NBA Finals, Game 5, 4th quarter. The clock reached 00:00 and the cameras zoomed into the faces filled with unbridled joy of the Miami Heat players. The faces which finally tasted victory at the end of a tumultuous two year project. Two of those faces – Dwayne Wade and Udonis Haslem – had felt joy like this before. But even they would tell you that this time was truly something special.
When the Miami Heat franchise refreshed itself in the Summer of 2010, they went out of their way to guarantee and expect success. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh on the same team. The entire world gasped, wondered how the newly-labeled ‘Three Kings’ would play together, and then divided into two very distinct groups: those who liked the Heat and those who hated them. The Big Three didn’t help their cause by throwing an embarrassing ‘Welcome Party’, where they called themselves the three best players to play together and guaranteed around eight championships.
Skeptics didn’t need a big show of egos to start doubting this team though: they had a more practical reason. Basketball isn’t played by three players. It’s played by five on the court, and twelve men on the sidelines, at least three of home need to log in crucial minutes during big playoff runs. Three talented players can’t just expect to win games: they need a good coach, they need team chemistry, they need togetherness, a winning mentality, a system.
Year One of the project was a relative success: despite all the ‘newness’ and the awkwardness between LeBron and Wade playing together, the Heat reached the NBA Finals pretty much on talent alone. Then, they were finally exposed by a team that planned and played better: the Mavericks outclassed Miami in the Finals to leave the overconfident Heat two wins short of a championship. To the hating world, this was a tragedy; to a more balanced mind, it was a big deal for this team to make the Finals at all.
But one by one, Miami addressed all of their weaknesses this season. Wade took a step back because of injuries and age, and LeBron became the team’s clear leader. Their team defense became more refined. Their supporting cast a little more confident. LeBron had an MVP season. Doubted by many for not having the ability to bounce back from pressure, Miami trailed in three different series in the playoffs and came back to win them all.
They had their issues, too: there were times when they still looked like a two-man team, there were times when they had no inside presence after the injury of Bosh, there were times when they weren’t tough enough as their opponent, couldn’t shoot as well as their opponent, or weren’t quick enough for their opponent. There were times when their coach looked weak and their times when their ailing second-best player looked like he had lost the spring in his step.
But they survived it. Led by LeBron’s epic playoff run, Miami kept coming back and figuring out ways to come back and win each series. In the end, they faced a strong but still slightly immature Thunder squad, a squad that was so good that it would’ve surprised few if they were to beat the Heat. Going down 1-0 in the first game, Miami responded with poise to win the next four games and claim the championship. In the last game of the season – Game 5 of the Finals – Miami finally played like a team they had always dreamt of being. Their two best players were devastating in creating and finishing on the offense. Their big man did his job in the post. Their defense was top notch against the athletic Thunder. And most importantly, their role players – Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Udonis Haslem – all played their part to help secure the championship.
When the final buzzer sounded, Miami had won the game and the title. LeBron James was named Finals MVP, capping off a perfect season for him. He told the world that it was ‘the happiest day of his life’ and ‘it was about damn time’ that he won.
But the most telling words of how much this championship means came via Dwyane Wade: after already having been a champion and a Finals MVP six years ago, Wade won this year as LeBron’s sidekick and losing some sheen from 2006, when he was more of an unstoppable superstar. And yet, Wade made it clear that this championship mattered more. He made it clear that he was too young in 2006 and didn’t suffer enough to be a champion. There were many years when they all suffered or came up short – Wade, LeBron, Bosh, Spoelstra, and the rest of the Heat’s core – and then, with one moment, it all ends, and that pain becomes joy. 2012 becomes their year to remember forever.
The NBA is ruthless towards losers. Every year 1 team wins, and the other 29 have come up short. The odds that you and your team are smiling when the season ends is then 1 out of 30. And that is why, with so many quality teams, so many hungry players, so many tactical geniuses, and so many sufferings look for joy, the competition is insanely tough and winning is insanely difficult. They may have announced success in July 2010, but their failures and criticisms until June 2012 made them earn a victory instead of believing that they just deserved it.
And there is no ‘lighter’ feeling than victory. Victory makes your faults subside. It takes away your stupid decisions, your missed shots, your careless turnovers, your arguments with your coach, and your moments of nervousness. Victory frees you from the pressure to be the best, not just from the critics who hate you, and fans who love you, but also the pressure within yourself. Victory makes you free to be who you are and enjoy it at the top of the pedestal.
Enjoy the freedom, Miami, because in a few months, you’ll be preparing to do it all over again.