How can this be?
That this one feels better?
Or, rather, the best?
That this Miami Heat championship feels bigger and better than any a South Florida sports team has ever won?
This doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface. The Heat won its first in 2006 with Shaquille O’Neal, as big a star as there was in sports, and Dwyane Wade, who introduced himself to the country and stardom with a Michael Jordanish Finals. The first is usually the best, shiny and new, but that feeling pales compares to this one, and not just because it is off in the distance. That team didn’t endure, losing the very next season in the first round of the playoffs, torched by the Bulls, and the emotional investments in Antoine Walkers and Gary Paytons were very brief. And it wasn’t America’s enemy, either, engulfed in hostility. America didn’t care enough to root with zeal against that team.
But what about last year? Why wouldn’t last year feel better, as the first crown brought home by this group? This is harder to understand. Last year was a validation and a relief after a year of America’s mocking and laughter, the first such validation and relief in two turbulent and noisy years. That ride was scary, too, trailing the Indiana Pacers in the second round, Wade shouting at his coach, everything looking like it was falling apart. And then there was the seismic game LeBron James put up in Boston to save the season and the blueprint, a game unlike any he had this year, the single best game James has ever had in this uniform, and at the most important time. You need the fear to have the most fun — sweeps and blowouts sound nice in theory, but there has to be doubt and noise for the silence after it to feel properly fulfilling — and last year had plenty of fear before the trophy was held.
Better with age
But here’s why this year’s was better: The feeling, the attachment, the investment, the caring they are all growing. This is how it is with all the best relationships, getting better with time and hardship and experiences together. South Florida has never rallied around a sports team the way it has around this group, as a matter of civic pride but also as a reaction to the rest of the country’s disdain, and that bond is emotional and strong and big. Year 1 made Year 2 feel bigger and better, and you needed both years, the pain and the joy, to care the way you did about Year 3.
It is like watching a child grow. Year 1 is cute but there was a lot of crying and feces. Year 2 felt like the terrible twos with a breakthrough at the very end. And now this three-year old is smiling and has a personality, and there’s a relationship that comes with fulfilling rewards. Going to be fun to watch this thing keep growing up, up, up.
The last month was lunacy. Two Game 7s, the blueprint somehow again pushed to the brink. San Antonio was a different animal than those youngsters from Oklahoma City, a bejeweled champion that could somehow shoot 60 percent and make 16 three-pointers against Miami’s piranha defense. San Antonio had never lost back-to-back games in the playoffs this year until the very end. San Antonio, as a franchise, in its history, had never once trailed in a Finals series until the very end. Miami took a champion’s best punch, and withstood it, and it doesn’t hurt, either, that this fight looked lost in Game 6. You’ll appreciate life all the more when you’ve come back from death.
Very little defiance leaked out of LeBron James after winning last year. The closest he came was tweeting out a photo of himself holding up a Slam Magazine cover that read, “Hi Haters.” But he’s already feeling a bit more self-satisfied, as evidenced by that look he had on stage holding both the championship trophy and the one given for Finals MVP, arms spread wide, asking everyone to drink him in. He earned that moment — respect not given but rather taken — and it is really the first like this that we’ve seen from him. This wasn’t the giddy kid jumping up and down on the sideline like last year, delighted and awed and surprised; this was a man who had grown into the size of this moment and expected it, taking what he had earned, knowing it rightly belonged to him. His confidence, like this relationship, is growing. Year 2 was a guy lost in the woods who was happy to survive and be alive; Year 3 was a hunter going into the jungle looking for meat as the top of the food chain.
And he spoke for South Florida with that look as he held both trophies, too. Look at us now. All of you who laughed and mocked and doubted. How you like me now?
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are famously competition-jerks, and we love them for it anyway because it is a sign of desire, their jerkiness rationalized away as “assassin-ness,” a cold-blooded ferocity needed to win. James has never been that. He might be the most unselfish superstar in the history of the game, happier by his own admission when he’s setting a teammate up than when he scores himself. He doesn’t need to be a cutthroat jerk to beat you. But that smug self-satisfaction on stage, holding both those trophies, he looked like a man who can get used to this with greed and gluttony. He talked about humility. He said he was blessed. But he allowed himself one little moment, arms spread wide, trophies in both hands, to tell the America that was rooting against him to go ahead and eat it.
Jordan said his fourth championship was his favorite, not his first, because he had just lost his father and returned from baseball. Bryant said his fourth was his favorite, not his first, because it was the first he had won without needing O’Neal’s help. Given the way James is behaving on social media, sending out videos of himself kissing the trophy like a child returning after being lost, giggling about being a two-time champion, this one is looking his favorite right now. It was won against such a mighty opponent, and looked so close to being lost, and the blueprint felt like it was in the balance again.
Crazy when you think about it, but everything came down to one last quarter, the fourth of Game 7. Miami started it up by a single point. At that moment, Miami was 1-1 in two years since his validated Decision, and that quarter was the tipping point of the tipping point. And now there is joy and relief and the feeling that this is an avalanche that is just getting started with a rumble. James knows how good he is, and that he’s chasing not peers or contemporaries but history and immortals. He knows he is the best, and he held that proof in both hands on that stage, hands full of golden treasures, looking very much like a satisfied King who had just conquered.
That’s another reason this championship feels better than the one that preceded it.
The first one silenced many of the critics for a while.
But the second one silenced all the rest and for good.