The narrative of LeBron James’ story wasn’t supposed to come to what ensued on June 21st 2012.
It didn’t fit in with the dynamic of James’ career and the labels that have become attached to him like leeches, sucking the life out of him and creating blemishes that would tarnish his image. The taste of victory and the scent of success was a musk that LeBron pined for heavily, but could never come close to applying it and revel in the sweet smell of championship glory.
We became too used to that narrative. Year-after-year, we encounter the same LeBron James headline: “Close, but not close enough.” James was continually pushing his Cleveland Cavaliers to deep postseason runs, yet the run always stopped at a time where we began to think to ourselves, “Maybe it is his time.”
By constantly wronging himself and those that followed his career, doubters began to hound his lifework. After seeing James fail season-after-season, it just became a common thought to think that there was a significant flaw in his game that crippled his performance when the games mattered most. As a result, the labels came around and hurt James worse than diving head-first into a pool of cacti.
Selfish. Uncoachable. Unloyal. Greedy. Immature. Cocky. Quitter. Choker. That last one had to hurt the most. It didn’t matter to anyone that James was leading the Cleveland Cavaliers deep into the postseason because it always stalled. The blame was never put on Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison or Zydrunas Ilgauskas; always LeBron. In a sport that’s preached as a team game, that idea was thrown out the window when it came to James.
It’s tough to criticize James, yet we still found ways around it despite the facts and statistics being right in front of our eyes. James had average as much as 35 points per game, during the Cavs 2009 postseason run, but it ended after only 14 games after a Conference Finals loss to the Orlando Magic in six games.
Was it James’ fault that Dwight Howard had absolutely Ilgauskas and every other center on the roster? Not at all. But since he’s the focal point of the team and the most recognizable name, he received a majority of the flack despite averaging 37 points per game in the series.
Things really took a turn for the worse next year following the conclusion of the Cavaliers series against the Boston Celtics. Cleveland lost 4-2 in the Semifinals the year before James was up to opt to become a free agent. As a result of that pending free agency, it was believed by the ignorant masses that James had actually quit on his team during the series.
They’ll cite the James’ pitiful 3-of-14 effort in a 32-point loss in Game 5 as their reference, but won’t even speak of the triple-double he earned the game after, the 38 points in Game 3 or the 35 points in Game 1.
It’s become so much easier to pin the blame on one individual, rather than doing actual research and actually coming to the simple realization that James’ Cavaliers were no match for a well-balanced and well-oiled Boston Celtics team.
James joined the Cavaliers in 2003 a year after the team finished 17-65. James led them to an 18-game improvement the next year, a seven-game improvement the next and then their first postseason visit since 1998. They’d end up giving the powerhouse Detroit Pistons a run for their money before bowing out in seven games.
LeBron would then lead a team consisting of Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the second and third best players to an NBA Finals. The team breezed through the East, but was no match for a San Antonio Spurs team that had won three titles since 1999.
James wouldn’t come close to the NBA Finals until 2011. Before that, we must speak of the events leading up to that point and how they continued to affect James’ career in a negative light.
The summer of 2010 was an interesting case because of how many prolific free agents there were. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer were all on the block, but none name was bigger than that of LeBron James, who was the most coveted prize.
James whittled his choices down to Cleveland, Miami, New Jersey, New York, Chicago and the L.A. Clippers. On July 10th, we would hear the fateful words that will go down in history:
And it was at that moment where everybody in the world put their life on hold to hate LeBron James. He didn’t make it any better with an extravagant preseason celebration where he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rose up onto a stage as the prizes and rewards they became to Pat Riley and the Miami Heat organization.
Cleveland hated James for obvious reasons, but so did the rest of the country outside of Miami. The idea of these three playing together supposedly ruined the sanctity of competitive sports and had made it too easy to win. Critics would constantly cite Michael Jordan as a reference when he stated that he wouldn’t call up Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to play with them.
Want to know the difference between Jordan and James in that aspect? Michael was gifted a future Hall of Famer in Scottie Pippen; LeBron got Mo Williams. Jordan was given another future Hall of Famer in Dennis Rodman; James got 34-year-old Antawn Jamison. Jordan had Horace Grant; James had 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal.
Seeing the differences, yet? Once again, it’s so much easier to hate what you see right in front of you, instead of doing the proper research to make an educated statement. The problem with LeBron’s critics is that the majority of them are fairweather fans who can’t make up their own opinion on how James should have responded to the situation of not having any reliable teammates.
So James went off to Miami. And it sucked at first. The Heat started off 9-8 and the criticism really started to fall on James because 17 games is truly enough of a sample size to predict the next five years worth of basketball. He would recover and his Heat would go 58-24, but doubters still reigned over the thought of Miami not being able to match up with contenders.
A 12-3 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs later and the Heat were in the NBA Finals. The opinions on James immediately started to shift after the series against the Chicago Bulls, when LeBron and the Heat absolutely decimated the reigning MVP Derrick Rose and his teammates in the final moments.
The Heat were obvious favorites against the Dallas Mavericks. It showed in Game 1 when they won with ease and it showed in Game 2 when they were up by 13 points with eight minutes remaining. Following a Dwyane Wade three-pointer, James went up to Wade right in front of the Mavericks bench and started boasting.
It must have irked the Mavericks, because they came back and won. Then they’d win three of the next four games to win the NBA title, including Game 6 which took place on the Heat’s home floor. Dwyane Wade’s 27 points per game was for naught and Chris Bosh responded by collapsing in the hallway on the way to the locker room.
The NBA world could care less about those two. They wanted to know what the hell just happened to LeBron James. How could a player who had done so well in the previous three series lock up in the biggest moments of his career? How could someone as prolific as James average a mere 17 points per game?
So many questions. The answer? He’s a choker. There was no other answer besides James being a choker. We entered that realm of uneducated responses and we were left with the idea of James being a choker.
The saddest thing about it? They were right. James absolutely choked in the NBA Finals and there was no other way around it. There was no other excuse for a player with the skill and talent of James to average 17 points per game against a team whose defense was far inferior to that of Chicago’s and Boston’s.
The 2011 NBA Finals was the best thing to happen to James’ career. Without that learning experience, James isn’t asking for Hakeem Olajuwon for help. He’s not making an agreement with Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra to make it an issue to force the ball inside and stop taking as many three-pointers. He’s not growing up as a professional basketball player without losing that Finals.
James came out of the gates like a madman. He led the Heat to another second seed and would average 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game to win his third league MVP in the past four seasons. Just like his critics and doubters, James could care less about the award and told everyone that he’s on a quest for team achievements.
They doubted him against the New York Knicks. James responded by turning Carmelo Anthony into the new anti-hero following a 4-1 Heat series victory.
They doubted him against the Indiana Pacers, especially when Chris Bosh went down with an injury in Game 1 and the Heat ended up down 2-1 in the series. James’ response was a 40 point, 18 rebound and nine assist effort in a crucial Game 4 win. The Heat would win the final three games of the series.
They really doubted him against the Boston Celtics. Following a Game 5 loss at home, it wasn’t a surprise to see analysts speaking of breaking up the ‘Big Three’ and firing coach Spoelstra, because that’s what professional analysts are supposed to do–make knee-jerk decisions and assume everything.
Game 6 in front of a raucous Boston crowd and LeBron ended up putting his smiling face on top of the leprachaun in the middle of TD Garden. 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists for James in a blowout win, who achieved a statline that had not been seen in the playoffs since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1964.
Game 7 belonged to LeBron, as well as Chris Bosh whose return was necessary to the Heat’s success in the final game of the series.
None of this mattered. The three MVP’s, the All-Star appearances, the All-NBA First Teams and the All-NBA Defensive Teams meant nothing. James’ entire career legacy had come down to one thing and one thing only–winning a piece of hardware that would finally illuminate one of the most illustrious nine year’s an NBA player has ever had.
It wouldn’t be easy. Nothing worth winning ever is easy. If it was that easy, James would have enough championship trophies to start playing ‘Jenga’ with them. Because it wasn’t that easy and because a team effort is required, James would have to wait at least a few more weeks.
It appeared that he might have had to wait another year with the way the Heat started off the series with a Game 1 loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once again, we were left to knee-jerk reactions of people claiming Kevin Durant was better (HI, JIM ROME) and the Heat not having the depth or talent to keep up with OKC’s young and athletic squad.
Then LeBron James came across this sudden realization. A realization that we have been waiting years to see. A realization that if he came to years ago would have easily resulted in a few titles, especially one with the Miami Heat last year.
James realized he was bigger than everyone and the paint, not the perimeter, was his place to be. LeBron made the paint his bitch, scoring nearly every single point in every single game in the paint. If he wasn’t scoring right near the rim, he was passing it out to open shooters, which resulted in Shane Battier and Mike Miller suddenly coming to life.
The Heat staved off a frantic Thunder comeback in Game 2 to steal home-court advantage. Nobody expected the Heat to do what they did over the next three games. The idea of this going back to Oklahoma City was still a clear and present thought in the head’s of many, including myself, because the thought of the Heat winning four games in a row seemed a little farfetched even for them.
I was wrong. We were wrong. We’re all wrong at some point. Some people are content with saying they’re wrong, others not so much. Those who don’t want to say they’re wrong are the same people you see today who are seething and foaming at the mouth at the thought of James achieving any sort of success.
They hate seeing this:
Most of all, they hate this:
What does LeBron James think about this? Nothing. He doesn’t care what those people have to say. He only cares about his game and what he can do to better himself, instead of worrying about what some people who don’t know the game think about him.
James didn’t do this to shut anyone up. He did this to prove something to himself. LeBron was on a mission to prove he was a winner. Following three consecutive titles at the High School level, James didn’t know what team success was. He played individual, hero-ball with the Cavaliers and eventually realized that it takes so much more than that to win a title.
He went to Miami for the championships. Isn’t that what everyone wants when they join a sports team? To win? All this talk about disliking players who only chase money, yet you have three players who sacrifice their stats, individual glory and money for a championship and they’re criticized for it.
This wasn’t easy. Not even close to easy. This was heart-numbing, gut-wrenching stuff the Heat were forced to go through for two seasons. It became so much more than simply attempting to outscore their opponent. This became an internal issue, not just for LeBron, but everyone else on the team.
This became an issue on how badly this team wanted to win. They made the sacrifices to join together, but could they take it to the next level of sacrificing the game’s that had made their career up until that point? In order to win, each and every player had to make the adjustment necessary to come up victorious.
Sacrifice is what this team is all about and it finally paid off in the form of a championship for the Miami Heat and a Finals MVP for one of the most deserving players of the award in LeBron James.
30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in 23 postseason games. The man who had averaged 17 points per in last year’s Finals had averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per in five NBA Finals games to complete his quest of finally winning an NBA title.
Revel in it, LeBron. You deserve it.
Just promise us one thing.
Stay LeBron James.