LeBron gets his championship, at long last

LeBron James looked at the crowd, knowing he had just a few

moments left on the court for the season.

He waved his arms to them. They roared back. Moments later, he

was atop the stage at center court, wearing a champions’ hat and

T-shirt, and waving a champions’ towel.

He smiled. He danced.

For the first time in nine years, he enjoyed the ultimate

relief. Maligned for so long, by so many, it brought him to this

moment. On Thursday night – with a triple-double, no less, 26

points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds – LeBron James got his NBA

title.

”You can’t win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, speaking

about James, ”unless you win.”

That’s no longer an issue.

The man who was called heartless, callous, narcissistic,

cowardly and selfish – and that was just in one scorned, angry

letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for

the Cleveland Cavaliers – will forever be called something

else.

He’s a champion.

”When he gets involved in something, business, basketball, he

puts everything he has into it,” longtime associate Maverick

Carter said. ”And this year, during the playoffs, he took it up

another notch. He dedicated himself even more. I don’t think he’s

any more dedicated than he was last year, but he found ways this

year to channel it better, to limit his distractions and it raised

his focus.”

It raised the city of Miami, and raised the Heat back to the

mountaintop as well.

And next fall, James will be there when they raise a second

championship banner.

”He’s one of a kind,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. ”One

of a kind.”

Vilified for both exercising his right to leave Cleveland and

for the manner in which he announced the move, James came to Miami

for this very thing. It took two years – one more than many people

expected. The change of address didn’t come with a change in

stature. He remains one of the world’s most polarizing and

best-paid athletes, with his annual income recently estimated by

Forbes to be $53 million.

But apparently, when it comes to James, enormous money and fame

is not enough to satisfy everyone. A guy who is already a lock for

the Hall of Fame – and might only be halfway or so through his

career – needed a championship as validation.

Fairly or unfairly, that was the deal. And that title is now

his.

”Perceptions better change, OK?” Heat forward Mike Miller said

before Game 5. ”You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a

world champion. There’s a very, very, very, very, very short list

of those. A very short list. The way I’ve seen him improve in just

the two years I’ve been around him, I’ve seen the maturation the

whole time, and it’s a scary thought because it’s not going to

stop. It’s a freight train right now.”

James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the

first of his six championships.

Which raises one question that might just scare a few people

around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going

to accomplish?

Maybe.

”I see LeBron James,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. ”I see the

best and most dominant player in the game.”

Most talked-about as well.

He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not

long after last season’s finals ended, one where he answered by

saying ”I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and

continue to do the things I want to do.” That criticism was

deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his

hairline.

With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing.

”He’s been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and

that makes you stronger,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. ”Just the

fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his

strength of mind, his will to win, I think that’s just really

important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in

the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have

some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on.”

There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love

him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left

Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the

phrase ”take my talents.” He might be more criticized than any

athlete in American pro sports today, and that’s even without some

huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume.

It took time for the Heat to get used to that element of the

James world.

”It’s different than anything I’ve been around, there’s no

question about that,” said Spoelstra, who, it bears noting, has

spent the vast majority of his adult life around another

lightning-rod personality in Pat Riley. ”It’s unfortunate that

somebody who has the qualities that he has would be critiqued as

negatively as he’s been because he embodies so many of the things

that you would want from a professional athlete.

”He’s never been in trouble,” Spoelstra added. ”He’s a team

guy. He’s a pass-first guy. He’s a scorer, he’s a defender, a

two-way player, he’s a great teammate. He’s honored all of his

contracts and he has a dream that he’s been trying to chase but

he’s been doing it within a team concept.”

The mouthpiece he wore throughout these playoffs said ”XVI” –

the Roman numerals for 16, how many postseason wins it takes to win

an NBA championship. The towels that the Heat handed out Thursday

night said the same thing, both a reminder of the goal and a

tribute to what James flashed every time he opened his mouth on the

court in these past four series.

XVI wins later, the mission is complete.

”It’s a dream that he’s had since I’ve known him, to be in the

NBA and be a champion,” his longtime friend Randy Mims said.

James’ successes are celebrated. His failures might be more

celebrated.

When the Heat lost last year’s finals to the Dallas Mavericks,

all the blame went James’ way, and with good reason. He averaged

three points in fourth quarters of those six games. The most common

complaint, one that James acknowledges is true, is that he didn’t

make enough plays in the biggest moments. He managed only eight

points in the loss that turned the series around and spun it in the

Mavericks’ favor.

”Old Lesson for all,” Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after

Dallas won the championship in Miami. ”There are NO SHORTCUTS.

NONE.”

Gilbert didn’t mention James by name in the tweet – or in his

letter that came out shortly after The Decision. He didn’t have to,

either.

The Heat are understandably biased when it comes to perceptions

about James. Some of Miami’s competitors are as well.

”He does the right thing,” Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers

said. ”When he makes the right pass and the guy misses the shot,

he’s criticized. When he forces a shot in a double team, he’s

criticized. It’s the way it is for him, for whatever reason. He’s

competitive as heck. He’s one of the most powerful players to ever

play the game. And maybe it isn’t enough. I don’t know.”

Rivers said he thinks only one athlete might be able to relate

to what James has to deal with – Tiger Woods.

”Tiger over the last two or three years,” Rivers said. ”Other

than that, no one. No athlete that I can ever remember being under

the scrutiny – definitely in basketball. I’ve never seen anyone

under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under.”

So in these playoffs, instead of trying to defeat the scrutiny

or use it as fuel, James tried to ignore it as much as he

could.

He turned his phones off. Literally, off. And they stayed off.

When the NBA tried to send word that he won the MVP award, James

wasn’t reachable. The message eventually got to Mims, who delivered

the news.

”I can’t remember being as nervous with a message,” Mims

said.

No phone calls. No tweeting. He didn’t watch much television.

Instead of reading articles about himself or the playoffs, he was

reading books, something that became part of his pregame ritual. He

would sit at his locker, usually with headphones on, pregame snack

of a meal-replacement bar next to him, and flip through a few

pages. (”It slows my mind down,” James said.)

”He’s just focused, you know, just like the rest of this

team,” Wade said. ”He has a goal, and he wants to reach that

goal, and he doesn’t want nothing to stand in his way, and he

doesn’t want himself to stand in his way. He wants to make sure

once you leave the game or you leave the series, you can say, I

gave it my all. I don’t know if we all could have said that last

season.”

They couldn’t.

That’s why James made a slew of changes after the 2011

finals.

He worked out harder. He said he was getting rid of the anger

that he played with last season, something he did in an effort to

prove people wrong. This year, he said he played with joy again –

and figured out that the best way to win wasn’t to prove detractors

wrong, but to pro”

”He’s made some changes, obviously, to his game and more

importantly, to his approach, how he views it and how he prepares

for a game,” Heat forward Juwan Howard said. ”I commend him for

some of the decisions that he made, looking at himself in the

mirror and saying `I want to make some changes.’ A lot of players

won’t do that. Obviously, it shows he’s very bright and that he’s

humble. He wants to get better.”

But first, he had to address not being happy.

His family – then-girlfriend, now-fiancee Savannah Brinson, and

the couple’s two sons – spent long stretches of last season in

Ohio. James confided to those in his close circle last year that at

times he felt isolated. When Brinson and their kids moved to Miami

full-time, things changed in a hurry. James asked Brinson to marry

him. The nuptials are next summer.

Why then? Well, this summer will be a little busy, for starters.

There’s the Olympics. Another close friend’s wedding. Some

off-court business responsibilities. Training camp will be here

soon enough. Oh, and first, a parade to celebrate the world

champions.

”Life is the best experience you can get,” Mims said. ”That’s

what’s basically happened with him that whole year, from leaving

Cleveland to coming here to being here basically alone for that

year. And then you see things change. His family came here. He got

engaged. He learned more about the team, became more of a

leader.”

James’ free-agent courtship officially lasted about a week, The

Decision went on for an hour, and the words that changed so many

aspects of James’ life that night took only four seconds to say

that night.

”I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami

Heat,” James said, that unforgettable phrase.

He’ll forever be linked to what he said in that infamous welcome

party-turned-rock concert – which despite countless insistence to

the contrary was arranged not for him, but for Wade and with the

goal of topping how the organization celebrated Shaquille O’Neal’s

arrival in 2004. And the most-replayed moment from that night was

when James started peeling off how many championships he would hope

to win in Miami.

”Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven,”

James said that night, as Wade and Bosh nodded in the seats next to

him.

No, he doesn’t have any of those yet.

However, at long last, he does have one.

Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at

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