Humbled LeBron grows into champion

The obvious answer, the one he couldn’t immediately think of in the ecstasy of his first title, is, of course, he had wanted to share this moment with his hometown fans, the ones defiantly proud of the Mistake by The Lake, the ones most hurt by his defection to South Beach.

But what LeBron James has learned in the two years since The Decision is that even a King doesn’t get everything he wants, even a King must suffer before realizing his dream, even a King must prepare a Plan B and C.

“I mean, right here I’m sitting here as a member of the Miami Heat,” James responded when asked his thoughts on what he would say to the Cleveland fans who dreamed of sharing his championship moment. “The hard work and dedication that we put in these last two years to get to this point. I mean, it was unbelievable. I wanted to become a champion someday. I didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but I put in a lot of hard work. For me, I’m happy. I’m very excited. I’m very happy right now to be a champion. Nobody can take that away from me.”

You can parse his words, pick them apart, accuse him of a lack of sensitivity. Or you can recognize that in the celebratory, one-interview-to-the-next hour he’d had since throttling the Oklahoma City Thunder in the deciding game of these NBA Finals, he’d had no time to ponder Cleveland and the fans he’d left behind.

Perhaps it was an unfair question, an inquiry that only a seasoned and programmed politician could answer in this moment.

“I wanted to win one in Cleveland, too. Unfortunately, we didn’t do it. I did it here with this group of guys and this group of fans. It’s a wonderful feeling. With Kyrie Irving and their young group of players, maybe Cleveland will get here. Cavs fans deserve this feeling.”

A politician would’ve instinctively known to say that.

What we — those of us who have come to marvel at and respect his journey — have realized about the NBA’s most complete player is that there is very little scripted or programmed about LeBron James. He is human — flawed, vulnerable, inquisitive, reflective, adaptable and unafraid of change.

Yeah, he chased this moment in a Cavaliers uniform for seven years. For a variety of reasons, including his own immaturity in his last playoff season with the Cavs, it didn’t happen. He announced his Plan B inappropriately and compounded his error by subsequently embracing the hatred that poured down on him and lost his joy, the attribute that had sustained him through a difficult childhood, the characteristic that prevented him from becoming another inner-city statistic.

So Thursday night, in the moments after the Heat wrapped up Game 5, a 121-106 shellacking of a broken OKC squad, James fell into a prolonged bout of unbridled joy, a childlike state of elation we haven’t seen on this stage since a 20-year-old Magic Johnson unleashed the NBA’s signature smile.

Who knew LeBron James had a smile the equal of Magic’s?

“About damn time!” James told ESPN’s Stuart Scott from the victory podium.

Yep. It’s about damn time for all of us, including Cleveland, to move on, to find another villain, to discover the life lesson that freed LeBron James.

Wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter summarized the lesson best in the movie “Hurricane.”

“Hate put me in prison. Love’s going to bust me out.”

As sports fans, some of you are allowing your dislike of James to interfere with your appreciation of his wondrous skill. Not since Magic Johnson (and Larry Bird) have we seen one player elevate the play of all of his teammates to this level. That is LeBron’s gift. That is why we need to quit comparing him to Michael Jordan. Michael elevated Michael. Same as Kobe Bryant.

LeBron James elevated Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and even Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. With his decision to play in the post and drive the lane, James created the open looks that Battier and Miller drained. With his consistent effort on the defensive end, James set the tone for Miami to establish itself as a great defensive team. James was the guy who made it a point to lift Wade out of his funks by repeatedly getting him point-blank looks.

James’ critics can keep demanding that he hit a last-second shot to “close out” a playoff series. If James plays his game, the right game, there will rarely be a need for lucky, late-game heroics to win a championship. He just mentally and physically destroyed a very good Thunder team 4-1 in a best-of-seven series without needing to get lucky.

I’m hoping this is LeBron’s legacy. I’m hoping he can refocus our appreciation of what great basketball is and broaden our understanding of “clutch” play.

I’ve always been a Magic Johnson guy. I’ve always believed he and Larry played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I’ve always believed their basketball values reflected what is best about America. I’ve always believed in using your God-given talents to uplift mankind. I’ve never fully embraced the Michael Jordan-ization of America and the NBA. Self-indulgent greed isn’t good.

“People would say I was selfish, and that got to me,” James said of his critics. “That got to me a lot because I know that this is a team game. I know the coaches that I had when I was younger always preached about team…. All last year I tried to prove people wrong, prove you guys wrong, and it wasn’t me. At the end of the day, I was basically fighting against myself.

“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played…. It humbled me.”

LeBron’s critics have now been humbled. We’ll see if they move on as quickly and maturely as James.