MIAMI – These used to be the moments that suffocated LeBron James. End of a game, the world watching, everyone expecting greatness. A TV camera would catch James sitting on the bench, gnawing on his fingernails during a timeout. He'd take the court, and the ball – and the game – would find their way into his large hands. Too often, he'd give them both to a teammate. The pressure, the responsibility to live up to his enormous talent, was too much for him to shoulder.
No longer is James haunted by his demons. He embraces these moments now, and as the final seconds ticked off the clock late Thursday, James was finally free of the burden he had carried for so long. Finally, the world could call him a champion.
James had walked off the court a few minutes earlier, the Miami Heat's 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder long since secure. He dominated these NBA Finals, and he saved his best for last with a 26-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound triple-double performance. James hugged his teammates and coaches, screamed and waved his arms. No more doubts. He owned his elusive title.
"It's about damn time," James said after accepting the Finals MVP trophy from Bill Russell. "It's about damn time."
He had come into the Finals with people questioning whether Kevin Durant had surpassed him as the game's greatest player, with the Heat cast in the unfamiliar role of underdogs. Oklahoma City's victory in Game 1 fanned those sentiments. It turned out to be the only jolt the Heat needed.
James took hold of this series in Game 2 and he never let go. He was the league's best player this season, and he was the greatest player on the floor in these Finals. The Thunder never had an answer for him. Not Durant, not anyone. From the moment James threw down a thunderous dunk to open Thursday night, the message was clear:
No more waiting. This night, this season, belonged to him.
"My dream has become a reality now," James said, "and it's the best feeling I ever had."
James' coronation came only after he showed the depth of his greatness. He barreled through the Thunder early then spent much of the rest of the night picking them apart with his precision passes. Each time, the Thunder started to steady themselves, James found an open shooter. Mike Miller, who made seven of his eight 3-pointers. Shane Battier. Mario Chalmers. By the middle of the third quarter, the game – and the series – was out of OKC's reach.
"It was a storybook season for him," Durant said.
Miami's journey through these playoffs was a test in resilience. They trailed in every series but their first. In each, they were led back by James. Dwyane Wade had deferred to James this season, given him control of the Heat, and James accepted the responsibility.
No athlete has been more scrutinized, and that's why no NBA championship has ever felt so fulfilling for one player. James has become an athlete for our times, delivered onto the world's stage as a high school senior, wealth and celebrity finding him well before maturity. He's grown up before us, teenager to global star, Akron to South Beach, his flaws and failures just as compelling a story as his successes.
Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, James seemed destined to someday deliver his hometown the championship it so craved. He took the Cavs to the Finals in 2007, but was gone in four games, swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Four years later, James decided he'd had enough, the burden to carry Cleveland by himself too great. So he left.
James' free-agent courtship was unlike any other in the sport's history. He had been raised in front of cameras, his life chronicled in 140-character tweets, and he announced his decision, fittingly enough, in a narcissistic televised special titled "The Decision." "I'm taking my talents to South Beach," James said, giving his generation one of its iconic phrases.
[Related: Painful ending for Kevin Durant, Thunder]
In signing with the Heat, James joined two other stars from his draft class, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, in a free-agent haul that seemed to signal a transfer of power in the NBA. Miami treated the trio as royalty, parading them on a stage bathed in smoke and lights, the type of celebration usually reserved for championships, not signatures. James played to the moment, promising to win multiple championships. "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," he crowed.
The moment cemented James as one of the greatest villains in sports. James said he willingly accepted the role, that he was content to be the man in black, a target for critics and opposing fans alike. In truth, he wasn't strong enough to handle the contempt.
Unlike Michael Jordan and some of the NBA's other great champions, James didn't arrive with an indomitable spirit. He had to learn to develop one, and his first season in Miami provided quite the lesson. Favored to win the title, the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals as James flitted around the perimeter and shrunk in the series' biggest moments.
James never looked so young afterward. On the same stage in which he celebrated Thursday's coronation, he pouted and tried to mock his critics, his insecurities pouring out in front of the world.
Deep down, James knew he needed to change. He shut himself off to the world for two weeks after the series, and the year since has been one of introspection. He found a mentor in Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. He began reading more, including at his locker before games. He turned off his cell phone before the playoffs. He blocked out the distractions and did everything, it seemed, to put his mind at ease.
"It took me to go all the way to the top and then rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person," James said.
So on the eve of his first championship, James surprised no one when he announced: "I feel comfortable."
[Slideshow: Miami celebrates its second title]
Throughout this postseason, James has sustained his aggressiveness like never before. He's taken the ball into the post and attacked from different angles. No floating this year. He unleashed an epic 45-point performance with the Heat facing elimination against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, and he dominated the Thunder in this series.
James always needed a championship to validate his greatness. It probably won't change everyone's perception of him, but it will help, as will the way in which James has carried himself this season. He's displayed a level of humility and openness he'd rarely shown.
A year ago James walked out of this same arena defeated and mocked. As the roar fell down upon him late Thursday, he unfurled his long arms and unburdened himself of all that pressure, all that unfulfilled promise. He was a champion, at last.
NBA Finals video from Yahoo! Sports:
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