Promise Keeper

It was harder than he ever expected, but with a bravura performance in the postseason LeBron James made good on his vow to bring a title to South Beach. Will it be the first of many?
July 02, 2012

Jamie Epstein and Shaun Kolnick were married last Saturday night at the Ritz Carlton in Coconut Grove, Fla., and when the young couple arrived at the grand ballroom, they spotted an uninvited guest on the terrace. LeBron James sat among the swaying palm trees, his two sons climbing over him like help defenders, seven-year-old LeBron Jr. on his lap and five-year-old Bryce Maximus on his knee. The boys nibbled chicken fingers and dipped them in maple syrup, to their father's playful disgust. Members of the wedding party, about 20 deep in tuxedos and gowns, fought to press their noses to the window.

Jamie and Shaun took the requisite photographs with bridesmaids, groomsmen and relatives, but on their mantel one snapshot will dwarf the rest. As James posed between Jamie and Shaun with a giant grin, he offered his congratulations and they offered their mazel tovs, because all of them were experiencing a rite of passage. All of them were getting a ring.

James has grown in front of the world's eyes, through Technicolor lenses on high-definition flat screens, from a prodigy in Akron, Ohio, to a colossus in Cleveland to a polarizing sun god in Miami. At 4:15 a.m. last Saturday, as James struggled to sleep, he felt himself enter a new stage. "It just finally hit me," he wrote in a text message to Maverick Carter, his childhood friend and business manager. "I'm a champion." Twelve hours later, James sat under overcast skies on the Ritz terrace, wearing a white T-shirt with the slogan EARNED NOT GIVEN and sipping a Sprite. He was still sleepless and in no hurry to nap. "I'm having all my best dreams wrapped into one," he said.

Pressure remains, the burden of the supernaturally gifted, but in a different form. All the breathless questions that hounded James since the Cleveland days—Can you close a game? Can you lead a team? Can you win a title?—are gone, sunk at the bottom of Biscayne Bay. "It's time to make a new challenge," James says. "I've got to figure out what that is. I know I can get better. And I know I'm not satisfied with one of these." Twenty-nine teams should be very afraid, because James has breached the championship levee, just as Michael Jordan did in 1991. Jordan was 28, and he won five more titles in the next seven years, even with a break for baseball. James is 27, and for the first time he will get to play without a baboon on his back. "With freedom," Heat president Pat Riley says.

James considers whether the TV cameras, trained on him like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, will move on to the next ringless wonder. "The fishbowl has been there since I was 16," he says, laughing. "I haven't lived any other way. I may not be able to survive without it!"

The reality show that kicked off two years ago—"when I sat up there and decided I was going to take my talents to South Beach"—reached its climax Thursday night, as he gathered his teammates at American Airlines Arena before Game 5. "This is what I told them," he says. "If someone came to you right now and told you, 'If you don't win tonight you won't see your family again,' how would you play? Approach this game like your family is in danger. How bad do you want to see your family again?"

James became the first player in nine years to clinch a championship with a triple double, a feat that evoked John Stockton and Karl Malone—if they inhabited one body. Here was a 6'8", 250-pound point guard cast as a power forward, beating two and three defenders with drives and dishes, whichever he was in the mood to choose. In Game 5 he scored 26 points with 11 rebounds and 13 assists, eight of which led to three-pointers by five different teammates, accounting for 60 points in a 121--106 throttling of the Thunder.

LeBron was sure he would sob like Michael Jordan ("I remember him with the trophy," he says), but he responded more like Magic Johnson ("I remember him spraying champagne and yelling, 'Yeah!'"). James hopped up and down on the sideline, the way college football players do before kickoff, and unleashed a smile that no one but family and friends have glimpsed since the whole Decision fiasco. He's already seen the replay of the game on NBA TV. "It was a different type of smile," James says. "I know why it came out so big. I've been waiting for it a long time."

He punctuated one of the best regular seasons in the modern era with one of the best playoffs, leading the Heat with 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists, while shooting 50% and guarding everyone from Carmelo Anthony to Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant. But after James retreated to the locker room, where teammates bathed him in a Budweiser--Dom Perignon cocktail, he caught a scare. He couldn't find his Finals MVP trophy.

"Where's my trophy?" James hollered, rummaging through his locker. "I left it right here!" He rushed through the tunnel back to the court, where he had to give an interview, but the moment it ended he asked, "Have you seen my trophy? Who took my trophy?" On the way to the press conference, where the MVP trophy was waiting all along, he relaxed a bit. "It's just an individual award, anyway," he says. "It's not the one that matters." He took the Larry O'Brien trophy from the podium and cradled it like a third son, and when friends offered to help carry it down a hallway, he waved them off.

What began as a Big Three—James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh—and some other guys ("We even call ourselves the Other Guys," says forward Shane Battier) grew into a modern champion with old-fashioned sensibilities. You may resent how the Heat was built, in one frenzied free-agent period, but at least appreciate how they play, with extra passes and crisp rotations and superstars deferring to afterthoughts. When asked what he will remember of Game 5, James responded, "Mike Miller." The 12-year vet could barely stay upright because of a bad back and hadn't made a three-pointer in more than two weeks, yet when the Oklahoma City defense packed the paint he hit seven of eight from long range.

As the Heat locker room was transformed into a sweaty South Beach club, cigar smoke filling the air along with Drake lyrics ("I was only trying to get ahead/but the spotlight makes you nervous/and you're looking for a purpose"), James posed for pictures in an adjacent room with various combinations of teammates: he and Miller with the trophy, he and Wade with the trophy, he and Wade with two trophies, one from this season and one from the Heat's title in 2006. "Oh, no," James said, stepping out of the frame. "I don't have two yet."

Maybe this is the start of a dynasty, like Jordan's Bulls, but more likely it is the birth of a rivalry, like Lakers-Celtics. When James hugged Durant after the final buzzer, he pushed him back 10 steps, while shouting in his ear. "I told him he's unbelievable," James says. "I told him he shouldn't feel any regrets. And I told him to continue to work. I hope it's us and them every year. That's the next challenge, to do it again." Wade told Durant and Westbrook, "We'll see y'all next year."

Even after dispatching OKC in five games, the Heat recognized that the series felt much tighter. Like everything involving Miami, it was more arduous than it seemed.

Coach Erik Spoelstra presented the Heat with a replica of the Larry O'Brien trophy before the playoffs began. It was black ceramic, and everyone on the roster signed it with a gold marker. "It was a commitment we made to each other to do everything it took," James says. "That trophy became our goal." After each victory, Spoelstra drew one gold line on it.

James turned off his phone for the next two months, checking messages only between series. He stopped tweeting and watching sports on television. A product of the Information Age, James traded his devices for books, devouring The Hunger Games trilogy, Who Moved My Cheese (the self-help best-seller), The Pact (the best-seller about three young black men who make a promise to become doctors), Decoded (Jay-Z's autobiography) and West by West (Jerry West's memoir). The Lakers great didn't win a title until his eighth trip to the Finals. James let that sink in.

In July 2010, when James united with Wade and Bosh in Miami, he never even contemplated enduring the agony West did. "Obviously, we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade says. Perhaps no team in sports history has come under more scrutiny than the Heat. When James and Spoelstra brushed shoulders, it was Bump Gate. When players broke down in the locker room, it was The Crying Game. Bulls center Joakim Noah said they were as "Hollywood as hell." The Mavericks beat Miami in the Finals last June, and the catcalls amplified.

But this season the Heat grew comfortable in its tropical Petri dish, and no one found it all that strange when 30 cameras filmed James as he dressed. "In my quiet time, I do think to myself, This is crazy," James says. "But it comes with the territory. You have to embrace it." One day in the middle of the season he stood in front of his teammates and described his life. "I just spilled how it is on and off the court for me," he says. "And I let them know I'm going to give it all. I owe it to them." He couldn't carry the Heat, though, if Wade was going to claim the load. "He basically looked at me one day and told me, 'I need you to lead this team now,'" James says. "And then he did it during games. He'd say, 'I need you to lead us right here.'"

By the time the playoffs began, roles were defined. James was the headliner. Wade, suffering from an injured left knee, was the sidekick. "It was hard for me to do it," Wade admits, "but it was easy for me to do it for the team." The Heat, already playing without a traditional point guard, played without a traditional center also. At 6'11" and 235 pounds, Bosh was undersized for the position, but his shooting ability drew defenders away from the basket and opened the key for James and Wade. "He became one of the tougher covers in the league," Spoelstra says.

Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers, Bosh strained his abdomen and was ruled out indefinitely. "Not now," James said to himself. "Not in the playoffs. We can't afford it."

In Game 2 the Heat started Ronny Turiaf at center and Udonis Haslem at power forward, and lost at home. Afterward, Spoelstra made the masterstroke that saved the season. He told his assistants, "We have to go smaller." Spoelstra decided to start only one conventional post player, making James a de facto power forward while still handling the ball most of the time. Miami was practically inventing a position. "I knew I'd have to be bigger and better," James says. "We all had to play above our height, above our weight."

The Heat dropped Game 3, acclimating to the new system, but in Game 4, James scored 40 points with 18 rebounds and nine assists. The Heat could dump the ball into the post and spread the floor with snipers. James could ram to the rim, and when he encountered the inevitable double team, whip the ball to the perimeter. The formula sounds simple, but only one player on earth possesses the strength and vision to carry it out. James worked on post moves last summer with Hakeem Olajuwon, taping their sessions, and every two weeks in the playoffs he turned on his phone to call Olajuwon for advice. The calls were not easy to complete: Olajuwon was at home in Amman, Jordan.

The reinvented Heat faced series deficits against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City but went 9--0 after falling behind. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, James stared down elimination with 45 points, 41 of them in the first three quarters. Before Game 7 he texted Spoelstra about a YouTube video he had seen. The film is of a former tailback at East Carolina named Giavanni Ruffin, running on the beach and on the sidewalk, lifting weights and clearing hurdles. It is standard off-season fare, and that's the point. Over slow guitar strains, a gravel-voiced minister tells the story of a young man who wants to succeed at something: "When you get to the point where all you want to do is be successful as bad as you want to breathe," the minister intones, "then you'll be successful." Spoelstra, a former video coordinator, spliced the tape with Heat footage.

The team arrived in Oklahoma City as underdogs. Bosh was coming off the bench, but in a practice at Chesapeake Energy Arena before Game 2, Spoelstra asked the starters to take the floor. Without a word, Bosh joined them. Miami never lost again.

Before Game 4, James told teammates, "You better not come back in here unless you're f------ exhausted," and by the second quarter he could feel the cramps in his legs. "I told the sideline, 'I need water right now,'" he says. "On a couple plays in the third quarter, I felt my legs go, and I was like, Not now. I was hoping it wouldn't happen until I was sitting at my locker after the game."

He collapsed on a drive with 5:53 left, but because he couldn't bend his legs to run, he was able to cherry-pick a layup. He spent 70 seconds on the bench, howling in pain, and then returned though his legs remained stiff. With the score tied at 94, he took three dribbles at the top of the circle. With three seconds on the shot clock, James let fly.

He shot just 18.8% from three-point range in the Finals and, according to ESPN's True Hoop, 26% on twos outside three feet. But James, so often the victim of the highlight mentality, made the only jumper anyone will remember in the 104--98 win. He hobbled downcourt, and less than two minutes later he had to ask out. "He's a freak of nature," says Haslem, "but he's still a human being."

James woke after five hours of sleep last Thursday morning—the day of Game 5—and finally turned on his phone. "I needed somebody to talk to," he says, "and I knew who was up." He texted Wade, who called him right back. "I can't sleep either," Wade told him. They discussed the opportunity ahead. "No regrets," James vowed.

At the arena his uniform was laid out on the floor at his locker. A handful of his favorite bromides were laminated on small cards next to his chair. A quote from Bruce Lee was typed on a sheet of paper and taped to the inside of his locker: "Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment." James pumped up the stereo and bopped his head to Young Jeezy. The cameras stared at him, and he stared back, lost in the lenses. They would never look at him the same. "It's the way this world works," Spoelstra says. "You can't win unless you win."

In the early rounds Spoelstra tried to find minutes for Miller, Battier and point guard Mario Chalmers, so they would shoot with confidence later. In the Finals the Other Guys took a starring turn. Battier, who averaged 4.8 points in the regular season, scored 17 in each of the first two games. Chalmers broke a cold snap with 25 points in Game 4. Miller upstaged everybody in Game 5.

In the locker room Spoelstra took a gold marker to the black trophy and drew the 16th line, completing the final tally. Bosh slipped on black-rimmed glasses, with cha written on one lens, mps on the other. Wade kissed his girlfriend, actress Gabrielle Union. James fired off his first tweet in two months. "I'm starving," he said to his friends. "I kind of want to go home." They shouted in protest. A party was waiting upstairs on the practice court and a stage was cleared at LIV, the nightclub at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs celebrated a year ago.

Basketball tends to reward its patient stars, like Nowitzki, who bided his time and waited his turn. James spent nine years chasing a title, all the way from Cleveland to Miami, through the television special that jeopardized his image but changed his life. His time has come, later than he wanted but soon enough, and chances are it is only beginning.

JAMES ASKED HIS TEAMMATES, "IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU, 'IF YOU DON'T WIN TONIGHT YOU WON'T SEE YOUR FAMILY AGAIN,' HOW WOULD YOU PLAY?"

JAMES TURNED OFF HIS PHONE FOR TWO MONTHS, INSTEAD DEVOURING BOOKS: THE HUNGER GAMES, WHO MOVED MY CHEESE? AND JERRY WEST'S MEMOIR.

"I HOPE IT'S US AND [THE THUNDER] EVERY YEAR" IN THE FINALS, JAMES SAYS. "THAT'S THE NEXT CHALLENGE, TO DO IT AGAIN."

PHOTOPhotograph by GREGORY HEISLERGRINNIN' AND WINNIN' James, the regular-season and Finals MVP, was all smiles after winning his first championship, at age 27—one year younger than Jordan was when he began his run of six in eight years. PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYCHOSEN WON The pressure began with LeBron's first SI cover—Feb. 18, 2002. PHOTOGREG NELSONPOWER-POINT PRESENTATION In the later rounds James handled the ball and played on the block, which allowed him to attack the rim as well as find open teammates. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (HUG); GREG NELSONFINISHING FLOURISH James capped his playoff run by torching the Thunder for his eighth career postseason triple double, which earned him a well-deserved hug from Bosh (opposite). PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (HUG); GREG NELSON[See caption above] PHOTOGREGNELSONIN THE SPOTLIGHT Once James assumed the role of leading man, he made his mark by rallying the Heat to a 9--0 mark after it fell behind in the playoffs.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)