I, like LeBron James, thought it would be easy. When he took his talents to South Beach to team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I accepted their domination as inevitable and resorted to saying it wouldn’t be very rewarding for them given the way the team was assembled.
But something unexpected happened last season: The Miami Heat did not win a title. Suddenly, we—not to mention the Heat players—realized it wasn’t easy. In this year’s NBA Finals, Miami lost Game 1 in Oklahoma City. In the 48 hours before Game 2, those familiar questions popped up: Was this experiment a failure? Who would coach the Heat next season? Should they trade Wade or Bosh?
They were the same questions we heard in the days between Games 5 and 6 of the Boston series and Games 3 and 4 of the Indiana series. There was no more talk about winning titles being easy. Miami won four in a row against the Thunder, culminating in Thursday’s 121-106 rout, and just like that LeBron was no longer ringless.
My younger brother Steve suggested that now that LeBron has a title, maybe people will root for him to win a whole bunch and make his claim for best player of all time. I wouldn’t go that far, but I can certainly see an attitude change among basketball fans.
Rooting against LeBron and the Heat was great fun last season. I rooted against them again in this year’s playoffs, but not as passionately. Now that they’ve won, I’m still not going to cheer for them, but the drama of a ringless LeBron chasing an elusive championship is now off the table for good.
The hate was less intense this season because, as my friend Griff put it, “How can you hate an underdog?” It’s hard to wrap your head around, but that’s what LeBron and the Heat had become: sportsbooks made Oklahoma City the favorite to win this series; the avalanche of criticism heaped upon LeBron made him an underdog of sorts.
That underdog, the greatest basketball player on the planet, now has a championship. “Maybe now people will appreciate his greatness,” I’ve heard some say. Well, no, you’re not obligated to appreciate him—he’s playing ball, not curing diseases. But to not recognize his greatness is ludicrous.
If you want to put an asterisk by this title, as my pal Adrian chooses to do, citing the shortened season and Derrick Rose’s injury, go ahead. This is part of what makes sports fun.
To remind myself of how I feel about LeBron, all I have to do is rewatch the part of “The Decision” where he is finally asked to end his free agent circus and he responds as if he didn’t realize the question was coming and was unsure of his answer. “Man, this is very tough,” he said, before revealing it’s the Heat. Or, better yet, I can call up the clip of the gag-inducing preseason coronation, where LeBron infamously declared Miami would win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships.
As I’ve said all along, it’s not Miami’s assembly of stars that bothered me. Oklahoma City has Kevin Durant (First Team All-NBA and the league’s scoring leader) and Russell Westbrook (Second-Teamer and the fifth leading scorer), in addition to the talented James Harden. San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. I could go on. You can say these teams, for the most part, acquired their talent more organically, through the draft, but Boston traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to form its Big Three and there wasn’t nearly the same backlash.
With LeBron and the Heat, it’s always been about how they went about it. Obviously it all started with “The Decision” and continued with the preseason ceremony, a general display of arrogance, and a lack of awareness for public perception (remember LeBron’s “my haters are still going to have their crappy lives” quote after Dallas eliminated Miami last season?).
After capturing his first title on Thursday, LeBron admitted he was immature during last year’s Finals. He may never truly “get it,” but that championship under his belt will make life a lot easier. He is the most scrutinized athlete in all of sports. In 2012, that means we know every book he read during the playoffs (if I told you Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith debated whether LeBron thought Katniss should be with Peeta or Gale, could you say with certainty I was making it up?) and analyze every fourth quarter possession with a high-powered microscope. It is almost enough for me to feel bad for LeBron.
He gets so much blame for every loss, and yet, last year’s Finals loss may have been a good thing for him and the Heat. Sure, it might cost LeBron one extra title off his final tally, but it probably made those he does win a lot more enjoyable. And it made those of us watching at least consider that winning an NBA title, no matter who’s on your roster, is never easy.