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
”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
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
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
”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
”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
”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
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
”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
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
”Old Lesson for all,” Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after
Dallas won the championship in Miami. ”There are NO SHORTCUTS.
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,
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
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
”I can’t remember being as nervous with a message,” Mims
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
That’s why James made a slew of changes after the 2011
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
”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
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
”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
No, he doesn’t have any of those yet.
However, at long last, he does have one.
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