MIAMI – After “The Decision,” the derision and the embarrassment of his performance on the nation’s stage last June, LeBron James took a long, hard gaze in the mirror last summer.
What he saw looked inadequate and so he vowed to become better, as a person and as a player, and then set about making changes in his life, both fundamental and subtle.
But when it came time to seize the title he has been chasing for what he has described as his “short but long career,” no reinvention or reshaping was necessary.
LeBron James was simply himself.
He passed, he rebounded, he defended, he scored and he led his teammates in every sense of the word, all with a bounce in his step and a joie de vivre in his game that clearly rubbed off on his teammates.
And so, at the end of the night Thursday, after an overwhelming 121-106 victory over Oklahoma City, he could not wipe a smile off his face.
As James stood on the sidelines in the final minutes, an entire arena roaring behind him, the focused, business-like look that he had worn throughout the playoffs melted away, and with it a burden.
Soon, James was laughing, dancing, embracing teammates and coaches, and waving his arms.
This is what it felt like to be a champion.
“It’s everything and more,” James said as he sat atop an interview platform, flanked by a pair of trophies, one for the NBA championship and the other for the Finals MVP. “I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. You know, my dream has become a reality now and it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Ever since he walked away from Cleveland, famously taking his talents – and a supposedly faint heart – to South Beach, James’ quest for a title had been the defining, and most polarizing, story line in the NBA the past two seasons.
When James, flanked by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a flashy introduction ceremony, audaciously declared the Heat would win “not one, not two, not three . . .” titles, the Heat, far from being adored, instantly became abhorred.
It cast James into an uncomfortable role as villain.
“I told you guys over and over and over, I was playing to prove people wrong last year,” James said. “People would say I was selfish and that got to me. That got to me a lot because I know that this is a team game. All last year I tried to prove people wrong, prove you guys wrong it wasn’t me. At the end of the day, I was basically fighting against myself.”
A day earlier, an unusually reflective James described his behavior during last year’s Finals, when he said his critics would have to wake up the next day and have the same lives they had before they woke up, as immature.
After winning his first title, James said his experience in losing to Dallas a year ago was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“It humbled me,” James said. “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.”
James was not the only member of the Big Three to count this as a seminal moment. Bosh acknowledged that he had been haunted by the memory of last year’s Finals, when he sank to his knees in a hallway and burst into tears, a scene that was captured by cameras.
“It was just erasing all those memories, getting that bad taste out of my mouth,” Bosh said. “I live with that every time I walk down that hall. But I think it was good for me in the long run, because I could watch every single day and what we had to go through and what I had to go through. So any time that I was thinking about just taking a play off or taking some time off or not working that day, doing the easy thing, I thought about that moment.”
For Wade, whom Bosh and James had joined as free agents, the title carried a different meaning. He had already won a title in 2006, but at age 30 now, he had suffered through a 15-win season, injuries and turmoil in his private life with a bitter divorce and fierce custody battle for his two sons.
His ex-wife was arrested Sunday when she would not relinquish their two boys to visit Wade on Father’s Day. On Thursday night, Wade bestowed a pregame hug on them.
“That 15-win season, professionally, hurt – laughingstock of the league,” Wade said. “But what I dealt with personally was indescribable in a sense. I’m blessed, I’m lucky to be put in the position I am. I’m going to enjoy this one a lot more than I enjoyed 2006.”
Yet for all the talk about what the Heat had learned from last season, their title run did not always feel like a fait accompli. Bosh missed three weeks of the playoffs with an abdominal injury, and the Heat trailed both Indiana and Boston in their previous series, and dropped the opener to Oklahoma City.
If James’ spectacular performance at Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, with the Heat staving off elimination, seemed to be a transformative moment, then Thursday night’s clincher carried an air of inevitability over the previous 48 hours – from the moment the Heat won Game 4, with James suffering from cramps that allowed him to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer but not to finish the game.
How could it not be when Mike Miller, who had not made a 3-pointer in the series, came off the bench to make 7 of 8, scoring 23 points to reprise the role of unexpected scorer that Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers had filled earlier?
The Heat burst away midway through the third quarter, tearing apart the Thunder’s indifferent defense with a searing 19-1 run that stretched their lead to 90-65. Even Derek Fisher’s flagrant foul of James could not stop him, or the Heat.
When James went to the bench for the last time, it was with 26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds and much more.
He has studied all the great players, knowing that it took others, like Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas and Dirk Nowitzki many years – and many failures – to win a title. But they were not on the cover of Sports Illustrated when they were in high school, or the face of a franchise when they were teenagers.
“Everything that came with it, I had to deal with and I had to learn through it,” James said. “No one had [gone] through that journey so I had to learn on my own. All the ups and downs, everything that came along with it, I had to basically figure it out on my own.”
As he stood up to leave, James places his palm on top of the gleaming golden basketball atop the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“Hey man, I’m an NBA champion,” he said, admiring the trophy and also the reflection.