LeBron James is in Mount Rushmore company now, earning comparisons to basketballs legends.
Just two years ago the King was mocked as pretender to the throne. He was an overhyped loser. When crunch time came, he was crunched.
Therefore, part of the pleasure and privilege of watching James take command of Game 7 of the NBA Finals was comprehending his transformation as a player but more so as a competitor.
The difference between the James of 2011, who was consumed by self-doubt as much as he was by the Dallas Mavericks, and the James of 2013, who hauled a flawed Miami Heat team to a second consecutive championship, was one of mind over muscle.
The growth of LeBron James has been as riveting to observe as any of his rim-melting dunks, sixth-sense passes or gravity-defying blocks.
As he rode atop a red double-decker bus down Biscayne Boulevard during the Heats victory parade Monday, he wore a T-shirt imprinted with the Nike campaign buzzword Witness. It no longer seemed pompous and stupid. Turns out it was prophetic. Because thats what Miami fans get to do up close witness the maturation of an athlete who was psychoanalyzed like no other.
Some of his predecessors in sports have faced greater scrutiny, pressure and malice. When James spoke of the haters who ridiculed and jeered his decision to leave Cleveland in 2010 and ally with the Big 3 in Miami, it seemed minuscule compared to the hate Jackie Robinson endured because of his decision to break the color line in baseball.
But resentment weighed James down. He miscalculated the acidic backlash, which ate away at his confidence. It took him a long time to admit it, but it was apparent against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, when the Heat lost Game 6 at home. Everyone waited for James to pounce. Instead, he hesitated, deferred, dribbled as if he was circumnavigating an island. It was agonizing.
Flash forward to the celebration inside AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday, when James shimmied his hips and led fans in a singsong chant of I aint got no worries. He looked so happy and weightless.
Flash to Game 7 against San Antonio, which the Heat had to win over the demoralized Spurs lest the Big 3 blueprint be ripped apart as an ostentatious failure. The team goes through each season with the everything-to-lose expectation of championship or bust, which feels like a 60-pound boulder on your back, team president Pat Riley said.
But each time the Spurs thrust, James parried. They tied the score in the third quarter, he responded with a three-pointer. They went ahead by one, James nailed two three-pointers in a row. In the fourth quarter, the Spurs, with their dynasty on the line, cut the gap to four points. James sank a 17-foot jump shot. A minute later, another pullup. In the final 30 seconds, after Tim Duncan missed the hook and tip that he said will haunt him forever, James delivered the coup de grace a 19-footer, followed by a steal and two free throws.
He finished with 37 points and 12 rebounds. Most remarkably, he took the Spurs bait and swam away. He took what the lane-packed defense dared him to take, jump shots in lieu of power drives to the basket. In Game 7, he made five three-pointers and scored all seven of his second-half field goals from outside the paint.