MIAMI -- At last LeBron James walked away from his future.
For more than a decade, his future had defined him. Imagine what he could become? Imagine what he might do someday? The same questions that had provided him with the strength of confidence in his earliest NBA seasons were now being turned into accusations against James in recent years. His potential had given way to disappointment. The questions nagged at him, turning shrill and mean and confining, and James was unable to provide the only response that would ever matter.
"It means everything,'' he said as he celebrated his first championship on the victory stand following Miami's 121-106 win over Oklahoma City in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. "This is the happiest day of my life.''
For how many years was James supposed to have been the best player in the game? Before Thursday night, there had never been any proof to support the theory. No star was ever more talented, and if all of the NBA coaches could've summoned together the best qualities in one player then their simulation would've looked like James: Tall enough to play every position at both ends, with Michael's athleticism and Magic's vision and now, just now, Hakeem's footwork as taught to him last summer by The Dream himself.
All that had been lacking was the gold-plated championship trophy he cradled in his large hands as the confetti floated in the air like ashes stomped up from the ground. He smiled as broadly as the 16 year old he used to be, when his future was limitless, long before he had any idea how hard the game would become.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a basketball player, since I picked up a basketball when I was nine years old,'' he said of winning the championship at the end of his ninth NBA season, to go with the MVP of the Finals that was awarded to him unanimously. "It just shows when you're committed and you give everything to the game, the game pays off and it gives back to you.''
Two years ago, he was vilified for the way he left Cleveland, and for believing that winning the championship would take care of itself now that he was playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. One year ago, he watched Dirk Nowitzki redeem his own career with a championship earned at James' expense. Two weeks after losing that championship, James was back in the gym. "I got back to the basics,'' he said. It was as if he was in recovery. He understood his promise better than anyone and how much he had let it slip away.
"I was playing to prove people wrong last year, and people would say I was selfish, and that got to me,'' said James. "That got to me a lot because I know that this is a team game. 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.
"The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played -- it was the best thing to ever happen in my career because I got back to the basics. It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted. It happened, just one year later.''
His overwhelming talent had always created the false impression that the game would have to adapt to him. But in the last year he stumbled face-first onto the truth: That he would have to mold and re-form his physical skills to match the needs of his team and the demands of all players who have led their teams to championships. With the help of Hakeem Olajuwon, he taught himself to post-up, to do the humdrum back-to-the-basket work that he appeared to believe was beneath him, as if it wasn't worthy of his talent. As if he really believed he was The Chosen One.
Before Game 5, he sat alone at his locker in what was the strangest of all scenes. Three dozen reporters representing every corner of the world formed an arc three strides out from James' locker, like a kind of halo formed by his celebrity. They were staring or aiming their cameras or phones at him while hip-hop music thumped loudly in the locker room among them. It was like the crowds that used to gather around Jim Morrison's grave, or Elvis Presley's. Except those crowds gathered at the back end of the fame, while, in LeBron's case, the real fame was just about to begin.
Sitting at his locker, waiting for the game that would change everything for him, he was still famous for what he might yet accomplish. At 27, he was still a kind of teen sensation. He was desperate to leave that future behind, to earn the championship and turn the old promises into the new reality, and part of growing up is to not run away from challenges. So he sat at his locker and let it be, maybe because he liked the gawking attention, maybe because it meant nothing to him, or maybe because he didn't want to run away from it. He glanced around the room from time to time, making incidental eye contact with this reflection of his celebrity for the last time under these circumstances. He looked entirely calm and natural while pulling on his white game socks and scrubbing a brush against his short hair while the cameras and their larger audiences watched. When he walked across the room on a short errand, the cameras held up high craned to follow him like the heads of giraffes.
"Everything that went along with me being a high school prodigy when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise, everything that came with it, I had to deal with and I had to learn through it,'' he said. "No one had went through that journey, so I had to learn on my own. 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 that nine years 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.''
That was the irony of what he did. He was supposed to have been taking the easy path to a championship by moving to Miami, and instead it made his life miserable for two years. His life was far more difficult than it would've been if he had stayed in Cleveland. And at the same time the player who won the championship was not the player who had starred amid the unconditional love of his hometown team. This player on Thursday was tougher, more physical, more committed, less willing to lose and altogether complete, save for the one prize.
He earned it with a triple-double of 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds that was representative of his play throughout the Finals, the postseason and the entire lockout-tightened schedule. His teammates were converting more than 60 percent of their three-pointers -- 14-of-23 overall in Game 5, including 7-of-8 by Mike Miller -- and many of them were created by him. It was as if his passes carried goodwill, as if the cynicism had been transformed to optimism, as if the loans on his future were being cashed in at last. He was a three-time league MVP who had learned to carry his team all the way until there were no more games to play, and nothing more for him to prove.
"It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person,'' he said. "I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. My dream has become a reality now, and it's the best feeling I ever had.''
The player he was supposed to be picked up the trophies, the larger one for the championship won by his team, and the other for becoming MVP of the Finals. The player who was always meant to hold those trophies was now 27, which makes him sound young, and doesn't begin to explain the in-between.