Dwyane Wade sat for questions first at the Heat’s annual media-day sessions Friday, the fruits of respect and seniority, and near the end a disembodied voice instructed reporters, “Last question.”
It was LeBron James kidding from beyond a closed door as he waited nearby to go on next. The two teammates and friends gave each other a brotherly shove as they passed, and then the best basketball player on the planet sat down and spoke into a microphone the only words I heard all day that sounded like a flat-out lie.
“As far as legacy,” James said, to a question, “I don’t think of that at this point.”
All who know him know better, of course. James’ knowledge and appreciation of NBA history and his place in it is what pushes and drives him now that that elusive first championship is out of the way.
The fascination in this coming Heat season is the sense that, for this team and for James, the greatness has only just begun. The sense that last season’s first championship of Miami’s Big 3 era has merely whet the collective appetite and not nearly satisfied it.
Coach Erik Spoelstra got into a silly little semantic debate with himself Friday, saying, “I’m not going to use the word ‘repeat.’ ” Instead, he said he preferred, simply, “We have a chance to win another title.”
Um, OK. I won’t use the word “repeat,” either. I’ll the use the word three-peat. I’ll use the word dynasty. I’ll convey out loud the hunger — the good greediness — that Spoelstra, James and everybody else with this club feel but are not free to convey.
‘GREAT SENSE OF LEGACY’
Champions are supposed to be humble, after all, at least outwardly. But this team knows what is at hand. The implications are there. The opportunity is here. One championship is nice, but one-and-done does not earn history’s attention. The Heat has a chance to create something special and knows it.
“LeBron has a great sense of legacy — his and his team’s,” Spoelstra said. “This team was built for something bigger than one championship. He understands the opportunity this organization has.”
In sports, the only thing bigger than championships are dynasties, legacies, history.
Out west, the Los Angeles Lakers have wrested the most attention this offseason by adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pao Gasol.
Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant, losers to Miami in the Finals this past summer, remain a huge obstacle. And in the East nobody is discounting venerable Boston.
And yet there is a reason Miami is a 2-1 betting favorite to (sorry, Erik) repeat.
It is that the champions improved.
It is that the best got better.
The thought struck James on Friday as he looked around the team’s crowded dressing room.
He saw all of the players who helped him realize his dream.
Then he saw Ray Allen, the future Hall of Famer, the best three-point shooter of all time. And then he saw 6-10 power forward Rashard Lewis, the other major addition.
He saw Chris Bosh, healthy again. He saw Wade, getting there. He saw a deep roster that doesn’t stop with seven or eight rotation players but will find at least 10 quality players all fighting for minutes.
“It was scary to look in our locker room today and say we can be better than we were last season — a lot better,” James said Friday. “That’s scary.”
It all starts with James himself, in his prime and still ascending, coming off a season in which he was NBA MVP, and then Finals MVP, and then an Olympic gold medalist. (“A pretty good year for myself,” he had to admit.)
James, a national villain after the way he left Cleveland, heard America cheering for him in London, but make no mistake. James and the Heat still will be cast as NBA black-hats. Champions usually are.
“We’ve always had the ‘X’ on our backs; it’s just bigger now,” as Bosh put it. Even before becoming champs, “We felt like we were the hunted anyway.”
Wade remains the face of the franchise in an emeritus way, as an honorarium, but in every other way the rock-star Heat are James’ team now.
For the first time, there is no use even pretending otherwise.
James is the best player, period. Even he had to admit Friday, “I’ve thought that for a long time. That’s just the confidence I play with.”
And there is no reason to think James is done improving, if only because for the first time since high school he enters a season mentally unshackled. “Free,” as Heat mastermind Pat Riley puts it.
The lack of a championship ring — his critics’ and haters’ last vestige of ridicule — is off the table now, out of play.
‘MONKEY OFF HIS BACK’
“He got that monkey off his back,” as Wade said, of James. “He can play a little easier now. But he’ll still be expected to do amazing things.”
Step back and appreciate what the Heat is giving us, South Florida.
How casually we talk of multiple championships and even put in play the D (dynasty) word. And how justified that talk seems.
By contrast, the Dolphins last won a playoff game in 2000.
The Marlins have done little since ’03. The Panthers last won a playoff series in 1996. On the college side, Hurricanes football fans keep waiting and waiting for a return to national prominence.
With the Heat, winning is not a goal but a starting point.
The playoffs are assured and a run deep into them assumed. It isn’t whether the team will win, but how much. Reaching the Finals again isn’t so much hoped-for as expected.
As for Miamians predicting another championship? Those fans are not rose-colored homers. Those fans are closer to logic-backed realists.
The NBA regular season begins in one month.
Everybody else will be chasing the Heat.
The Heat will be chasing something even bigger.