Holding the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time, Michael Jordan wept uncontrollably, head pressed against its golden splendor as he blocked out the champagne celebration around him and the consoling, congratulatory hand of his father.
Abandoning bravado and bluster, Shaquille O’Neal was in a subdued stupor, moving around in a daze, as tears trickled down from his cheeks after his first taste of championship glory.
LeBron James was overcome with unbridled joy last June as the trophy landed in his hands for the first time. Eyes widened, agape, James had the look of a father greeting his first-born child in the delivery room.
The genuine reactions of the greats who had to endure long waits before the weight of expectations were finally lifted have been captured on commemorative DVDs and YouTube videos. But the responses by those players in subsequent years are how legendary careers are defined.
“Do I feel different? I’m a champion. I feel like that,” James said recently. “But I still have goals. I accomplished one of my goals. It’s the biggest goal I had. Now I’ve got to set out for more.”
After hearing for years that a scorer could never lead his team to a title, Jordan won his first ring at age 28, won the next two years, retired, came back and won another three. Before claiming his first ring at age 28, O’Neal heard repeatedly that he wasn’t dedicated enough to his craft to ever win but followed up by winning the next two years and adding one more title before his career was over.
Now that he has risen to the top at age 27, discovered and embraced his own strength, James no longer has to answer the question, “When will he?” Though people will now wonder, “How many?”
James is one of eight players in NBA history to win at least three most valuable player awards. Moses Malone is the only member of that elite fraternity to retire with just one championship. Wilt Chamberlain won two, and the other five finished their careers with at least three.
“I know the history of the game and I know what’s been accomplished in this league throughout the years, but I’m my own man and I have to make my own mark,” James said during his media day news conference. “As far as legacy, I don’t think about that at this point. I still have a lot of basketball to play.”
With James finally unburdened, the NBA could be bracing for another era of dominance, in which a generational talent has cleared a major hurdle and gone from an empty well to a deluge.
“I would love for it to be that way,” Dwyane Wade said with a huge smile in the locker room after an exhibition loss to Washington in Kansas City, Mo. “But we’ll see. This is a very competitive league. You’ve got other teams that’s very hungry.”
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are eager to complete their annual ascension after losing in the Finals to James and the Heat in five games.
The Los Angeles Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol as they close in on catching Boston for the most titles by any franchise — and Bryant continues his pursuit of Jordan’s six titles. Boston, which lost Ray Allen to the Heat, reloaded with more talent and depth after losing the Eastern Conference finals to Miami in seven games.
But for the first time, James has to fend off all challengers to his throne.
James caught flak for declaring that he wanted to win “not one, not two, not three. . . ” titles in Miami, but the comment expressed how much he wants to maximize his star-studded but controversial union with Wade and Chris Bosh. And as he starts over and prepares for his first title defense, James said, “You're like, ‘Wow, I want that feeling again.’ ”
Entering his 10th season, James has been a hero, played long enough to see himself become a villain, and managed to restore and redefine himself again.
He led an inferior Cleveland Cavaliers team to the 2007 NBA Finals and after San Antonio’s sweep, Tim Duncan famously told James that the league would be his one day. But over the next few years of fabulous regular season performances and fantastic postseason failings, James opened himself up for increased scrutiny about his mental fortitude.
The joy fled James when he fled Cleveland for Miami, and his desire to be defiant left him defeated during a perplexing meltdown in 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.
“Two years ago, I don’t think we enjoyed the game,” Wade said. “It was probably the worst for many guys in here.”
The lockout-shortened season provided an awakening for James because it allowed him to get centered and quiet himself. An injured Wade missed a significant amount of time and James no longer had to defer to his good friend who already had a ring. Reading literature in the locker room allowed him to stay focused and clear his mind of doubt and doubters on Twitter and TV.
“It’s not like he wants to be a 10 and he’s only a two now. He’s already pretty close to 10,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said with chuckle. “He’s in that category with Magic, and Bird, and Michael, those guys that understand the game. They know what it takes. . . . Him tuning other people out and just playing the game — like he did in the playoffs last year — that’s where I see his improvement.”
Miami overcame series deficits against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City and James was at the center of each critical turnaround, culminating in his performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, when James put the Heat on his hobbled legs and led it to victory, then closed out the series with a one-man wrecking crew triple-double.
James provided more evidence that he had fully entered a different threshold in London, where he was the best player and unquestioned leader of the U.S. Olympic team. He led them back to a win over Lithuania, making a three-pointer and dunk to restore order, and finished his summer as the only player not named Jordan to win MVP, Finals MVP, an NBA championship and a gold medal in the same year.
“Pretty good year for myself,” James said. “I don’t know if that year can be duplicated again.”
His teammates and Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra all note that James hasn’t changed his approach since winning it all, with Wade joking that he remains as loud and silly as ever.
“Before we were able to finally climb that mountain, that LeBron had already proven so many qualities of a champion,” Spoelstra said. “The leadership, the consistency, the work ethic. All of those things. But no one else really saw that until we won it. He hasn’t really changed. He’s still consistent. The external pressures, I’m sure, are not there.”
But there is more of an inner peace that comes out when he’s on the floor, a willingness to embrace Miami’s new position-less experiment and take more risks. In the first quarter against the Wizards, James dribbled a basketball back to front between his legs to freeze and shake both Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker and create a path to the hoop. Fans at Sprint Center erupted with laughter and cheers.
“I always try to have fun when I’m playing the game of basketball,” James said. “I love what I do.”
And as he enters his prime, James is hardly finished. “I’m not satisfied with my career and what I’ve done so far,” he said. “I’m going to continue to get better.”