MIAMI — The vindication of “The Decision” occurred Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, when LeBron James, for a second consecutive season, placed the fate of the Miami Heat on his hulking shoulders and sifted through the NBA landmines of the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs, ending with a second championship.
The Heat relied upon James more this season than either of his previous two in Miami. Dwyane Wade battled constant knee pain and could only reach vintage form occasionally, Chris Bosh produced, but hardly at the level expected when he signed with the Heat, and the bench was solid but not spectacular.
This one was on LeBron. When San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich dared him to shoot from the perimeter in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, he drained five 3-pointers and then a decisive 19-footer with 27.2 seconds left.
The transformation of James from the most physically imposing and athletically gifted player in the NBA to unquestionably the most versatile and skilled player is quite impressive, but more impressive over the past two years has been his mental transformation.
James no longer wears his insecurity on his sleeve. He no longer perceives every stranger to be his enemy. He deals with the Michael Jordan comparisons admirably. Realizing that Jordan bar is unreachable, he has decided to create his own bar.
In dealing with the media, even during the most trying times of this series, James was affable and relaxed. He refused to allow the enormity of the moment to faze him, and he embraced his opportunity for greatness.
That was a stark contrast from two years ago when a broken and beaten James addressed the media after Game 6 of the NBA Finals, after the Dallas Mavericks cruised to victory, embarrassing James and his teammates with their teamwork and precision.
James told the world after that game that his detractors would have to go back to their regular lives while when the sun rises the next day, and he would still be LeBron. True as that may have been, it was a tacky approach to adversity. That LeBron has learned graciousness.
He was giddy after Game 7 Thursday night, relishing that the journey was over and so was the criticism. He moves up the pantheon of players with NBA championships. He now has multiple titles. He is a winner. He can win games with that once-broken jump shot.
It was that jump shot Popovich exposed when the Spurs swept James’s Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals.
“I said before the series that I was a better player than I was last time I faced the Spurs,’’ James said. “Didn’t look that way the first couple of games. But I stuck with it.
“Through all that adversity and throughout, I guess, the rhythm that I was in at that point, I just kept going. Just trusted all the work that I put into my game. And to be able to come through for your teammates, for me . . . I care about my teammates and hate letting my teammates down. To be able to come through for my teammates in the biggest moment on the biggest stage makes me more satisfied than anything in the world.”
James has often been accused of being too unselfish, caring far too much about his teammates’ opinions.
He has proven with this run he doesn’t need to have the bravado and self-centeredness of Kobe Bryant or Jordan. He can succeed by picking and choosing his moments, however frustrating that may be to fans who desire James use his awe-inspiring physical skills to dominate constantly.
LeBron is forcing us to accept who he is because his method has been successful. He used free agency to sign with Miami, much to the chagrin of most fans outside of South Florida who thought he should have stayed the course in Cleveland. He feverishly attempted to incorporate Wade, Bosh, and the supporting cast, as he tried to gain comfort with his new surroundings instead of seizing the chance at being the franchise player.
The process of James emerging as the primary option was meticulous but occurred because of his improvement and patience, and Wade’s slow decline. He has assumed that role graciously, sometimes too much so, but perhaps this title will curtail those Jordan comparisons, allowing James to create his own Hall of Fame niche.
The most significant benefit this time is that it may allow James to take comfort in being a winner and embrace those who admire him.
That process has already started.
“One of my first goals is to continue to inspire the youth to want to play this game of basketball or to be better at whatever they do. I mean, I love kids,” he said.
“Hopefully [Thursday] I was able to inspire a lot. Inspire millions to, no matter what they’ve gone through in their lives at that point in time, they can always overcome it. Second thing for me is to continue to lead my teammates. I know the grass isn’t always green and there’s going to be trials and tribulations. But hopefully I can continue to be the leader for my teammates.
“And then lastly, I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game. And I will continue to work for that, and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.