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LeBron’s First NBA Title, 10 Years Later

It has been a decade since LeBron James won his first championship with the Miami Heat.

Thirty-one years ago, back in 1991, NBC Sports analyst Pat Riley had a one-on-one interview with Michael Jordan that feels downright weird to watch now.

To give you a better frame of reference, Riley—Bob Costas’s in-studio partner at the time—had parted ways with the Lakers about one year earlier. He was days away from taking a job to coach the floundering Knicks. Meanwhile, Jordan and the Bulls had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Bad Boys Pistons three consecutive years when this sit-down took place. But the superstar, who enjoyed a 3–0 conference finals lead on Detroit as the conversation unfolded, finally looked ready to exorcise his Jordan Rules demons.

Still, it was far from a given that Jordan would take the next step and win the round after to earn the title. And that, specifically, was what Riley wanted to ask about. (Well, he also asked Jordan whether he had a preference as to which team he’d face in the next round. Amazingly, a candid Michael said he’d “much rather face Portland, being that the Lakers have all the experience.” Man, how different times were back then. Draymond’s the only guy I can imagine being so candid now.)

“If you don’t win a title, will you still feel like you’d have a very whole, fulfilling career?” Riley asked.

“I would,” Jordan said in response. “It would be disappointing that I never won. But my career would never, ever be disappointing. … I’d much rather win. But if I don’t, I’m not gonna look back at my career and say, “It was tarnished because I never won a world championship.”

The reason I bring up that sit-down: Today, June 21, 2022, marks exactly 10 years since LeBron James won his first championship. He, of course, won it while playing for Riley and the Heat by taking out Durant and the Thunder in five games.

Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6), power forward and Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade celebrates winning the 2012 NBA championship against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

There were a handful of similarities between Jordan and James by the time they broke through. Both were in their age-27 seasons. Both had already put themselves in a rare stratosphere, to where they could realistically be talked about as the greatest to ever play the sport someday. But more important, both had experienced enough failure on a big enough stage to where people had real questions about whether it would ever happen for them.

Jordan had the three consecutive playoff losses to the Pistons. In 2007, James and his undermanned Cavs club understandably lost to the Spurs in the Finals. But the Heat’s defeat in ’11, to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, was different and viewed as a momentous upset, one in which James—the best player in the universe—hardly even looked himself. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh weren’t enough to stop the upset from happening, either.

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Perhaps in part because of that loss, the Heat weren’t favored in 2012 against the young, ubertalented Thunder by the time the Finals rolled around. Hell, it had been a struggle for Miami to even make it there. The heavy-handed Pacers took them to six games in the semifinals, a series that was made tougher by the fact that Bosh was sidelined for the final five games with an abdominal strain.

Then, after surviving that series, the Celtics—led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo—almost killed off the Heat. “I thought it was over,” Bosh acknowledged later, concerning the playoff run after his injury. The big man would later return to action in the fifth game of the series, coming off the bench in a pivotal contest the Celtics won to take a 3–2 lead as play resumed in Boston.

James, though, wouldn’t let the Heat lose. In what remains one of his most dominant, memorable performances, the superstar looked almost possessed in controlling Game 6 with 45 crowd-silencing points and 15 rebounds, soundly staving off elimination in what began as one of the most hostile environments imaginable. It set the stage for Miami to take Game 7 by 13 points back at home to reach the Finals again.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant

Simply looking at the box scores, or the fact that it was a gentleman’s sweep, would suggest the 2012 Finals—featuring a trio of future MVPs in Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the opposing side—weren’t competitive. But that wouldn’t be the truth. After taking Game 1, Oklahoma City nearly tied Game 2 in the final 10 seconds with a short-range look from Durant along the baseline that fell just short. And the Thunder held the lead with seven and a half minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 3, a contest that was separated by a single point with just 90 seconds to play. The same was true in Game 4, as Oklahoma City carried a narrow lead into the final four minutes of that matchup. But again, Miami, the more experienced club executed better down the stretch.

It really wasn’t until the Game 5 victory—one in which Mike Miller hit seven triples in eight tries—that it felt like the Heat had a comfortable win in the series. That contest was the clincher and the one that got the NBA title monkey off James’s back for good.

There is an embarrassing amount of different “what ifs” to delve into about it all. What if the Heat hadn’t been able to recover from Bosh’s injury, and the team had failed to reach the Finals? (Would the roster have looked the same? Would Spoelstra’s job have been in jeopardy?) Even if they do reach the NBA Finals but lose to Oklahoma City: Does the Thunder winning that series—and Durant already having a title—alter Durant’s lens about eventually joining Golden State? Would James’s third Finals loss, without a crown, have damaged his psyche? (The summer before, immediately after the loss to Dallas, he stayed holed up in his Miami home for two consecutive weeks without leaving. He was in that deep a funk and didn’t even feel as if he could watch television, because so much of the media world was focused on his failures.)

And then there’s the question about James, like the one Riley once asked Jordan: Would it have been realistic for the greatest player of his generation to finish his career without a ring?

Seven additional Finals appearances and three NBA championships later, we now know it was an unnecessary thing to ever be concerned about with James. Much like the Riley-Jordan conversation illustrated: As the greatness is still building, a player has to win that first one before you can really start thinking about counting to four or, in Jordan’s case, six.

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