Posted Jun 22 2012 9:18AM
MIAMI -- Once again we found them dancing and laughing and whooping it up before they won a title. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. The Big Three set free. They were on the bench, hugging, jumping, pointing, hugging some more. Just like they did two summers ago in this very same arena, ever so controversially, in front of this very same hysterical crowd.
Then the final two minutes of the NBA Finals ticked off, and it was official. And when the promised title was secured and the Lawrence O'Brien trophy squeezed tightly by James, there was not one, not two, not three, not four, but five tons lifted from their shoulders.
"It's about damn time!" James said.
You can hate. But you must appreciate. You must acknowledge how the Heat rallied from deficits in three playoff series to win. How they hung tight when Bosh suffered an abdominal strain. How they beat an Oklahoma City team with as much fire and star power, if not more.
And especially how James picked himself off the psychiatrist's sofa last summer, when he was laughed at and lampooned by the basketball world, and went back to work in smashing if not historic fashion.
The 2012 champions are a team specifically built to do this, to entertain basketball fans, to go on a deep run through June, and obviously, to feel the confetti falling from the sky. It came a year later than they thought, and who knows if the future will bring the multiple rings they promised. But right here and now, none of that matters. It's about the present. It's about being champs.
And did you see how it all came together, in Game 5, from tip to buzzer? Wade added 20 points and some amazing blocks on hustle plays. Bosh added 24 points and showed the toughness his detractors said he lacked.
But this was really about James and a wicked playoff performance that stretched to the very end. He scored and passed and rebounded, as he did all winter, all spring, all summer. His average of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists earned him the series MVP vote in a Roosevelt-like landslide.
It was the kind of epic run that places James among the all-time greats, in terms of production, clutch play and sheer will. The difference is, nobody in the past dealt with the public backlash quite like James, and therefore his mental toughness was championship-like as well.
Instead of the angry and bitter and in his admission, "immature" player who lost the NBA Finals a year ago by coming up short in close games, James was humble and introspective as the champagne began to dry.
"It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person," he said. "I was just happy I was able to get back to this position. I was happy I was able to do it the right way, and do it for myself and not for anyone else."
His mind suddenly relieved and his championship secured, James kept the emotions flowing.
"Everything that went along with being a high school prodigy, to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise, everything that came with it, I had to learn through it. No one had gone through that journey, so I had to do it on my own. I had to figure it out oon my own.
"The best thing that happened to me was losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played," he revealed, "because basically, I got back to the basics. I knew I was going to have to change as a basketball player and as a person to get what I wanted. It just happened one year later."
Yes, one year later, when the curtain reopened, we saw a player possessed and a man who impressed. James didn't commit a PR stumble, didn't say or do the wrong thing, didn't rub anyone the wrong way. It was basketball with a purpose -- to win a championship -- and a person with a purpose. And that was to regain the good standing he enjoyed before he left Cleveland amid a blizzard of criticism, some deserved, but most of it way over the top. James never committed a crime but was treated harsher than athletes who actually committed crimes. He became a public punching bad for an increasingly annoyed and skeptical and critical and viral sports world, where the residents hold athletes to a higher behavioral standard than people who actually came into their lives.
James pushed through anyway, chipping away at his "image" with performances that screamed and a persona that soothed.
"I think this meant everything to him," said Bosh, "just the work he put in. At one point last summer I asked him, `how have you been doing?' I just wanted to check on him. He said he hadn't come out of the house.
"Just to see the perseverance he had and to witness it everyday, his progression as a leader and his will to win, I mean, it's incredible. It's been unbelievable to witness."
James grabbed a triple-double in the final game, a truly dominant effort. A year ago, he pretended to mock the illness of Dirk Nowitzki, the biggest star on the other bench, further soiling his image. Thursday, he held a long embrace with a teary Kevin Durant and wished him well.
Wade talked of a team meeting this season where James opened up about his struggles, professionally and publically.
"He kind of let us in on what it's like to be LeBron James," Wade said. "None of us really know. So I'm happy for him. I don't know if I could be happier for another man to succeed in life like I'm happy for him. I know what he went through to get to this point.
"He took being the best player in the league to another level, and he did it all season long. Thanks to him, we're all able to celebrate once again."
Yes. Two years after they appeared from the manufactured smoke and haze on a stage built for them at a pep rally, two years after they were formed by team president Pat Riley to the delight of seemingly no one outside the 305, the Big Three have reason to kick their heels.
And LeBron James? Did he just kick his bad image? Well, that's up to you to decide. Either way, he and the Heat aren't thinking about that right now. They're too busy ... dancing.
"I want to ask permission," said Riley, in the middle of the jubilation. "Can we have a party tonight? Is it OK to have a party?"
Yes. Have at it. There's finally something to celebrate.
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