As a boy, LeBron James pretended he won an NBA championship.
By the time he was a teenager, a title was a foregone conclusion.
But for James the pro superstar, an NBA title has been like a tempting piece of fruit, dangling just beyond his reach.
Last season, his first as part of the Big 3 in Miami, winning the trophy became an obligation, a chore, an albatross around his neck.
But this season, James sought and rediscovered his love of the game. Joy makes dreams possible.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, James played with an unburdened heart and soared, leading the Miami Heat to a cathartic 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was his first championship, the second for the Heat.
Finally, in his ninth NBA season, James embraced the golden trophy. Instead of carrying the world on his shoulders he held it in his hands.
He could look at his reflection and see a champion, not a choker – the label his critics had attached to him like a scarlet letter.
Nicknamed King James, at last he had his crown.
As confetti fell and fans danced inside AmericanAirlines Arena, James took off his headband and hopped up and down, waving his arms and smiling like he has not smiled in a long while.
“It’s about damn time,” he said. “Last year I played with a lot of hate instead of a lot of love and passion, and I got back to that this year.”
James, so passive and bewildered in last year’s Finals collapse against Dallas, scored 26 points, snatched 11 rebounds and dished 13 assists in Thursday’s clincher. The player who has been the object of intense derision since he left the Cleveland Cavaliers, was unanimous winner of the Bill Russell Finals MVP award.
“I made a difficult decision to leave Cleveland,” James said. “I’ve been through a lot but this is definitely the way it pays off. The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals. It humbled me a lot. I was going to have to change as a basketball player and a person to get what I wanted.”
The 4-1 series score was deceiving because each of the first four games came down to the closing minutes, a rebound here, a rim-rattler there. But in Game 5, which the Heat called their Game 7, the Heat broke the Thunder. It was clear from the outset that James and the Heat would not bow to pressure. Each time the Thunder surged, the Heat responded, and in the third quarter, the Heat’s seven-point lead fattened to 25 in four-and-a-half minutes.
James and Dwyane Wade departed the game with 3:01 left to a standing ovation from chanting spectators and hugs from their teammates.
James is constantly compared to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, even though they couldn’t be more different in playing style and personality. James sincerely wants to make his teammates better. He’d rather have a triple-double than 50 points. Many of the record-tying number of three-pointers made by the Heat on Thursday (14) were set up by James, who drew the double team defense and zipped passes to his shooters. He’s played and defended every position during the playoffs.
He said the criticism that bothered him most was the perception that he is selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“At the same time I used it as motivation,” he said.
When he wasn’t passing or rebounding, James bulled his way through a thicket of elbows and hands and sank layup after layup. Unstoppable, even with fingers in his face and shoulders in his chest.