The LeBron James Haters Association would like to announce it is disbanding. There will be a going-out-of-business sale on old cardboard signs that no longer are usable, the ones that read “LeChoke!” and reference fourth-quarter failures. One stubborn outpost of the group remains, but that Cleveland chapter has seen such a sharp drop in members and enthusiasm that it no longer can afford rent for meeting space and will be merging with the Flat Earth Society.
The extreme makeover is almost complete. Two victories away.
For LeBron and the Miami Heat, two summers ago and the national animus it caused are fading by degrees, replaced not just by a success that is vindicating the whole idea of the Big 3, but by a work ethic and businesslike humility that are making life a lot harder for the straggling, stubborn haters who remain.
Forget what first made “LeBron” and “Miami” expletives to basketball fans – The Decision by James, the arena celebration that followed, the presumptiveness in the dynasty talk. It is time to let those things go and move on, isn’t it? And anyone who is able to wipe that slate clean and judge by only what they are seeing now might arrive at a rather startling conclusion:
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This Heat team has earned your admiration. This is more than an easy team to appreciate; it has become an easy team to like. And all of that starts with James, who has evolved and seen his reputation follow.
In the summer of 2010 he was the blindly unaware, towering ego who put himself in the middle of a national free-agency circus, callously walking out on his hometown team – or so his reputation formed.
In the summer of 2011 James, still vilified for the above, failed for the first time with a basketball in his hands, inexplicably and mysteriously withering late in games as Miami lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals. The villain was a choker now, too – or so his reputation hardened.
Now, in the summer of 2012, James has been a combination of two things that might seem at odds but are not: The very best there is, and sacrificing humbly in a way that is disarming even his noisiest critics.
What Heat fans have known since around midseason is an epiphany this week to many in the national media – that this is LeBron’s team now, handed to him by Dwyane Wade’s own acknowledgement. We have seen it in this postseason, and in the Finals Miami leads 2-1 over Oklahoma City entering Game 4 here Tuesday night.
We even saw it Sunday night, with who had the ball in the telling final moments.
Yet, invited Monday to elaborate on it being “his” team now, he deferred, began with “I’m not the only leader on this team.” Talked about his teammates.
James called experience “the best teacher that you have in life.” He meant the motivation that came from losing last year’s Finals and how this Miami squad is better prepared to win. But he might also have meant his own lessons learned.
The team is his now and his 31-point playoff scoring average is carrying it, yet James is sacrificing even as his offensive role grows. He refashioned his game in the injury-absence of Chris Bosh, willingly doing more of the grunt and grind work, taking on more of the bruises.
“I had to change my mindset,” James said Monday. “I had to rebound more, attack more, get in the paint more to make up the difference. It’s kind of stayed that way since [Bosh’s return].”
The America watching with an open mind is seeing a superstar willing to get hands dirty, putting team first, playing every position, guarding every position (coach Erik Spoelstra calls James “One Through Five”), playing relentless defense, expertly drawing opposing stars into foul trouble while staying out of it himself, and resting hardly a minute. And then afterward saying only, “I was just trying to make plays for my teammates.”
The America watching with an open mind is seeing sacrifice in the rest of the Big 3, too. Wade swallowing ego and handing the ceremonial baton to LeBron when he didn’t have to. Bosh playing four games in a reserve role before starting and never clamoring publicly or privately about that or about his third-option status.
Oklahoma City was the betting favorite entering these Finals but the Heat will never be perceived as anybody’s underdogs, let alone lovable underdogs. There is some of that characteristic, though, in a team that usually is smaller than opponents but consistently out-rebounds them. In a team top-heavy with stars but embracing toughness and defense as its trademark.
This Heat team is absolutely driven, focused on not repeating what happened in last year’s Finals.
The word “paint” has come to identity Miami’s game. Led by James, the Heat scored 46 paint points Sunday and drew 35 free-throw attempts. Drop the ‘t’ though and you have the word that better defines Miami’s motivation.
Pain. The defeat, and the delighted mocking that followed.
Bosh: “Every day we remind ourselves, we think of that pain we experienced last year. We carry that pain with us.”
James: “It’s absolutely true. We understand that it’s been a great teacher for us, just the experience. We don’t take things for granted.”
Wade: “No question. You can’t always say, ‘We have next year,’ because you never know what can happen. This year we’re a more experienced team. It’s not saying we want it more. We just understand situations, we can deal with it better. Experience is not overrated at all.”
The difference starts with James. For the Heat, everything does right now.
“He’s just a totally different player,” said Wade.
The player who dumbfounded with his disappearance in last year’s Finals does not exist anymore.
He has been replaced by a player who seems to be driving to his first NBA championship as unstoppably as he drives to the basket.
Something else changed. It’s a gradual process, but it has begun as unmistakably as one of his driving slam-dunks ends.
On the only stage where he could, the LeBron James who was this country’s most hated athlete is winning America back.