MIAMI – Fate did LeBron James the most magnificent favor, forcing failure upon him a season ago, leaving him humiliated, hurting and hurtling into despair. That championship would've been met with shrugs and so-whats, a resentment rising out of the way these Miami Heat were assembled, the clustering of stars on a smoke-filled stage promising an unprecedented dominance. Too fast. Too easy. Failure was the greatest thing to happen to his career because it changed the prism with which the world viewed James, and most of all, the way LeBron James viewed himself.
"The best thing that happened to me was us losing in the Finals [in 2011], and me playing the way I played," James said late Thursday night inside the AmericanAirlines Arena, sitting between the two most remarkable bookends of his basketball life: The Larry O'Brien NBA championship trophy and the Russell MVP award. His eyes washed over to them, his fingers touched them now and again, almost as though he still was checking to know that they were real, that most of all, they belonged to him.
"It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics," he said. "It humbled me. I knew I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted."
Failure didn't humanize James; his response to it humanized him. An impenetrable wall between him and those far away, and those close, had been torn down. Scripted, stilted responses were replaced with introspection. This was true with the public, and this had been true with his teammates until they had a team meeting this season, and Dwyane Wade revealed that, "For the first time, I heard LeBron James open up and kind of let us in on what it's like to be LeBron James."
Perhaps there was a time when everyone expected his championship moment – the aftermath of a devastating 121-106 victory over Oklahoma City – to be a platform for gloating and I-told-you-sos, and James rose above all of that, the way he had risen above these Thunder for a virtuoso Game 5 performance of 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds. He hadn't come declaring himself vindicated for past slights and criticisms but rather liberated with the truth that he had sifted through it all, and he had found shards of painful truths in the avalanche thrust upon him. In turn, his psyche changed, his game grew, his ability to cope with the pressures and expectations were fully realized.
So yes, LeBron James had won his championship at 27 years old on Thursday night, just as Michael Jordan had won his first championship at 27. James didn't have three years at North Carolina under Dean Smith, nor did he have a childhood as traditional – perhaps even functional – as Jordan's. When James had a chance to frame his championship chase into the context of those before him, including M.J., James resisted.
"It was a journey for myself," he said. "I don't want to compare it to any other player. Everything that went with me being a high school prodigy when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise; everything that came with it. I had to deal with it, and I had to learn through it.
"No one had [gone] through that journey, so I had to learn on my own. Everything that came with it, I had to basically figure it out on my own."
And then, James would say: "I'm a champion, and I did it the right way. I didn't shortcut anything."
The words of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert still were on his mind, almost a flinching out of James for the next wave of criticism that perhaps he feared would be thrust his way. Over and over, wherever his thoughts would go in the aftermath of this spectacular NBA Finals performance of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists, James punctuated his sentences with, "I'm a champion now." For him, it is the kicker to every answer now, and that Finals failure a season ago makes it harder for people to completely dismiss James and the Heat as the big, bad bully who ganged up on everyone else.
James needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but they needed him a lot more for a championship. As it turned out, Wade wasn't a co-chair on this partnership, but a sidekick. In this NBA, no one wins a title without a superstar, and All-Stars in the supporting cast. That's been true for the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks in these past several years, and that was true for the Heat, too.
"Two years ago," Wade said, "we all expected it to be a little easier than it was."
That's why James would sit inside this arena two years ago and declare that the Heat would win five and six and seven titles, and that's why he lived to regret it. Had it happened that way, he never would've moved beyond the entitled prodigy that USA Basketball had considered leaving off the 2008 Olympic team because of his bratty behavior, beyond the behind-the-scenes tyrant in Cleveland who mistreated those big and small. Yet James pushed past it all, pushed into a far more pleasant and peaceful place, in part because those personal revelations freed him to chase down this championship and promise to liberate him to win more in the years to come.
The dam bursts now, the walls come crashing down and James is the water tumbling down a mountainside, gathering speed and power, leaving everyone to wonder: What in the world can stop it now? Winning changes everything, and champions can behave unchecked in ways that those without titles never are allowed. That's this sporting culture, and that's the double standard that forever will exist.
Talent had taken him so far, so fast, but the rapidness with which it all came cost James for so much of his life. His flaws met the digital age, and the ensuing explosion caused a supernova. All around him, there were people profiting over his inability to manage himself, his emotions, his talents, and they stunted his growth. His entourage has been long on spending his money, basking in his fame, and notoriously short on delivering him the truths and tools needed for genuine growth. Eventually, James found his moment of truth, and it came in large part from the way that the world reveled over his failures in the 2011 Finals. It made him understand the holes in his life and his game, and how to close them.
"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 a person," James said.
"I just kind of made my own path."
He had cut it in a way that no one ever did, prodigy to MVP, sporting villain to disgraced loser, and finally, to champion. Ultimately, James hadn't come to see his title moment through the prism of those before him – not Michael, not Kobe, not Magic, not Larry – no one. His talent, his jagged journey, his own struggle has been most unique. When it was over on Thursday night, LeBron James knew this delicious, indisputable truth: His NBA championship stands on its own, stands forever now.
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