How does an athlete become a legend? What does it look like?
Is it as simple as the confetti falling on a beaming LeBron James at 11:47 p.m ET last night at AmericanAirlines Arena when the greatest basketball talent of our generation won his first NBA title?
Or is it a collection of all the small moments leading up to the big one, played out over the decade-long journey from child prodigy to champion?
We have watched the whole thing unfold, from the first Sports Illustrated cover to The Decision, in an era of unprecedented scrutiny and irrational expectations. And yet for all the doubts and critiques he engendered along the way, the NBA is above all a league about talent. As he showed in one of the all-time great playoff performances, James’ was too great to be denied.
And now that he has his ring, now that the Miami Heat have dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder, the worst nightmare for the rest of the NBA is now engaged. At age 27, James is still getting better, still pushing past the boundaries of his raw talent. And the Heat, a team built around three superstars in their primes, is only going to find more ways to put better pieces around him.
The question for James was never whether he’d win a single championship, but whether he could string them together. And now, after a playoffs in which he averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists, he looks poised to dominate for years to come, just like we expected all along.
“It’s about damn time,” James said as he accepted the MVP trophy. And doesn’t that say it all?
Though this series wasn’t close, the games — aside from the 121-106 finale — were. The Thunder aren’t going away, and this experience will do nothing but push Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both 23, to be better if/when they make it back.
But there is now a preternatural calm to James, an air of inevitability he has discovered deep within. Exactly 79 minutes before Game 5, James walked into the Heat locker room amid at least 50 reporters and photographers. Most of Miami’s stars spend that time in a more serene environment, where no media members are allowed. But James walked in, turned on the speaker system and sat in his leather chair, bobbing his head to music and staring at the cameras as they looked back at him.
It was an odd, but fitting scene. Since age 14, James has never been able to escape the eyeballs glued to his every move. And now, on the verge of a championship, here he was, almost basking in it. This is what you do when you know you’re on the verge of an epic performance, when you’re moments away from tearing into the Thunder with a triple-double of 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds.
“I didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but I put in a lot of hard work,” James said afterward. “I’m very happy right now to be a champion, and nobody can take that away from me.”
For better or worse, this is what James promised when he abandoned the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 and took his talents to South Beach, a phrase that had become symbolic of the crassness that surrounded his free-agency spectacle. And though he delivered redemption in his second season, it did not come as easily as expected.
There was the uncomfortable push-and-pull early between James and Dwyane Wade. There was the collapse against Dallas in last year’s Finals. And then there was this season, which included stretches of breathtaking dominance, confounding ineptitude and injuries that threatened to postpone title hopes for another year.
Without Chris Bosh, who suffered an abdominal injury early in the playoffs, Miami had to survive challenges from the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, the latter taking a 3-2 series lead home in the Eastern Conference finals. But with James playing arguably the best game of his career, Miami survived.
“This process has been unbelievably hard,” Wade said. “We all expected it to be a little easier, but we had to go through all that pain and suffering to get to this point.”
Now they have it figured out, and the floodgates might open from here. Not only has the Big Three found chemistry and released the pressure for James, but Pat Riley is going to recalibrate the roster around them.
The likes of Mike Miller (though brilliant in Game 5 with 23 points), Udonis Haslem and James Jones comprised an old, expensive and fairly ineffective bench. Joel Anthony, the Heat’s starting center last season, hardly played in the Finals. The idea of upgrading at point guard with Steve Nash as a free agent is tantalizing. Whatever the ceiling on this experiment, the Heat haven’t reached it yet.
And what of James’ ceiling? How high into history will he climb? It’s been a long road to his first championship, but last night, he was finally the player his God-given talent called on him to be. It looked an awful lot like the start of his ascent.