Sitting on the baseline in Trenton, N.J., back in 2003, I became certain LeBron James was going to be special, and it wasn’t just the 52 points he scored that night. It was the way he carried himself, the poise that belied the fact that he was a high school senior in an NBA All-Star’s body.
Nine years later, watching the clock wind down on LeBron’s first championship was surreal. As the greatest athlete I’d ever seen live, I’d long believed he’d win a championship at some point. He was too good not to. But I couldn’t imagine it would end up the way it did, not with a gleeful public coronation but with begrudging acceptance of his brilliance.
The expectations we all had for him were simultaneously legitimate and unreasonable. LeBron’s skills were exactly what we thought they would be, his ceiling and learning curve off the charts. As he willed a good but not great Cavs team to the NBA Finals ahead of schedule in his fourth season, you absolutely couldn’t miss a minute because he might just do something you’d never seen before.
But to put the hopes and dreams of not just an entire city but an entire post-Jordan sports landscape on his shoulders, could anyone in his position have handled that and come out unscathed? It was especially more daunting as the information age exploded, the Internet begat Facebook begat Twitter, and LeBron’s every move was noticed and scrutinized.
This isn’t to say all of this was against LeBron’s will; he has, after all, a “Chosen 1” tattoo across his back. His first Nike poster had him sitting on a throne with lions at his feet. His first sneaker ad â€“ filmed before he’d even played an NBA game â€“ showed the entire world stopping to watch him, a la MJ’s frozen moment. LeBron loves basketball; he dreamed of greatness and expected nothing less.
However, he couldn’t have possibly understood just how heavy the head that wears the crown. After years of carrying with dignity the burden of expectations, self-created and otherwise, Atlas shrugged in the form of his dreadful performance in his final playoff series with the Cavs. Looking back, it was no surprise he left behind the pressure of a fan base that lived and died with his every move, in favor of one that might show up during the second quarter of a game if there’s nothing better to do.
It was hard to watch LeBron these past two seasons â€“ not his game, mind you, which was for the most part magnificent as always. But to see the constant stream of enmity force him to be so defensive, vindictive and utterly joyless, it just seemed counterintuitive.
The Decision was pretty lousy â€“ even LeBron would come to admit that â€“ but everyone primarily hated him for having the audacity to have done what he wanted rather than what we desired him to do. LeBron, of course, reflexively hated everyone in return. A part of me wanted to enjoy what I perceived to be antihero status, but I never quite had the heart for it. I couldn’t believe this was how it was supposed to go. But it didn’t mean he still couldn’t get to where he needed to be.
This year â€“ at least publicly â€“ LeBron put everything behind him and went back to playing brilliant basketball simply because he could. He had put the work in to become a complete player, learning post moves from Hakeem Olajuwon and becoming arguably the best defensive player in the game. And most importantly, he finally got his priorities back in order.
“I have short goals — to get better every day, to help my teammates every day — but my only ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship,” James said in Sports Illustrated in April. “It’s all that matters. I dream about it. I dream about it all the time, how it would look, how it would feel. It would be so amazing.”
There would be no fourth-quarter collapses this time, no “LeChoke” headlines, not against a Thunder team that hadn’t yet paid the dues necessary to win a championship. There were only triple-doubles, victories in bunches and a weight lifted after years of losing his final game of the season. Along the way, LeBron silenced his critics simply by keeping an even keel and giving them nothing tangible to attack him for.
And yet… after the dust settled, if you looked closely enough, you might still catch a glimpse of the now well-hidden chip on his shoulder. The final question of his postgame press conference was something about the season being shortened due to the lockout. LeBron answered:
“66 games… 82 games… Shit, we could have played one regular-season game.
“I’m an NBA Champion, and that’s all that matters.”
With that, LeBron James scooped up the NBA championship trophy and his Finals MVP Award. He succinctly and wryly told the media, “Love you guys.” And he headed toward an offseason spent basking in success, cracking bottles of Ace of Spades and chasing Olympic Gold.
But before he exited stage right, he stopped for just a second, turned around and held up both trophies with a big, mischievous grin. It almost seemed as if he were saying, “Gotcha!” in one final, fleeting moment of defiance.
And if that’s actually what he was trying to get across? It would be difficult to say he hasn’t earned it.
How do you feel about LeBron now that he’s finally done it? Does the end justify the means?
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