LeBron James, by his own admission, needed to hurt. He needed to bathe in the flames of Finals defeat that had helped to burn down his reputation, before he could soar.
Everything had always come so easy to him. He scored 25 points with nine assists and six rebounds in his very first NBA game, as an 18-year old rookie fresh out of high school. He made an All-Star Game in his second season and won the All-Star Game MVP in his third. League MVP Awards would soon come, and hundreds of wins, and yeah, he never won a title in Cleveland, but after every disappointment, even the infamous Game 5 against Boston, he could blame his supporting cast. None of his failures were his fault. Pin them on Wally Szczerbiak and Donyell Marshall and Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams, the role players who were too “okay” and not enough “great.”
Then last year happened. Dallas in six. How’s my Dirk taste? James looked in the mirror. A goat, not the G.O.A.T., stared back. Changes were necessary. Failure has a way of making us realize that. And this time, James couldn’t blame anyone but himself.
“It’s about damn time,” James said last night, the NBA championship finally his, the throne occupied by himself, the game ruled by nobody else. He had finished a mystical playoff run with a ho-hum 26-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound night that reminded everyone of his thorough dominance. If basketball were like baseball and we labeled players as five-tool stars, James might have a sixth. He’s often the best rebounder on the court, the best passer, the most athletic. He often has the best vision, the best basketball mind, and suddenly a developed post game. He can play point guard through center, on both ends, and defend as well as anybody. As one of my buddies put last night, he’s “a big-ass Rajon Rondo.” James’ shot isn’t perfect, but combined with everything else he does on the court, it’s enough. Especially once he realized he doesn’t have to settle for it.
If James had been pampered with kid gloves for most of his life as the most-prized basketball prospect of the new millennium, maybe of all time, the world took those kid gloves off last year and began to strike him with brass knuckles. The Decision caused mountains of backlash. The loss in the Finals, and James’ passive role in it, only served as the world’s extra point after it had intercepted James’ pass and high-stepped into the end zone. James grew a beard. He didn’t want to speak to anyone for weeks. He hated himself, I assume, for a while. And when he returned to the world, he was better for it all.
Failure. It’s a seven-letter word that crushes us, strangles us, suffocates us, and if we can survive all that, it inspires us. Failure, remember, was the reason Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen realized they needed to sacrifice to become champions. The trio had lost so many times alone that they understood what it would take to succeed together. They arrived at camp dedicated to making their pairing work, willing to cross the highway at rush hour if they had to. They never had any illusions that winning together would be easy. But James felt differently. He’d always been so great, for so long, that he didn’t blame his postseason shortcomings on himself. He just needed a couple new sidekicks. So he joined the Heat, teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And with that, everything was supposed to come easy. Not one, not two, not three — you know how they felt. They felt that way until they met the Mavericks, a team that had fallen short so many times until it was ready to conquer, and Dirk Nowitzki, a superstar who had dealt with years of hearing he couldn’t hit the last shot until he was ready to flip the world’s perception of him upside down. The Mavericks needed their previous failures. Nowitzki needed a summer with his German trainer. And LeBron needed weeks alone, seething, mourning, to sort things out, to deal with the emotions that come when there’s nobody else to blame except the person you hear breathing when you’re all alone.
Kevin Durant lost last night. He’s 23 years old. His future is limitless. He hugged his mother, and Thunder staff members, and his teammates, and he cried tears of disappointment. He now understands how much he needs to improve, to become a better all-around player, to impact games in more areas outside of scoring. Everything had come easy for Durant. Three scoring titles already, one more than Kobe Bryant. Second in the MVP voting this season. Three wins away from a title. But damn it, those last three wins were hard to snatch. Durant knows that now. He may not feel it yet, but he’s better for this. Once the tears wash away, failure helps.
James had failed last year, failed magnificently, failed in such a marvelous, encompassing fashion that nobody so talented and healthy should ever have to replicate. He was the world’s best basketball player and he choked in the NBA Finals. It’s okay to say it. The lights were their brightest and James raisin’ed in the sun. He explained it this year as not making enough game-changing plays. That might have been too much of a euphemism. It was bizarre, the way he disappeared, especially considering all the clutch moments that preceded his Finals Houdini act — the absurd 29-out-of-30 points stretch he pulled out of his hat against the Detroit Pistons, the 41 points he poured on the Celtics in Game 7 in 2008, the long three-ball he drilled to down the Orlando Magic, the game-winners he drained against the Washington Wizards. I could continue discussing his heroic exploits for a long time. But last year, he finally had his co-stars. Losing in six games to Dallas was largely his fault.
Last night, at the end of the path, James cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy and he embraced everything that had gone so viciously wrong. He called the 2011 Finals the best thing ever to happen to him. The loss highlighted his flaws like nothing else could, made him understand that he — not his supporting cast — needed to change. Reading novels before games this season wasn’t James’ most important change, but maybe it was the most symbolic. In James’ world of chaos, he required relaxation time. People wanted him to become Jordan, but James doesn’t thrive on hate. He needed to find joy again, to block off distractions, to return to the boy who had captured the world’s imagination and done it all with a smile on his face. The destination, an NBA championship, is reached by one team every season. But James needed to find his own trail.
“It was a journey for myself. I don’t want to compare it to any other player. Everything that went 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 it, and I had to learn through it. No one had [gone] through that journey, so I had to learn on my own. Everything that came with it, I had to basically figure it out on my own,” he said, adding, “I’m a champion, and I did it the right way. I didn’t shortcut anything.”
Some players win their first title, leap to the heavens and pump their fist like the air deserves a fierce punishment. Others win their first title and weep. Others give a shoutout to ‘Sota and scream about anything being possible.
James left Game 5 late in the fourth quarter with the championship already well in hand. He smiled, hugged everyone around him, kept smiling, motioned to the crowd to cheer more loudly, screamed at the top of his lungs, and wouldn’t stop smiling. Later, at his press conference, when that booming smile had finally subsided, he could reflect on his journey. It was difficult, the most difficult accomplishment he ever secured. The man for whom everything always came so easy learned the lesson of patience, and was finally forced to examine the extra percentage of his potential that had previously gone unrealized.
LeBron James has been from the top to the bottom and now back to the top. Maybe, even at the top, he’s not done climbing.