LeBron looks ready to be a champion
MIAMI – Forget for a moment the painful grimace on the face of LeBron James. When he was carried off the court late Tuesday by teammate Juwan Howard and trainer Jay Sabol, isn't that how an enduring moment from a defining career turn, rich with symbolism, is supposed to look?
It appeared that way Wednesday, the day after, when the buildup to Game 5 revolved less around the minutiae of matchups and the shortcomings of Oklahoma City than it did the inevitable crowning of King James.
Surprisingly, the one who was most comfortable welcoming the possibility was James, who after walling himself off for much of his career – including these playoffs – rolled out a red carpet into his inner thoughts when he met with reporters after practice.
It was hard to recall James being so introspective – and so human – in a group setting. But there he was, acknowledging that the pressure had gotten to him last year, all but apologizing for his "immature" behavior, and revealing himself as a player who needed to improve his mind as much as his game.
"I've learned some things in my long but short career," James said, a turn of the phrase that so aptly describes a career where a rich plot line has been well developed, yet is far from finished.
If James has been defined thus far mainly by his shortcomings, it is worth noting that at age 27, he is on the verge of owning more NBA titles, more league MVP awards and more Finals MVP awards than Michael Jordan, the gold standard of competitive greatness, at the same age.
True, James had a three-year head start on Jordan, but at this point in their careers, they were being dogged by a similar, singular question: Could they win?
While James is a keen student of basketball history, he does not see himself chasing Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. Rather, he identifies most with Magic Johnson, another product of the Rust Belt with an uncommon skill set for his size whose first order was making his teammates better.
The difference, of course, was their championship pedigree – and, not unrelated, Johnson's good fortune to be drafted by a team that already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and would soon add another Hall of Famer, James Worthy.
It is hard to say whether James' apparent transcendence is simply a matter of being surrounded by better players. Who could argue that Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are not a major upgrade from Anderson Varajao and Mo Williams?
But doing so would diminish the idea that James has become a better player for these experiences because he has been willing to learn from them rather than be defined by them. After seizing up in last year's Finals, he realized he needed to learn to play with his back to the basket and he needed to keep from feeling overwhelmed.
So James traveled to Houston last summer to work with Hakeem Olajuwon, whose post moves and footwork were the foundation of a Hall of Fame career. They worked together for a week and have spoken three times during the playoffs. James has also begun to read, from the Hunger Games trilogy to Jerry West's autobiography, during the playoffs.
"It just gives me another outlet," James said of his reading ritual. "Throughout the playoffs, all you think about is basketball, all you want to do is play basketball. But at the same time, it can come to a point where it's overloading to the mind and you think about it too much."
It is hard to know that James is so self-aware since most people identify him for the way he walked away from Cleveland – with "The Decision" debacle and the "not one, not two, not three" proclamation.
It was the sort of audacious entrance once made by a coach of the Lakers, who stood before a parade crowd and guaranteed they'd be back the next year. When the Lakers were, he said they would be going for a Three-peat, a phrase he later trademarked.
Pat Riley was asked Tuesday what he would have said to that young coach now.
"Well, in between credit and criticism is fame and what happens with fame comes position and power," said Riley, now Miami's team president. "And if you try to get too much position [and] too much power, then you say stupid things like I said in 1988."
Shane Battier, who has both marveled and shuddered at the attention that swirls around James, has played with him for just one season. But he senses a maturing.
"I'm sure we can all think back to our young days and think of things we wish we would have said better or done differently," Battier said. "But hey, LeBron's , kids are getting older."
Battier was then asked if players care more or less about what is being said of them as they get older, as their career begins to be more defined.
"Less," Battier said with a smile. "And I'm living proof – unequivocally less."
Though he opened up, James said he should not have any problem keeping his focus on closing out Oklahoma City on Thursday. He will stick to his routine, carrying on with newfound determination, confidence and a good book. His family, friends and business associates know better than to bother him with plans for a parade or after party.
"They wouldn't dare get in the way at this point," James said.
Neither, it seems, will the Thunder.