Closing in on an elusive championship won’t alter everyone’s perception. I found that out last week through a barrage of e-mails offering reasons why LeBron should still be rooted against, not for.
Okay, he did declare himself royalty before he ever earned a crown. And, yes, LeBron broke up with his employer and his fans in Cleveland through a television set rather than doing the right and proper thing and calling them first.
If he didn’t become the embodiment of the disconnected, look-at-me professional athlete then, he surely helped his cause in a character-killing moment at the end of last season, when he wilted in the fourth quarter against Dallas. Remember the quote:
“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
Basically, LeBron was saying, “You are peasants; I am King James.”
In life, these aren’t criminal acts. In sports, where fans help pay the exorbitant salaries of players through ticket and paraphernalia purchases, these are considered crimes against the game. I get it.
But if you could see the thoughtful, introspective and, yes, regretful LeBron who took the podium between Games 4 and 5 of these NBA Finals late Wednesday afternoon you would see authentic change.
“Last year after Game 6, after losing, once again, I was very frustrated,” LeBron said when asked to describe the pain of his Finals experiences, in 2007 and 2011. “I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature. Like I said, last year I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and why I fell in love with the game. So I was very immature last year after Game 6 towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching.”
He wasn’t done. He needed to unload, tell everyone that guy wasn’t who he ever wanted to be. “One thing that I learned, and someone taught me this, the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience,” LeBron added.
You don’t have to feel differently about him when the moment arrives. But to ignore the transformation in himself and his game is to ignore everything that got him to the precipice of his first title.
The first time I actually bought into this LeBron, that it wasn’t some pre-packaged spin concocted by his closest advisers to make him come off better with his public, was when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols sat down with him last December. He finally rued the decision to be part of “The Decision” — the televised spectacle in 2010 which he announced his move from Cleveland to Miami.
“The fact of having the whole TV special and people getting the opportunity to watch me make a decision on where I’m going to play, I would probably change that,” he said.“Because I can see now if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan and I was very passionate about one player and he decided to leave, you know, I would be upset too by the way that he handled it.”
He continued, “It basically turned me into somebody I wasn’t. You start to hear ‘the villain,’ now you have to be the villain, you know, and I started to buy into it. I started to play the game of basketball at a level, or at a mind state that I’ve never played at before. . . meaning, angry. And that’s mentally. That’s not the way I play the game of basketball.”
Since then, I’ve been watching intently, including on the court, where LeBron has now developed a bit of a post-up game. In Game 4 against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, he scored 16 of his 26 points inside the key, and came back in the game after severe leg cramps late in the fourth quarter.
Whatever misgivings I had about who he had become since I first met him in high school, I began to write them off to normal growing pains. What’s that saying, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” LeBron stopped choosing the wrong option. He grew.
“I’m just happy that I’m able to be in this position today and be back in this stage where I can do the things that I can do to make this team proud, make this organization proud, and we’ll see what happens,” he said Wednesday afternoon, allowing a half smile before he left the podium.
You can still despise him if you want Thursday night when he most likely raises that trophy to the American Airlines Arena rafters; that’s your right. Hear what you want to hear. We’re all good at that to some degree.
But know LeBron James has learned one of the greatest lessons of all en route to his first championship, a lesson some of us never learn: It’s not his job to worry about what other people think about him; it’s his job to worry what he thinks about himself. And nearing the pinnacle of his profession, he likes and respects that guy a lot more than he did a year ago.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.