CRAWFORD: This time, James makes the right decisions, ascends to crown
LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Last night, The Decision finally gave way to the ascension for LeBron James.
The world's best player, after inflaming a legion of loathers with an arrogant display in leaving Cleveland for Miami, then suffering a humbling loss in last year's NBA Finals, finally rose to the place everyone expected him to occupy since his high school days in Akron, Ohio.
James and the Heat are NBA champions. They beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106, but it really wasn't that close. James had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, the first NBA Finals triple-double since Magic Johnson.
With the Heat up by 25 points heading into the fourth quarter, James had to know he had a one-hour closeup coming on worldwide television, which called to mind another one-hour LeBron James TV production.
The Decision, that regrettable public relations misstep in which he gracelessly announced his intention to "take my talents to South Beach," and rubbed his departure in Cleveland's face, has hung over him since his arrival in Miami to a championship celebration rally before any championship had been won.
But last night, from the beginning of the fourth quarter with the outcome decided through his postgame interview with the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy in hand, James was given a rare second chance to make a lasting impression, to write a new post-title narrative for the prime of his career.
It began with a warning to Heat guard Mario Chalmers not to celebrate prematurely. It continued with hard-nosed play and pinpoint passing. This time there was no arrogance.
The closest he came was when asked by Stuart Scott what had been the first thing that went through his mind upon the clock hitting 0:00. James responded, "It's about damn time."
Beyond that, James struck the correct notes, and resonant ones that seemed sincere. Asked by Doris Burke what allowed him to turn in such a sensational Finals performance after struggling last year, James was at his best.
"Losing in the Finals last year," James said. "It humbled me."
Humility is a fantastic teacher. And as far as motivators go, it beats hate every time. Facing nearly universal condemnation after his ill-planned Decision production, James didn't seem to understand what he'd done. He became bitter about the criticism. He said he was keeping a list of haters. You wondered if he might not whip out that list last night after the victory. Instead, he spoke with maturity about what happened in the Finals a year ago.
"I played with a lot of hate, and that's not the way I play the game of basketball," he said. "I play with a lot of love, a lot of passion."
In the final minute of the clinching win over the Heat, James looked more like a kid than he even looked the first time I saw him, as a high school junior, electrifying a crowd of onlookers in a matchup against Lenny Cooke at the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J.
A year later he arrived at his hotel at that same camp to find a jersey on his bed emblazoned with the words, "King James."
He was asked who left it there. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe God."
Like most people, James provides plenty of fodder for detractors. Like most, he has made plenty of mistakes.
Like it or not, in America, winning is the ultimate penance. But winning wouldn't have been enough for James. He needed to win in the right way. He needed to give people something new to remember him by. In this, he succeeded.
Even when set up to utter something vindictive, when asked what piece of criticism bothered him the most, James' response was acceptable.
"When people said I was selfish," James said. "Because I've never been a selfish player. I've always tried to be a good teammate."
Having lost last year actually will probably help James' return to the public's good graces. In a way, it's as if he paid for his arrogance. James has never been a player making negative headlines. He's not a guy you had to worry about your kids seeing when his picture popped up on SportsCenter. His mistakes were more from maturity, or its lack, than malice.
As well, the Heat's defeat last season, and its title this year, also reaffirm something about the game: no matter how great your talent, you have to play as a team. Not until Dwyane Wade, to his credit, took a subordinate role to James did the Heat begin to pour it on.
James will still have his "haters." But he didn't give them any ammunition last night.
Whether he'll be able to string together title runs like other greats remains to be seen. The team the Heat beat last night is younger and nearly as talented -- and it now has the same fuel of a Finals loss that propelled the Heat this season.
I caught it. Maybe you caught it. A lot of people caught it. In the hallway just off the court, the ABC-ESPN cameras picked up Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, the classiest NBA superstar in some time, hugging his parents. As he began to pull away, he glanced straight into the camera. And though he had shed tears after the loss, that look meant business.
As good as James is, it's tough not to see the Thunder as the NBA team of the future.
But for now, the reign of King James has begun. May it be more peaceful than the route he took to reach it.
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