In his words, LeBron James first had to hit “rock bottom” before he could become a champion.
Any student of literature will recognize immediately the significance of that journey. If it sounds like a storybook tale, that’s because it is. Written a thousand times over, the hero of an epic novel or poem must first sink into a dark and murky abyss before he can be reborn. Only then can he claim the Holy Grail, or, in this case, the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals,” James said.
James’ personal abyss was the two weeks after the 2011 Finals. He collapsed in failure on the biggest stage. He was humiliated. He retreated from the world and isolated himself in pain. For a fortnight, James didn’t communicate with the outside world. He didn’t shave. He barely had the energy and will to leave his bedroom.
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After his reclusion, James emerged and forced himself to make drastic changes to not only his game but to his personal life as well. James’ transformation as a man and his difficult journey to his first NBA championship made Thursday night’s celebration that much sweeter.
“It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom, basically, to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person,” he said.
‘BACK TO BASICS’
James started his redemptive journey by first surrounding himself with his family. He moved his fiancée and two sons to Miami, which stabilized his home and created a safe haven for himself away from the basketball court.
Next, James focused on retooling his game. He visited Hakeem Olajuwon, the Hall of Fame center for the Houston Rockets, who offered sage advice about life as well as a few lessons on playing in the post.
In 2011, James wanted to win for all the wrong reasons. He realized that in the offseason and he adjusted his perspective.
“All last year I tried to prove people wrong,” James said. “At the end of the day, I was basically fighting against myself.”
Instead of trying to be what his critics wanted him to be – the villain of the NBA – James returned to what he knew, and that was being a great teammate and the game’s most versatile and unselfish superstar. For the Heat in 2012, that meant James needed to attack the basket like he had never done before.
After the NBA’s lockout, James reported to the Heat’s training camp in incredible shape, prepared physically to withstand the abuse of a condensed 66-game schedule, and he took the league by storm. James’ ultimate goal after the Heat’s crushing defeat in the 2011 Finals was to “get back to basics.” His rededication to the fundamentals of the game was obvious from the first game of the season.
On Christmas Day in Dallas, James slashed and pounded his way to the basket for 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting. At the All-Star break, James was shooting 54.7 percent from the field, a career-high clip, with the lion’s share of his shots, 38 percent, being attempted within five feet of the basket. His masterful season earned him his third MVP Award.
“He really took being the best player in the league to another level,” teammate Dwyane Wade said. “And he did it all season, man.”
AN INSIDE JOB
James focused his game inside at an even greater rate in the final seven games of the playoffs. Beginning with his historic 45-point effort in Game 6 against the Celtics, James scored at least 16 points in the paint in every game for the rest of the postseason. It was the longest such streak for James in his career.
Of course, scoring is only a small part of James’ game. In the playoffs, he averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. James joined Charles Barkley (1993) and Larry Bird (1987) as the only players to have at least 600 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists in a postseason in the past 28 years.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a basketball player since I picked up a basketball when I was 9 years old,” James said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Like every hero’s journey, James’ began with failure and ended in greatness.