LeBron James is in Mount Rushmore company now, earning comparisons to basketball’s legends.
Just two years ago the King was mocked as pretender to the throne. He was an overhyped loser. When crunch time came, he was crunched.
Therefore, part of the pleasure and privilege of watching James take command of Game 7 of the NBA Finals was comprehending his transformation — as a player but more so as a competitor.
The difference between the James of 2011, who was consumed by self-doubt as much as he was by the Dallas Mavericks, and the James of 2013, who hauled a flawed Miami Heat team to a second consecutive championship, was one of mind over muscle.
The growth of LeBron James has been as riveting to observe as any of his rim-melting dunks, sixth-sense passes or gravity-defying blocks.
As he rode atop a red double-decker bus down Biscayne Boulevard during the Heat’s victory parade Monday, he wore a T-shirt imprinted with the Nike campaign buzzword “Witness.” It no longer seemed pompous and stupid. Turns out it was prophetic. Because that’s what Miami fans get to do up close — witness the maturation of an athlete who was psychoanalyzed like no other.
Some of his predecessors in sports have faced greater scrutiny, pressure and malice. When James spoke of “the haters” who ridiculed and jeered his decision to leave Cleveland in 2010 and ally with the Big 3 in Miami, it seemed minuscule compared to the hate Jackie Robinson endured because of his decision to break the color line in baseball.
But resentment weighed James down. He miscalculated the acidic backlash, which ate away at his confidence. It took him a long time to admit it, but it was apparent against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, when the Heat lost Game 6 at home. Everyone waited for James to pounce. Instead, he hesitated, deferred, dribbled as if he was circumnavigating an island. It was agonizing.
Flash forward to the celebration inside AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday, when James shimmied his hips and led fans in a singsong chant of “I ain’t got no worries.” He looked so happy and weightless.
Flash to Game 7 against San Antonio, which the Heat had to win over the demoralized Spurs lest the Big 3 blueprint be ripped apart as an ostentatious failure. The team goes through each season with the everything-to-lose expectation of championship or bust, which feels “like a 60-pound boulder on your back,” team president Pat Riley said.
But each time the Spurs thrust, James parried. They tied the score in the third quarter, he responded with a three-pointer. They went ahead by one, James nailed two three-pointers in a row. In the fourth quarter, the Spurs, with their dynasty on the line, cut the gap to four points. James sank a 17-foot jump shot. A minute later, another pullup. In the final 30 seconds, after Tim Duncan missed the hook and tip that he said will haunt him forever, James delivered the coup de grace — a 19-footer, followed by a steal and two free throws.
He finished with 37 points and 12 rebounds. Most remarkably, he took the Spurs’ bait and swam away. He took what the lane-packed defense dared him to take, jump shots in lieu of power drives to the basket. In Game 7, he made five three-pointers and scored all seven of his second-half field goals from outside the paint.
“He made enough shots to make us change our defense over and over again,” Duncan said. “We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
James studied Games 1 and 2, when he was limited to an average of 17.5 points. Had this been 2011, he would have second-guessed himself, overreacted to the “what’s wrong with LeBron?” criticism and made things worse. But in 2013, he calmly re-calibrated. He went to his mid- and long-range jumper, not exactly supple but reliable after an assiduous summer of refinement. He trusted himself.
Likewise in Game 6 when James’ turnovers down the stretch nearly cost the Heat everything before Ray Allen rescued the season and the grand plan and the Big3 and maybe Erik Spoelstra’s job with his three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. James never panicked — not even when his headband came off. In overtime his defensive fury overwhelmed the Spurs. In Games 6 and 7, he averaged 34.5 points.
Yes, there was luck, James acknowledged.
“There was a miracle in Game 6,” Riley said of the Heat’s rally from five points down in the last 28 seconds. “That’s the bullet we dodged. I was a little bit desperate.”
But, of course, the Heat also made its own luck by obtaining Allen and holding onto Shane Battier. Signing Chris “Birdman” Andersen, a gamble given his August knee surgery. Staying healthy despite a marathon season that began in China, or, for James, in London. Wade got injured but not devastatingly so, like Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook or Kobe Bryant. And there was the luck James built, extra shooting practice by extra shooting practice.
One by one, the Heat players struggled through 14 games against Indiana and San Antonio. Battier got stuck in a 2-for-15 slump. Mario Chalmers did his disappearing act. Wade played erratically on his bruised right knee. Chris Bosh had massive matchup problems against Roy Hibbert and Duncan. The weaknesses of the Big 3 and “positionless basketball” were often exploited. But James rose to the challenge — slowly, inexorably.
He publicly promised to play better, and he did. He pledged to lead, and he did. The younger LeBron, so eager to please and scared to disappoint, would have been frazzled to pieces by the Spurs’ guile and grit, and by the rush to bury Miami’s Big 3 and all they represented as wrong with modern-day disloyalty.
James, 28, validated his decision with the repeat. He flipped all the negativity on its head. One title would not have been good enough. But back-to-back was special; Miami became only the sixth franchise in NBA history to win consecutive championships.
When James accepted the Finals MVP Trophy from Bill Russell, he joined Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to win back-to-back season MVP and Finals MVP honors.
“I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city,” he said as confetti rained down. “I’m not even supposed to be here. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6, ‘James’ on the back, I’m blessed. What everybody says about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”
In that moment, the villain was gone — if he was ever really there in the first place. Plenty of people still despise James, but they despise the notion more than the man. He freed himself from the anger when he apologized for the way he left Cleveland.
Do you ever hear him complain (except to officials)? Do you ever hear him displace blame on others, such as Spoelstra or underperforming teammates? Do you ever hear of a rift in Heat camaraderie? Do you ever hear of misbehavior or typical superstar rudeness? Do you know how magnanimous a personality it takes to bring Miami’s diverse populace together, extinguish our notorious hostility and gladly lift the city on his shoulders?
Time to celebrate
In the aftermath of Game 7, James squirted champagne in the locker room (one guy was smart enough to put on ski goggles) and strode the arena corridors with a cigar clamped between his teeth. He earned that joy, not merely via 6-8, 260 pounds worth of freakish talent but through dogged dedication to improve his game even though he has been told since age 12 that he is the No. 1 player on the planet.
This is a guy who unabashedly loves his mother and in postgame comments spoke excitedly about his upcoming wedding to his longtime girlfriend. He said that to “come through for my teammates makes me more satisfied than anything in the world.”
Success makes it easier to see how James was misunderstood. Success makes it easier for James to see his true self.
“I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game,” he said after Miami’s victory. “I will continue to work for that, and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night.”
During the sun-soaked celebration Monday, as players waved to spectators — or, in Birdman’s case, flapped — and held the gold trophy aloft, James wore a tropical-colored hat with a sparkly gold Nike crown logo stuck on the front. It looked like it was cut from the sort of plastic toy you would buy for a costume party. He was downplaying the whole king thing, having fun with it. His reign should be enjoyed. Finally for King James, easy lies the head that wears the crown.