All of the vilification and vitriol heaped upon this basketball team and its most prominent star for two years didn’t so much disappear as simply cease to matter Thursday night. In its place: Validation. Vindication. And victory – the ultimate one, the only kind that would suffice.
Miami Heat, NBA champions.
LeBron James, a King with his crown, his nickname fitting him at last.
The Heat fulfilled its promise, both the promise of its potential and the promise it made, with Thursday’s 121-106 elimination of the Oklahoma City Thunder that won the league championship by 4 games 1. It marked the second title in the franchise’s 24 years, and the first won by Miami on its own home floor.
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Streamers fell from the rafters. Cheering rose up into them.
And James stood wearing a NBA championship cap. At last.
“It means everything,” James said as those streamers fell all around him. “When I left Cleveland I understood what my future was about. This is a dream come true for me. Went through a lot the last two years but this is definitely the way that it pays off.”
There was the implied promise of a dynasty when this Big 3 era began in the summer of 2010, and every dynasty must begin with a championship.
Last year amounted to a reign delay.
Thursday the reign started thanks to a rain of 3-points shots by Miami, an NBA Finals-record 14 long-range baskets by the Heat including seven, off the bench, gimpy back and all, by hobbled Mike Miller.
All those 3’s were the anomaly, though.
The game and championship were won mostly because LeBron continued what surely will be – SHOULD be – a Finals MVP performance, just one year after James’ poor Finals showing brought mocking laughter from those delighting in his failure.
Thursday James rose up with a triple-double: 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. Appropriately all of the Big 3 rose up, Chris Bosh with 24 points and Dwyane Wade with 20.
James and Wade left the game with 3:01 to play to revel in a standing ovation, one richly earned.
On this night there would be no mistaking the sound and feel around midnight – what this result and this Heat team would create, for better or worse. No in-between.
Inside the downtown bayside arena Miami fans would be cheering a championship with sonic noise and elated relief, or be stunned to silence, the dream delayed or perhaps even cast in doubt.
Outside the arena there would be a flash-mob street party of honking horns in a jubilant cacophony, or there would be an eerie, numbed stillness instead, Heat fans’ minds set reeling, stomachs turned queasy.
And all you heard was noise.
Sweet, joyous noise.
The kind that hurts ears and warms hearts.
Enough noise, it seemed, to be heard from coast to coast, by all of the critics and doubters and haters who’d been on this team for two years nonstop.
Everything aligned Thursday night. Dovetailed. Everything was justified.
Architect Pat Riley’s grand plan in assembling his Big 3, enjoining LeBron and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade in an audacious, bodacious masterstroke that caused wailing and gnashing from coast to coast.
LeBron’s decision that caused close to outrage everywhere but here, leaving him relentlessly criticized, even hated.
James announced in “The Decision” on July 8, 2010 he was “taking my talents to South Beach,” and two years later less two weeks – 715 days later, but who’s counting – the implication of that decision was fulfilled. Or began to be, at least.
Dynasty? Maybe. Now we can say maybe.
James is a three-time league MVP, including this season, but it was never enough. It never would be without that elusive first championship he’d spent nine seasons chasing. This was his third Finals, and the first reaching a championship game. It was his time to silence his critics.
James had admitted it would be human nature if he’d imagined ahead of time what this moment might be like – this moment for which he’d fought so hard and waited so long – but he resisted. “Not until the zeroes hit [the scoreboard clock],” he’d said before Thursday’s game, “and I see that we won.”
Miami had swarmed to a 92-67 lead late in the third quarter and it STILL wasn’t enough for James.
Cocky Mario Chalmers was celebrating then, waving his arms at the crowd.
LeBron, stone-faced, all business, told him to stop that. Not yet.
When finally the zeroes hit and the Heat won near midnight in a swooning arena sonic with jubilation, everything lifted from the shoulders of the most scrutinized, criticized athlete in America – now its newest champion.
Savor this feeling, South Florida, this civic celebration and this feeling that is carrying you on a cloud today, because it is truly one of life’s rare delights.
Our four major professional teams – Dolphins, Heat, Marlins and Panthers – have played a combined 108 season and this was only our sixth championship: By the Dolphins in 1972 and ’73, the Marlins in 1997 and 2003, and the Heat in 2006 and now 2012. And this was only the second of those six titles won here, before the home fans, the only other one on Oct. 26, 1997 when the Marlins won a World Series Game 7 at home.
This blessed season, truncated by labor discord, had begun on Christmas Day with the Heat playing in Dallas, watching Mavericks players exalt as their championship banner was raised – the one they had taken from Miami in the Finals last June.
You’d say wounds were torn open that day, except those wounds and that pain had never scabbed over. Never healed. They still were raw.
They stayed that way until Thursday night.
Maybe it had to hurt that bad to feel this good.