Tuesday, June 26, 2012
LeBron was right
Not because Dwyane Wade is better than Mo Williams, or Chris Bosh is better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But because LeBron respects those guys in a way he didn't respect any of his teammates here. Because the Cavs never had a superstar-commanding presence like Pat Riley in the front office.
We thought LeBron signed a shortened contract extension in 2006 because he wanted to pressure the Cavs front office to remain aggressive in building a contender around him. Actually, he signed the shortened extension to give him an escape hatch, which he used two years ago.
There was never any real sense of urgency for LeBron while he was here. Obviously, he wanted to win. But he didn't need to win. How could LeBron develop any sense of desperation when he was surrounded by legions of people both inside and outside the Cavs organization who would do anything to placate him? When he looked at the roster and saw nobody he viewed as close to an equal? When that 2010 escape pod was fueled up and ready to launch, should he decide to use it?
He simply couldn't win a title here. He didn't respect the organization enough to get desperate, to fight tooth-and-nail for a championship.
That all changed when he went to Miami, when he was faced with upholding the legacy of Riley, when he shared a locker room with Wade and Bosh, two adopted brothers from the 2003 draft class. Wade is now 30 and his body is starting to wear down from the years of brutal punishment absorbed on countless kamikaze drives into the lane. His game is gradually eroding under the weight of deteriorating ankles, knees and shoulders. In a couple of years, Wade might be a slow, depleted, pain-wracked has-been on retirement's doorstep.
Somehow, cementing the legacy of a close friend, someone you view as a competitive equal, is infintely more motivating than trying to do the same for Mo Williams or Anderson Varejao.
The first NBA title for LeBron was the culmination of two years of growth. After seven years in the cocoon of Cleveland, where no one carried the sway to demand he suffer some hard knocks and grow up, he left town in one of the most immature, self-aggrandizing ways imaginable, making his departure into an hourlong spectacle on national TV.
Then, when the public turned on him and the media made him into a villain, he added fuel to the fire by spending much of the 2010-11 season whining about how nobody likes him, how everyone wanted him to fail.
Then the Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals to Dallas after holding a 2-1 series lead, mostly because LeBron's team disappeared in the fourth quarters of the final three games.
The summer of 2011 was the nadir for LeBron. He took a major gamble abdicating his throne in Cleveland to hook up with two other superstars in a setting where he would face extreme criticism for failure. And that's exactly what was happening.
In Cleveland, that's where we thought the story ended. LeBron the overhyped crybaby who lacked the fortitude and icy resolve to ever become a true champion, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
It's true that LeBron lacks the nasty streak of Jordan or Bryant. He doesn't have an internal gland that manufactures competitive fury. But to say he's a wimp who lacks the heart and stomach to be a champion is, at the expense of Cleveland's collective schadenfreude, flat-out wrong.
What motivates LeBron? Go back to his high-school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. As an only child, LeBron craved a sense of belonging and togetherness within a group, which he found with his high-school teammates en route to three state titles.
In Cleveland, he never had that. He had a small army of people looking to him, asking him to be the savior -- teammates, the coaching staff, the front office, a fan base starving for a championship parade. As the saying goes, it's lonely at the top. LeBron resented the burden placed on him. He longed to recapture the special relationship he and his teammates had at SVSM. In the NBA, it's all but impossible, but he figured the closest he could come was to partner with Wade and Bosh in Miami.
Which brings us to the 2012 Finals, Wade on the wrong side of 30 and Bosh pulling himself back from an abdominal strain suffered in the second round to average 14 points and 9 rebounds for the series.
Everything that LeBron experienced in the two years since he left Cleveland finally clicked. The criticism, the failure, hitting emotional bedrock, learning from experience, going through painful rounds of self-discovery. The result: He finally played like a man possessed with the desire to taste championship champagne. He neutralized Oklahoma City's beefy interior. He mauled James Harden, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. He outplayed Kevin Durant, points per game totals aside.
For the first time, we saw LeBron play hungry, desperate, obsessed with getting the ring that had eluded him for nine years. For the first time since high school, LeBron had tapped into what truly motivates him. He had found a new band of brothers, and he couldn't let them down again.
That's not to say LeBron is a selfless saint. We only need to go back to the summer of 2010 to remind ourselves that's not the case. But he is anything but a lone-wolf assassin. He needs to belong before he can need to win.
While we all would have rather LeBron's maturation happen on the Cavs' watch, at least it happened, and he finally overcame his demons enough to win a ring. If it represents a corner turned, LeBron and the Heat will probably win several more. Father Time will probably prevent LeBron from equalling Jordan's six, but three or four isn't out of the question.
It's time to throw away the 2010 images of LeBron, sitting across from Jim Gray as he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, then talking about winning five, six, seven titles like it was as easy as breathing. It is a different superstar we saw this spring. One who grew up and finally appreciated how difficult it is to win a title, how much you need to care, how much you need to find what makes you care.
Even with all the bridges burned between LeBron and Cleveland, it's still pleasing to see him realize his potential as a champion. He is, quite simply, the most gifted basketball player to ever set foot on a court.
If LeBron went down in history alongside ringless court jester Charles Barkley instead of the game's true royalty, that would have been a crime against basketball. If you think any differently, you need to take off the Cleveland-colored glasses and look again.