MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade is injured, but on the night before his Miami Heat won the championship, he didn't care. He stayed at the gym until 1:30 a.m., working out with trainer Tim Grover. Then he went home and watched game film. Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were not on the film. Wade watched Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals, when the Heat had melted down against the Dallas Mavericks. Wade went to bed at 4 a.m. By 8, he was on the phone with LeBron James.
James and Wade made a pact with each other before their last game of the season, and it wasn't about dominating the league or winning eight championships or anything we associate with this Heat team. The pact was not flashy. But it shows how far these two friends have come, even as the world has spun around them, begging them to fail. They no longer define themselves by the spoils of victory. The pact was not even about winning.
"What they wanted to do today, more than anything, was to play a complete game of basketball," said Wade's girlfriend, actress Gabrielle Union.
Even in winning three straight, they hadn't played as well as they could. Wade and James have learned to pull the best out of each other, and of themselves. Finally, it is enough for them.
And that is why they are champions.
The Heat dismantled the Thunder 121-106 and truly, it was not that close. At one point Miami led by 27. James had a triple-double: 26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds. It was complete. Undeniably, beautifully, complete.
In the chaos of the Heat locker room afterward, after James shook a bottle of Budweiser and sprayed it across the room, he hugged veteran Juwan Howard, who whispered in his ear the three sentences that mean everything to LeBron James:
"You made a promise to me last year. I love you. You're a friend for life."
Then James called over to another veteran teammate, Shane Battier.
"What are they gonna say, Shane?" James asked.
"Nothing," Battier said.
"What are they gonna say, Shane?"
So there it is. The criticism did bother him. James never really denied it, but most people don't fully understand how much it hurt. James, Wade and Chris Bosh did not set out to be hated. They just wanted to play on the same team.
So much of their conduct seemed arrogant and stupid -- The Decision, the ridiculous celebration, the proclamation about all those championships. But playing together seemed so right to them that they didn't think about the execution. They made their choice in a pretty isolated little world. When James decided to join the Heat, Wade didn't even tell his own mother -- she found out when she watched "The Decision" like the rest of us. It's easy to see the iceberg after the ship sinks.
In the locker room, James left Howard's embrace and hugged his friend Rich Paul, one of the Akron guys in his inner circle. Paul is an agent now.
Last year, after the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the Finals, James and Wade went to the Bahamas with Paul -- just the three of them and their significant others. The humiliation was still raw. Everything stung. Paul said he talked to James and Wade "about a lot of things. It was a good conversation amongst men -- not amongst athletes, but amongst men."
So there they were at a resort in the Bahamas, and who did they keep running into?
Mavericks guard Jason Terry.
Terry had just beaten Wade and James, and he was walking the same beaches and staying at the same resort ... and Terry has a tattoo of the championship trophy on his arm.
LeBron could not escape that trophy. None of them could. Images of it are everywhere at American Airlines Arena: plastered on the walls outside the locker room, even embroidered in the carpet.
Thursday night, James stood on that carpet and clutched the actual trophy and said: "I want to see my woman."
Savannah Brinson, James' fiancee, did not live in Miami last season. She stayed back in Ohio with their two children. His teammates could tell he missed them terribly. Meanwhile, Wade is going through a tense, ugly custody battle for his kids with his ex-wife. Basketball fans have often wondered if James and Wade could coexist on the court. They discovered they needed each other desperately off it.
In the Bahamas, Paul said he told Wade and James: This just isn't your time. Your time will come.
"They didn't understand what I was talking about," Paul said. "It was four days after they lost. Now they understand."
Paul said "experience is the best teacher in life," and added that "what LeBron went through, God wanted him to go through." That will elicit some eye rolls. But it's hard to argue with this: "He came out of it a better person, a better man, a better father, a better basketball player. He's reaping the benefits right now."
James added a post game and improved his defense. He also learned to mesh his personality with his play. That was the hard part, the part that even he probably didn't understand until this year.
James did not dominate this series the way we think he should, by scoring 40 points every night. But this is who he is. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are wired to destroy. James is wired to please. This sounds odd, since he alienated millions of people, but it is true.
Why did he keep passing to less talented players? Well, aren't Battier and Mike Miller his teammates? Why did he take career advice from guys who aren't experienced at giving it? Well, aren't Maverick Carter and Rich Paul his friends?
James finished with 13 assists, but that doesn't even explain his influence on the game. At this stage of his career, Miller does not get open to hit seven threes unless the defense is preoccupied with his teammates. Nobody in NBA history has drawn defenders in, then found open teammates, as well as LeBron James.
Inadvertently, this is what he did with the Heat. He made millions of people charge toward him, then found his teammates.
James and Wade are crazy rich and absurdly famous, and they have athletic gifts that even amaze other professional athletes, but even they have to work at it. This is why we watch, isn't it? You can't market your way to a championship. You can't score points by saying you will. Maybe they thought they could do that. They know better now.
"This is just a testament to hard work, admitting mistakes and making adjustments," Union said. "It's not just the obvious mistakes that everybody wants to harp on and has been harping on. It's the little things. It's the missed defensive rotations. It's giving up easy buckets. It's not looking for the open man. It's hero-ball. Those little mistakes."
(TMZ will be thrilled to hear that Wade and Union often cozy up and ... watch basketball tape together.)
Wade looked awful at times in this series. There is a reason: He is hurt. Nobody would say exactly what his injury is, but it sounds like you can expect surgery this summer.
"He's healthy in his mind," Wade's mother, Jolinda, said. "A little work has to be done on the body. "
Wade and James both seem healthy in their minds now. For James, this must be especially comforting. Basketball always came easily to him, but health in the mind did not. He grew up without a father, without much money, with a mother who was just 16 years older than him, and with as much natural talent than any basketball player who ever lived. He could not shed his talent any more than he could make himself instantly rich.
The talent propelled him to NBA stardom, and he had a mind for the game to match. That seemed like all he would need, and for a while it was, but he was still that kid from Akron, no matter how much he and Nike tried to sell him as a king.
It all culminated in that ridiculous summer of 2010, when James thought he was bonding with people (by teaming with Wade and Bosh) and didn't seem to understand he was making many other people furious. The venom made him miserable, but it also saved him. He can't really have a million true friends. He is lucky he gets to work with one every day.
"With those two guys, it's a brotherhood," Union said. "People thought it was just a 'Let's form the Avengers!' kind of thing. There is a trust factor when you join forces with somebody who gets you, and who's been there, and who's lived the life that you've lived.
"They're brothers. They're brothers in more ways than just on the basketball court. And they truly support each other. Same with Chris."
So what is next? A parade, the Olympics, and whatever a doctor needs to do to Wade. Anything else?
"I'm just looking for us to take more rings," Wade's mom said. "I don't think this is the last one."
Oh no. Not that again. For now, let them just enjoy the trophy they have, the smell of Champagne and beer and success. Let LeBron James have his moment with his closest friends -- trophy in his hands, weight off his mind. He was a long way from Akron, a longer way from Cleveland, and emotionally, an even longer way from the Bahamas. But he was home.