to entertain, as usual.

In 2016, Frye helped give Northeast Ohio what it wanted for 52 years. As he bows out, all who were part of the championship run know it would not have happened without him.

 

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.