MIAMI — From the time he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 years ago, LeBron James has been the most celebrated and scrutinized athlete of the Internet age, with his every glorious step and agonizing misstep overanalyzed and overhyped.
He has gone from the phenom from Akron, Ohio, who could do no wrong; to the superstar destined for greatness; to the villain whose narcissism and arrogance led him to shun sullen Cleveland for sunny Miami.
While his incredible gifts resulted in his winning three MVP awards, James struggled to fulfill the championship promise. But this season was about James redefining his image and his destiny, about blocking out the noise and becoming more centered — about becoming a champion.
Surrounded by a sea of white shirts, flanked by the teammates that he tarnished his reputation to join with one controversial decision, his moment finally came in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at American Airlines Arena. History is often kind to winners, and with the Miami Heat’s resounding 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, James has assumed his place among the all-time greats.
“It was a journey for myself,” said James, who became the 10th player — and first since San Antonio’s Tim Duncan in 2003 — to win regular season and Finals MVP. “All the ups and downs, everything that came along with it, I had to basically figure it out on my own. I’m happy now nine years later since I’ve been drafted that I can finally say that I’m a champion, and I did it the right way. I didn’t shortcut anything. I put a lot of hard work and dedication in it, and hard work pays off. It’s a great moment for myself.”
Closing out his end-to-end dominance of this lockout-shortened season, James had a triple-double (26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds) and claimed the title that seemed inevitable when he entered the league in an unblemished white suit on the night of the 2003 NBA draft. With 3 minutes 1 second remaining, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra pulled James from the game and he hugged his teammates as fans chanted, “MVP! MVP!”
James didn’t need to have another dominant performance or fight through agonizing cramps because he had Chris Bosh overcoming his abdominal strain to dunk and snarl, Dwyane Wade playing through soreness in his knee to make impossible layups and blocked shots and the bandaged and padded-up Mike Miller overcoming a litany of ailments to make seven three-pointers.
A coronation nine years in the making was complete for James.
“I’m proud of him,” Wade, the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, said of his close friend, James. “He really took being the best player in the league to another level, and he did it all season long, man. Thanks to him, we’re able to celebrate once again.”
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the young Thunder had to look on as James danced and preened on the floor where the Dallas Mavericks crushed Miami’s championship dreams a year ago. After the game, James and Durant shared an embrace at midcourt, with James shouting encouraging words in Durant’s right ear. Durant later cried as he embraced his parents, Wanda and Wayne Pratt, on his way to the locker room.
“It hurts, man. We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we didn’t want to just make it there. Unfortunately, we lost,” Durant said. “I didn’t think it would get that emotional. It was a tough, tough game, tough series.”
Durant tried as much as he could to keep the Thunder’s season alive, as he scored a game-high 32 points and even made a few difficult jumpers over James. Durant didn’t want to take for granted that his young team — with four core players all under age 24 — would make many more return trips. But Oklahoma City didn’t approach the game, or the series, with the necessary urgency and lost four games in row for the first time in three years.
“We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling,” Westbrook said after finishing with 19 points on 4-for-20 shooting. “We kind of looked around and just — we’ve got to get better.”
James treated the Thunder like crash-test dummies all night, relentlessly attacking the basket and bullying his way inside with brute force. He jumped into his opponents’ chests to turn athletic, twisting layups into three-point plays, imposing his will and watching them wilt.
The Heat had been buried many times through this run — down 2-1 in the second round against Indiana; down 3-2 in the conference finals against Boston — but James always responded with a legendary performance. The Thunder won Game 1, but never tasted victory again as Miami became the first team in NBA history win a championship after trailing in three series.
“We have a brotherhood now that you don’t necessarily have unless you’ve been through the fire together,” Spoelstra said. “And two years of it made us all the more closer, and it makes this moment that much more gratifying.”
James left Cleveland because he knew that he couldn’t win a championship without support. He joined forces with all-stars Bosh and Wade and the trio celebrated its union with an elaborate and bombastic introduction. But James underestimated the difficulty of promising multiple titles without knowing all that it took to finish the task. This season, his lack of self-awareness was replaced with more reflection. He removed his pre-game theatrics and played the entire postseason with unmatched determination.
“It took me to go all the way to bottom, basically, to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person,” James said. “I trusted my instincts. I trusted my habits that I built over the years, and I just got back to being myself, and I didn’t care too much about what anyone said about me. . . . All last year, I tried to prove people wrong, prove you guys wrong, and it wasn’t me. At the end of the day, I was basically fighting against myself.”
Miami made seven three-pointers in the first half and built an early 17-point lead, but Durant kept the Thunder in the game until the Heat answered with a crushing onslaught. Durant drove into the lane and made a short runner to bring the Thunder within 69-62 with 7:27 left in the third quarter, then got locked up with Mario Chalmers as he called timeout. Durant approached Chalmers and the two exchanged words before referee Derrick Stafford step in to diffuse the situation.
The Heat then put the game away with an incredible 19-1 run that got the party started early in the arena and allowed James to ease his way into a ring. He smiled and bounced with glee. Promise fulfilled.
“This right here is the happiest day of my life,” James said. “This is a dream come true.”