What does it mean? After all the hate and all the eyeball-popping plays? After all the vitriol disguised as “critical commentary”, after all the careers, legacies and hearts at stake? After all the sweet beauty of good basketball and the sheer spirit-crushing horror of missed jumper after missed jumper in the NBA Finals 2011? What does the journey that started with three superstars and ended with a t-e-a-m mean to the one guy who simply endured on his way to achieving the single greatest feat in basketball imagination?
In the words of NBA Champion LeBron James, “It’s about damn time.”
He’s now a number of things. Not one, not two, not three…NBA MVP. NBA Finals MVP. NBA Champion. Winner.
It hasn’t been easy. After the Heat’s over-the-top celebration in the wake of signing the Big Three, the entire basketball landscape in the NBA changed. What followed was a season unlike any other in NBA History – never has any other team faced as much intense scrutiny, fan hate and derision. Never has any other player been questioned, crippled and rendered impotent in a similar manner. Never has a team been crushed so decisively by waves of negativity as the 2011 Miami Heat. And they came back from it all, the Band of Brothers, and played like a true team. They played like the champions they are. And they beat a classy, elite OKC Thunder team to do so.
The championship was not sudden, nor was it a fluke. The Heat played hard, hard basketball to get there. They were tested by a number of adversities that threatened to crush them, but from which they always rallied. The media glare of a marquee match-up with the New York Knicks in round one. Questions and epitaphs after going down 1-2 in round two, and losing one third of their Big Three. The spectre of a Celtics team, half-dead, yet refusing to go away posing their biggest challenge. And at last, the Thunder, whom most favored against the Heat. They went into round four as underdogs and walked out as the best in the world.
This happened after a summer of pain and self-reflection. Chris Bosh cried after losing Game 6 to the Mavs last year. How much emotion, how much dedication, how much hard-work must have been invested to cause such despair upon failure? To do so on international television, with millions watching? LeBron isolated himself for two weeks, refusing to see anybody. As for Wade? He had this to say when asked how much 2012 meant compared to 2006:
“I’m speechless. Winning the championship in 2006 was amazing. But I didn’t go through nothing yet. Now six years after that, I’ve been through a lot in my personal life, and I’ve been through a lot in my professional life, and this means so much more.”
Let’s not overstate who the Heat are – a motley crew of three superstars, couple of headstrong young role players (Chalmers and Cole), the smart guy who for much of the season could only defend and nothing else (Battier), a walking zombie (Miller) and a whole bunch of washed up veterans looking for a ring (everybody else). This was not a team constructed to succeed as a team. They followed that logic and came up short in the NBA Finals 2011. Their leader came up short. But as supreme as LeBron was, the difference this time was that the Heat played, and won, as a team.
When the sparkle dulls, champagne runs out and a month has passed, when the story is recycled and re-narrated, people will still talk about Mike Miller’s three-point barrage in Game 5 (clinched the game), Chalmers’ momentum turning Game 4, Battier’s inexplicable Reggie Miller-ness throughout the Finals. Heck, I’ll tell you of that time Juwan Howard was on the court when the Heat sealed a Championship run. It wasn’t just LeBron and Wade and Bosh smiling on that podium, it was a whole team.
At the end of it all, after watching an almost childish LeBron waving his arms in overflowing joy at the end of Game 5, let’s give the Heat their due. They deserved this. Let this be about basketball again. Let’s watch, appreciate and love the Heat, because this is a golden age for NBA basketball. There may not be another time when two teams quite as exciting as the Thunder and the Heat are in the league. These are exciting, superhuman players who have the hearts of champions. OKC played and lost with honor – the long hug KD and Bron shared post-game shows their mutual respect. Both teams fought hard to get to where they are. OKC went through three champions, and the Heat played best after defeats. The Heat finish the 2012 playoffs 9-0 when trailing in a series these playoffs. They were down 2-3 to the last EC NBA champions, the Boston Celtics. In some ways, this remains the dogged team that fought back from all the futility after starting the 2010-11 season 9-8.
But above all, give LeBron James his due. He was questioned, over and over again. People didn’t watch his basketball, they watched his failure. Now that will change. Basketball will matter again. Why? Because the NBA Finals are over, and for the first time, LeBron James reigns King.