MIAMI — Other NBA superstars have had notable championship droughts. It took Jerry West 12 seasons and seven Finals losses before he broke through. Michael Jordan had seven heavily scrutinized years before he won a title.
But no NBA player ever has had more pressure on him to deliver than LeBron James. It isn’t just because it took nine long years for James to finally hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. It’s because of the era in which we live.
Anything James says or does is immediately up on Twitter. Everybody has a camera phone. James couldn’t even get ready in the locker room before Thursday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals without two dozen journalists (or, shall we say, alleged journalists) videotaping his every move.
Article continues below ...
Of course, the past two years have been the toughest on James. In the summer of 2010, he made the controversial announcement that he was bolting his home state Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. And at least in Cleveland in 2007 he had been able to suffer an NBA Finals loss before anybody had heard of Twitter.
“Nobody in the world can understand what he’s went though the past two years,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said after the Heat finally had delivered James his first title with a 121-106 win Thursday over Oklahoma City, which clinched the Finals 4-1.
But the world learned something else Thursday about James. Yes, he said, “It’s about damn time” right after the game. Yet, when he was in a more reflective mood later, speaking in the bowels of the AmericanAirlines Arena, James wondered if maybe his long wait had been a blessing in disguise.
James had looked at last year’s 4-2 loss to Dallas in the NBA Finals as the lowest moment of his life. He holed himself in his house for two weeks afterward, brooding. But a year later, he looks at it differently.
“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played,” said James, who struggled against the Mavericks while routinely disappearing in fourth quarters. “It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me.
“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.”
Nobody knows whether winning the Finals would still have led to James having his best-ever season in 2011-12. He averaged a brilliant 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists in winning his third career MVP. He was even better in the playoffs, averaging 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists.
He saved plenty for when it counted the most. James on Thursday had his first triple-double of the season, totaling 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, and was a unanimous choice for the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award.
“To see him get first championship, I’m so happy for him,” said guard Dwyane Wade, the guy who got free agents James and Bosh to join him on the Heat before last season. “He really took being the best player in the league to another level.”
When it was all over, James gave a bear hug to his coach, Erik Spoelstra. When he was handed the Finals MVP, with 11-time champion Russell looking on, James held it high in the air along with a No. 1 sign.
“Happiest day of my life,” James said.
So, instead of having a miserable two weeks after these Finals, James figures to have a heck of a fortnight. But, knowing the world in which we now live, maybe he shouldn’t count on the honeymoon lasting too long.
“We live in an instant-gratification world where we can’t really appreciate the process,” said ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jalen Rose. “We only can appreciate the result. We’re Monday morning quarterbacks. We’re, ‘Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire,’ a microwave generation, the generation that appreciations people who are famous for being famous.
“We’re going to appreciate (James’ title) for right now. But then all of a sudden in two weeks people are going to say it was a lockout-shortened season, and he doesn’t have as many (rings) as Michael and Kobe (Bryant) and (Shaquille O’Neal) and (Tim) Duncan.”
Well, Duncan might have four rings, but he’s not too big on social media. So James might escape comparisons to him.
One only can wonder what it would have been like in this era for West, whose Lakers finally won a title in 1972 after he had entered the NBA in 1960. Or Jordan, whose Bulls finally broke through in his seventh season of 1990-91.
“It was a journey for myself,” James said. “I don’t want to compare it to any other player, but it was definitely a journey. Everything that went along with me being a high school prodigy, when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise… No one had went through that journey, so I had to learn on my own. All the ups and downs, everything that came along with it… I can finally say that I’m a champion, and I did it the right way. I didn’t shortcut anything.”
Well, the fans of Cleveland might disagree with that, considering James flew the coop after having led the Cavaliers to the NBA’s best regular-season record his last two seasons there. At least James after the game had the good sense to all but ignore a question about what he might say now to Cleveland fans.
James can’t change the past but he’s trying his best to be a different kind of person. He didn’t go into any I-told-you-so talk after the game.
James is well aware of the era in which he lives. Yes, he’s on top now, but that can be fleeting.
Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to last year’s Finals win over the Heat. But, to some, he was a bum during a mediocre season in which Dallas was swept out of the first round by the Thunder.
So James knows it soon will be time to get back to work in order to stay on top of the heap. Last summer, he enlisted the help of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to help him with post moves.
Olajuwon knows a bit about titles, having won two. He also knows about waiting, having not gotten his first until his 10th season of 1993-94.
“I think waiting that long makes it much sweeter for him,” Olajuwon said in a phone interview after James had wrapped up his first ring. “It puts more value on it.”
No doubt it was tough for James having to wait so long in this instant-gratification era. But now at least James will be able to really enjoy his championship, even if it might be for just two weeks.