All around criticism and credit, what youll find is fame, Riley said as Thursday became Friday. Gotta watch out for that. He was offering warnings even amid champagne spraying and locker-room embraces because Riley has always cautioned that the problems between egos and stars, whether it be Shaquille ONeal and Kobe Bryant or Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, come after the winning, not before. Gotta watch for that, he repeated, but Miami has an advantage there, too, because the champion atop the organization will be the guiding hand watching for that. Everyone wants credit, validation, glory, and it can be a fight, but Wade and James have an uncommon friendship. With rare self-awareness for an athlete athletes tend to be terrible self-evaluators; they have to be; the delusion serves them in a way that weakness doesnt (see Mario Chalmers, most confident player on the team) Wade realized during this season that he had to help, not lead. That didnt get figured out in the first year of this project. Failure had to be the light.
In 2006, when Wade was winning a title being what James is now, Riley kept calling plays for Wade, but Wade would improvise, doing whatever the hell he wanted. Eventually, Riley called time out, stopped calling plays and, instead of reprimanding Wade with the need for ego and control, the leader-coach asked him, How can I help you? Tell me how I can help you. Thats what dawned on Wade this year with one of his best friends in the world. How can I help? Tell me how I can help.
Wade was asked as he ran off the court after Game 5, giddy, whether he was happier for himself or for James. Both, he screamed. Equally. Im so happy for him. But Im happy as hell for me, too. It has been such a long road.
James talked in tranquil tones through this postseason run, and it was illuminating. Very calmly, as question after question was lobbed, he kept saying that he would be OK with the result, no matter what it was, as long as he was giving maximum effort. Would losing be a failure? No, he said. A disappointment, yes. But not a failure. Only giving less than his best would be a failure, and that wasnt one of the options, which is how it came to be that he had to be carried off the court with cramps. What he was saying was reasonable, if not popular, and it is what confidence sounds like, tranquil and firm, a comfort in knowing that your best is not only good enough but better than anyone elses. James seemed to get comfortable with that idea, and give voice to it, long before the rest of us did, which suggests that he knew what was brewing inside him before he uncaged it for all to see. It was a breathtaking pleasure to watch, that growth, one of the most masterful runs weve ever seen from an athlete, any era, any sport.
And now would be a good time to remind America that James just won his first title at the same age Michael Jordan did, after the same kinds of sufferings. Jordan, too, heard the character-smearing allegations, believe it or not, that he couldnt win the big one, and he, too, had to fail and fall before he was strong. You can make a good argument that James is a better rebounder, passer and defender than Jordan was a better all-around player, in other words and not have it be blasphemy. What you saw in that final game, when James told his teammates in a pregame huddle that Oklahoma City had no earthly idea what the Heat was about to unleash, was James making Mike Miller and Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole into his Paxson and Kerr. What James just did, this season, this postseason, compares favorably to even the best year on Jordans résumé.
Miller laughed about it afterward, smile stuck on his face. With three fouls in the first half, and Cole at the scorers table to replace him, Miller waved off both Cole and Erik Spoelstra and told them that he would be staying in the game because he was feeling it and because James was finding him. Finally, for only the second time in a Heat uniform, the other being a meaningless regular-season game against Toronto when Wade was out and Miller scored 32 points, the old, broken veteran was comfortable. Truth be told, when he signed here for less money, he thought a lot of nights would feel like Game 5 did, a plethora of open shots given to him by the unselfish James and Wade. Alas, he was too hurt to capitalize until the very end, after Battier and Chalmers already had. But now all these partying pieces move ahead together, bonded, fortified, all of them having replaced the belief that they might do it with the knowledge that they did.
Quite the leap, this one, from being called mentally soft to being championship hard. Basketball America, so very quiet now, must brace itself for what is happening in Miami now. This storm makes its way down Biscayne Boulevard at 11 a.m. Monday, this entire area shaking and quaking around what is gathering, and the rest of the country shuffles inside and grabs the storm shutters, preparing for what is gathering off in the distance but can be seen approaching clearly on the horizon.