As I watched the final seconds tick down on the 2012 NBA Finals, the Heat fan in me felt a mix of emotions more uncomfortable than I’d care to admit.
I wanted the Heat to win the title; that wasn’t the issue. After watching the team collapse against Dallas the year before and having to listen to every idiot friend of mine explain how they have exactly as many rings as LeBron, this moment needed to happen.
However, as the confetti rained down in Miami, I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t how the Heat were supposed to win their next title—not like this.
When I sat down to watch “The Decision” nearly two full years ago at a Cavaliers fan’s house, I had no idea that the Heat’s first title since 2006 would happen like this. For starters, I watched the debacle with a Cavs fan because each of us correctly assumed that LeBron would have to be a completely narcissistic fool to stage a television show to announce that he was leaving Cleveland.
That night, being a Heat fan was almost cheapened. Yes, we had just landed the largest free agent signing in the history of the NBA, but it almost felt like cheating. It felt wrong what happened to Cleveland, and James’ announcement later that the Heat would win “not 5, not 6, not 7” titles solidified the public opinion of the Big Three as villains.
En route to this championship, LeBron tried to embrace the role of the villain. He worked on this persona, perfecting his stare after a drained basket, and making Miami’s alternate all-black uniforms look downright sinister. However, his true personality shone through, as it always does.
“The Decision” wasn’t about James casting himself as a villain: he held the event at a Boys and Girls Club, for crying out loud. Rather, it was his need for flair—to be the center of attention—that fueled that action and so many others.
The signs of this were there throughout his entire career. Between his ritual to throw chalk into the air before every game to his gaudy “Chosen 1” tattoo across his back, it’s undeniable that James loves the spotlight. Even his teammates are aware of his hunger for attention. Shaquille O’Neal freely admitted after signing with the Cavaliers that he was there to help “win a ring for the king.” Shaq knew back then that it could never be considered a team title when LeBron was involved, something that I too finally learned on Thursday night.
These playoffs were different than any other stage of James’ career though. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, James delivered a transcendent performance with an absurd stat line. With his team facing elimination, James played 45 minutes and recorded 45 points with 15 rebounds and 5 assists.
The most impressive part of that night aside from his sheer dominance, though, was the look in his eye.
For the first time, LeBron did not command attention through his selfish and sometimes childish actions. Instead, he used his incredible basketball talent to will his team to victory in a must-win situation. He no longer cared about the LeBron James “brand” he has worked so hard to cultivate. Instead, he was in the TD Garden that night for one purpose—to win a basketball game.
Nights like that had previously separated him from the greats like Bird and Jordan. Now James had made the jump, and Heat fans everywhere were glad to see the distractions left behind in the wake of such a dominating performance on the largest stage.
This year’s title will never feel right because of “The Decision”; there’s no way any team could celebrate with a clean conscience
after that. However, these five games of the NBA Finals gave us all a peek at a fully-developed LeBron. His actions in Cleveland and his exit are all sunk costs and things that can never be changed. However, the grit, det
ermination, and sheer dominance James displayed on the court allow us to stop questioning whether or not James is “clutch” and instead replace that with the more appropriate question—how many more times can he do this?
Miami’s Big Three finally found their recipe for success. Yes, it involved a lot more Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller than anyone expected, but the way in which they battled back from deficits that at times seemed insurmountable against an incredibly talented Oklahoma City squad is undeniably the characteristic of a championship-caliber team. James’ grit and hustle in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals and his level of play throughout the NBA Finals (culminating in a triple-double in the clinching game) have given us all a glimpse of what he’s capable of—truly leading a team through his actions and play.
As hard as it was to separate the James, Wade, and Bosh standing on the podium at the American Airlines Arena Thursday night from the same Big Three standing on a stage in the same venue two years ago to prematurely flaunt their successes, the three do look visibly different.
It’s been two years since “The Decision” and the summer LeBron James held all basketball fans captive. In the meantime, James and company have came a long way. I can never look at those three without a hint of disgust, but the level of play by LeBron and his teammates in this postseason certainly buries a lot of demons.