The most polarizing man in sports continued to defy the odds, left the world in silence and finally mastered a lifelong dream that nobody can ever take from him. LeBron James, a man bothered by his failures and criticized for choosing to leave Cleveland on national TV during an infamous announcement, is believed to be the most hated athlete in America.
There's not a more despised player than James in basketball, and while he was on a mission to erase a bitter ending and shrug off an onrush of criticism, he finally validated a place in history and silenced his critics once and for all. So now, America should circumvent bitterness toward a newly crowned winner. It takes some kind of courage and spunk to leave a native town for a change of scenery to contend for a championship with a bottomless team built to climb into primary contention. That's assuming why he took his talents to South Beach two summers ago, and realized Miami was a perfect destination to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and embark on a journey for his elusive championship ring.
James, a man crowned King of basketball royalty Thursday, walked over to the sideline and exchanged hugs with his teammates. As time dwindled down in the final seconds, he released all of his emotions, elated and overjoyed, jumping up and down with his teammates on the sideline. With a sense of happiness, at last, he lifted and widely threw his arms with a sweeping motion, the kind of unbridled emotion that kids expose after championship victories. The Heat had clobbered the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106, and won the NBA title 4 games to 1 to generate a party in South Beach.
His tale was a sense of vindication and validation, capturing triumph eight years later, after deserting Cleveland and reaching new heights in his polished career. It's a claim to all-time greatness, for a man who has lived with doubt and aversion, engulfed by enemies more than loyalists. But now, since he's a champion and has fulfilled his promise in a forgiven country, we can set aside the hate and disdain and embrace him. The scene, as confetti fell from the rafters, was refreshing on the championship stage at center court, where James stood proudly and cradled his NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy. He smiled and wore an NBA championship cap, soaking in a moment of satisfaction with Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who he hugged at the team's postgame and trophy celebration. At first glance, James was so euphoric and raised his first Larry O'Brien trophy, as Miami fans wearing a sea of white stood in awe and cheered loudly.
“It means everything,” James said proudly. “When I left Cleveland I understood what my future was about. This is a dream come true for me. Went through a lot the last two years but this is definitely the way that it pays off.”
This victory represents a step toward supremacy, and with such growth in leadership qualities and experience, James can very well be the centerpiece to a dynasty. He needed only one title to cement his greatness, and exemplified it throughout the postseason by barreling his way to the rim, by unselfishly involving his teammates and by taking charge in the fourth quarter, proving to the world that he's indeed clutch, after all. This is the real reason he won his first championship ring.
"It’s about damn time,” James said during the presentation. “It’s about damn time.”
This ought to be enough for him to mitigate scrutiny and criticism, perpetuating 30-point and fourth-quarter performances on a nightly basis, where he stunned detractors each game it seemed. The long overdue triumph is now a gratifying NBA story, one we will look back on for years and realize how much we really appreciate players of greatness. The enduring LeBron drama draws attention, and he is the star of basketball, whether you like it or not.
This was for the doubters who ridiculed, said he wouldn't ever win a championship ring and called him a traitor after leaving loyal fans in Cleveland. This was for the critics who've said he tainted his legacy by sacrificing his ego and fame to win a title with two superstars. This was definitely for Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the man who guaranteed that his lackluster Cavs would win a title before the three-time MVP. And now, after months of failures, James had ambition to show he can produce in the NBA Finals. There's no one other than James who has mastered this game with grace and class, determined to avenge an abysmal 2011 NBA Finals performance against the Dallas Mavericks. James was lost in all the commotion and negative publicity, trying his hardest to rediscover his identity. But he had to taste the agony of defeat in his first season with the Heat by having a poor Finals display.
He's trying to repair an image and forget about the struggles in the past during which it gave his critics a chance to unethically express resentment and scorn a global megastar. That's when bashers, from all over the world, turned on him and lost respect for him. That's when cynics, from all over the world, mocked and scoffed him and ignored the otherworldly talent he brought to the game. James is a gifted basketball player who has sharpened and improved his newfound game to become an undisputed leader in Miami.
"The best thing that happened to me was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played," James said. "It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career. ... 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."
The disparity of this full-grown assassin, as far as we know, is his humility and leadership -- which we never saw much a year ago. No one ever anticipated growth and no one ever envisioned him reaching this point. Believing in himself all along, he legitimized his case as a great NBA stud. He had it in mind, that he would mature, embrace his role as a leader and remove distractions to focus on the prize. Aware of what was at stake, he was playing with a sense of responsibility, focus and zeal.
It's typical, just as it always was, to be petrified of the nucleus and talent future Hall of Famer Pat Riley assembled in South Beach. The notion of a dynasty is realistic and the Heat can win multiple titles with these pieces. When the three came together in the summer of 2010, James promised a dynasty and, so far, the Heat are on pace to win seven championships?
"Two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade said. "But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. As much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and suffering."
But he knows he wasn't alone and, without a sturdy supporting cast, he probably wouldn't have been partying inside the Heat's locker room. There is no way he worked alone to gain success. If he were generous, he'd take Mike Miller to celebrity parties or invite him to be a guest on late night TV appearances. And perhaps more than that, Miller was the real MVP and shot it from long-range to contribute off the bench, unfit and hobbling with an ailing back. And still, he netted seven three-point shots as Miami had an NBA Finals-record 14 threes. For James, he registered a triple-double, averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. His teammates, Wade and Bosh, were feeling it as well. By the end, Bosh had 24 and Wade finished with 20.
It was a well-balanced performance from the three Kings.
However, the man of them all was James. From battling through severe leg cramps to dealing with the pressure of having to win, James proved worthy after all over his nine seasons spent in the league.
"It was definitely a journey," James said. "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 the franchise -- everything that came with it -- I had to deal with [it] and I had to learn through it. ... I'm happy now that eight years later, nine years after I was drafted, that I can finally say that I'm a champion. And I did it the right way. I didn't shortcut anything."
And, sure enough, James can sit back and relish the moment.