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Steve Aschburner

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As much as winning a title is about team, the focus is squarely on seeing LeBron James claim the crown.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron on brink of joining elite fraternity of champions


Posted Jun 21 2012 11:29AM

MIAMI -- Over here, we've got Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Dominique Wilkins and countless others. Over there, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and so many more.

Over here is pretty good. Over there, apparently, is better. Over there, they have rings.

"Like it or not, that's the way we value our icons in this society," Miami Heat forward Shane Battier said Wednesday, during the pause between Games 4 and 5 of the 2012 Finals. He had been asked about the notion of greatness and the certification of it that people expect to see. In his chosen field, it comes as a chunky, glittering, paperweight-sized piece of jewelry.

"In any industry," Battier said. "It's 'How many Oscars have you won?' It's 'How many Nobel Peace Prizes have you won? Have you been published in the Harvard Business Review? What were your earnings last year as a CEO?' If you want to be remembered as one of the greatest, you need it."

Those that have it have something way bigger than a gaudy ring or a trophy on a mantle. Those that don't, want it. Or they wanted it until it got too late to do anything about it.

"You can be great [without it], I don't want to say you can't," Battier said, "but it's difficult to reach the pantheon without it."

LeBron James and the Miami Heat are one step away from the NBA's particular pantheon, which honors those who have won championships and charges admission to those who have not, no matter how accomplished or entertaining their basketball careers. It applies -- or at least, it's a standard that gets applied -- to this sport more than any other, the idea that the game's very best can elevate entire teams to titles.

There is a specific logic to it: Not all players who win championships are great but, if you buy what so many folks are selling on this topic, all great players must win championships. Fair or unfair, it's a generally accepted principal, not just in the fans' eyes but in the players' themselves.

"That's a strike against me that I've got to live with," Barkley said Wednesday on ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption." He's an 11-time All-Star, he was a key player on the vaunted "Dream Team" in 1992 and he was the 1993 NBA MVP. But there is a "but" to Barkley's career (never mind the butt).

"It is what it is," the TNT broadcasting marvel said. "I root for LeBron. I'm gonna start rooting for [Kevin] Durant. I always rooted for Karl Malone and John Stockton and Patrick Ewing. I always root for the great players, because it does suck when you don't have that championship."

It has, ahem, sucked for James for some time now. More than any other active player, he has been lugging around the expectations and the pressures to win not just MVP trophies, not just statistical crowns, not just games and preliminary playoff series but championships. And, of course, not just one, not just two, not just three ...

He knows it, we know it and his pals know it, too.

"It's a big deal to him," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "You've got a guy who has probably achieved all the individual accolades that you can achieve at the highest level of basketball, and doesn't have a title. It's kind of like you're not complete. You're not whole. So for him, that gives him an opportunity to close another chapter in his book in his Hall of Fame career."

Dwyane Wade already has won one. That's why Wade knows this title pursuit, while technically an "us" thing, really is about James. "He has a goal and he wants to reach that goal," Wade said. "And he doesn't want nothing to stand in his way, and he doesn't want himself to stand in his way."

Chris Bosh has no ring but never has carried the burden of winning one the way James has because, frankly, no one expects Bosh to push onto anyone's all-time greatest list. That's why, even as he dismisses the "legacy" talk in general, he knows that the specifics of it apply in the deepest, most direct way to his more famous, more scrutinized, more celebrated and more vilified teammate.

"Not only us," Bosh said, "but everybody in the stands and watching on TV [can see] how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on."

But what of James himself? The media have been the ones shaping and pushing this story along, from his cover-guy days as an Akron high schooler on Sports Illustrated's cover, through seven seasons as the Cavaliers' cornerstone, on through "The Decision" and the bravado of the past two seasons on South Beach. They've kept the ante high for James, maybe unfairly so, and now they're starting to dictate the terms again: winning Thursday night or in Game 6 or 7 will make everything right and prove so many "haters" wrong.

Well, you know something? That is wrong. It's as wrong in its presumptions, arbitrary timetable and threshold as so much of the vitriol has been. NBA fans will no more be forced to embrace James once he has a ring than they were to dislike him when he didn't, because the questions he has inspired along the way aren't just limited to what. They also include the how, the who, the where and the why of stalking and bagging a championship.

Maybe James won't be ringless anymore but he'll be ringless in Cleveland, he'll be ringless back home (where it always meant so much for him to share his MVP acceptances), he'll be ringless as a competitor who went through Wade and Bosh rather than teaming with them.

Look, James will have won a championship, and in binary terms that will be plenty good. The same way it has been good enough for the legacies of Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Jerry West, Bob Pettit, Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and others. Yet he will have taken a shortcut, too, choosing to join other All-Stars in the prime of their careers, a mini-Dream Team approach that might not have been the most sporting.

People get to choose how they view this, same as they chose whatever gauntlet they expected James to run all these years. What matters most is how James views it, for himself, in this special and serious time.

And from the sound of it Wednesday, that pause before all the noise old and new, he views it just about right.

"I'm just more comfortable," he said. "This is my third crack at it. First of all, I'm blessed because a lot of people ... never go to The Finals. Second of all, if they go, they never go back. And this is my third opportunity. So I'm just trying to make the most of it. And like I said, win, lose or draw, I'm giving my all, and I'm going to be happy. I'll be satisfied with that."

Five years ago with Cleveland, he was a relative kid, spanked in four games by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 the way the young Thunder players are getting spanked now. Last year, James and the Heat thought they were ready but they were young in a team sense, and maybe in need of some reality. Some humility.

"Last year after Game 6, after losing, once again, I was very frustrated," James said. "I was very hurt that I let my teammates down and I was very immature. I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and why I fell in love with the game. So I was very immature last year after Game 6 towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching."

That was when James, in the minutes after the Dallas Mavericks ousted Miami, essentially told the world that the rest of us would be waking up to our same old humdrum lives while he'd be waking up as LeBron James. Yeah, immature.

"One thing that I learned ... and someone taught me this, the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience," he said. "I've experienced some things in my long but short career, and I'm able to make it better of myself throughout these playoffs and throughout this whole year, and that's on and off the court.

"I'm just happy that I'm able to be in this position today and be back in this stage where I can do the things that I can do to make this team proud, make this organization proud, and we'll see what happens."

He's over here for a little longer. He'll be over there soon, very soon. And now, maybe more than ever, he'll truly belong there.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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