Celebrate LeBron’s change, not his NBA title

LeBron James’ spectacular NBA Finals performance and his freshly minted championship have driven those divided by him even further into reflective positions.

His supporters thump out their chests and exclaim the other side was wrong, wrong, wrong! LeBron never choked, all criticism was just the work of haters, the Chosen One has showed and silenced everyone, all hail the King!

His detractors are equally resolute. They say he’s still a traitor, still a guy unworthy of appreciation or credit, still a man unredeemed. They still jeer and mock him and grind their teeth determined not to give last year’s villain an ounce of credit for this year’s heroics.

Both sides are stupendously wrong.

The uncomfortable fact for a hyper-partisan country that likes its celebrities in easy-to-mark boxes — and to rarely admit when it’s wrong — is that LeBron James is all of these things: He was arrogant last season, he was a villain, and it did catch up to him in a historic choke-job in the NBA Finals that reflected his own huge weakness.

And he has now redeemed himself on the court with a marvelous championship and playoff performance finally worthy of his greatness, one that saw him play in the clutch and earn a place among the all-time greats.

This is the LeBron James Catch-22: Either way, whatever you once believed, you’re probably going to have to admit at some point you were wrong about the guy.

The idea that LeBron didn’t redeem himself this season — or hasn’t grown this season — is as ridiculous as the idea he didn’t need to redeem himself and grow after last season. Both are true, and I doubt very much one could have happened without the other.

Those who squawked LeBron James would not choke should by now have choked on those words. And those who said he would never fix that issue, that he was destined to be a prisoner to his own shortcomings and ego, have been humbled themselves.

After claiming the title, LeBron pointed out the direct connection between the LeBron of last year and the one now standing tall and proud.

“It humbled me,” he said of last season’s failures. “I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted. You know, it happened just one year later.”

For those who spent ample time around him, this was a level of self-awareness worthy of pause. He had changed. He had grown.

Accept that. Accept it if you hate LeBron James and don’t want to cough up the credit. And accept it if, having pretended all of last year his faults were media creations and he did nothing wrong, that you’re seeing the redemption of LeBron James because he needed to redeem himself.

I covered LeBron and the Miami Heat throughout the 2010-11 season, and I was a constant and vocal critic. I called him petulant. I called him a team cancer. I wrote he could not handle the big moment and was not at all surprised when he led his team to a historic June collapse against the Dallas Mavericks.

And yet, Thursday night as the joy flowed in Miami, I couldn’t have been happier for the guy. I’m happy to say I was wrong. I wrote in November that I hoped perhaps last season would reach, humble and change him. That his failures would sharpen him into a player worthy of his God-given abilities.

But I doubted it. I thought he needed a lot longer than a year to harness his massive abilities and master his monstrous ego.

Well, he showed me. And, in turn, he became what I love most about sports: a prism through which to view the best parts of the world and ourselves.

LeBron James has taken the worst parts of himself, and the worst moments they created, and made them into the foundation for his greatest successes. He, unlike so many of his supporters, didn’t pretend everything that happened to him last year was someone else’s fault.

He was a jerk. He played with hate instead of love. He choked, he lashed out, he lost himself. And then in the offseason, if he’s to be believed, he dug deep, was candid with himself, and grew.

I believe it. I saw a different LeBron James this season. I saw a guy no longer afraid – of the moment, and maybe of the person he’d become.

Change. That’s worth cheering for. That’s a look into the real human struggle — in ways big and small, meaningful and trivial, in ways that speak to the horrors of humanity and the beauties of it. Sports are at their best when they reflect the best parts of us.

We fail. We struggle. We let our egos and fears and petulance and emotions steer us wrong. And if we’re lucky, some of us learn from the worst parts of ourselves and grow. We face up to who we were in order to become who we wanted to be.

This is what LeBron just did, the two-year journey he took us on: from greatness to arrogance to loathing to failure to humiliation to self-awareness to a man remade as a champion.

This is great stuff. Stop hating LeBron James for who he was last year, or stop hating his detractors for not pretending that he’s always been this guy. He earned every ounce of criticism last season, and he’s earned every ounce of praise this season. It’s not a fact that fits comfortably into our need to never be presented with information we don’t want to accept, but it is the way it is.

So just enjoy that one of the greatest basketball players of all time turned a season of failure into some of the best basketball we’ve ever seen. It’s great human drama. It’s great basketball. It’s a great story. And it’s time we all enjoyed it.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.