Two championships later LeBrons popularity has skyrocketed, and the Heat is cheered or at least respected wherever they go. The team went from being Drama Kings to NBA Kings, and the gold standard against which other teams measure themselves.
Thats why Chicagos Derrick Rose, asked the other day about the Indiana Pacers, called the Heat our only true rival.
The Heat, once hated largely because of LeBron and The Decision, now is hated in a way that isnt really hatred. Its more the envy directed at all teams that are either great or famous or both.
The Heat is a national team the way the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers once were, but still wearing enough of a black hat in general perception that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently likened the Heat to the heydays of the Oakland Raiders.
Polarizing: You either love the Heat, or love nothing better than to beat them.
With two titles theyre still the bad guy, Cuban suggested. Theres a confidence bordering on arrogance thats good for them as a team and good for us as a league because it also makes them the team that everybody wants to knock off.
Having the biggest star, a two-time defending MVP, assures Miami that healthy arrogance, but there also is an underlying sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and fun. This is a family, and it plays like one in every sense, whether it is with cohesion on the floor or frivolity off it. (That Harlem Shake video last year was a hoot).
Now, as if to assure that things dont get dull, the two-time champions biggest offseason additions were Greg Oden, of the history of knee surgeries, and Michael Beasley, of the history of enjoying marijuana way too much. Only if Miami had signed Lamar Odom, and gotten his wife Khloe Kardashian in the bargain, could the drama meter have spiked any higher.
Meantime doubting the Heat continues as a national pastime.
You read or hear that the Bulls or Pacers are ready to seize control in the East, or that it is Oklahoma Citys time in the Finals.
You read or hear that the Heat will be complacent, or got too old, or might be distracted by the attention on the summer of 14.
Sports Illustrated in its NBA preview issue picks the Thunder to beat Miami for the championship, with the writer referring to the Heat as enervated a $5 word that means weakened. (All teams should be as enervated as the one following LeBron James onto the floor).
Again, though, whether Miami collects its three-peat or falls short, and whether the Big 3 era remains intact or does not those things are for down the road.
For now, no matter what, its been a wonderful ride, Heat.