“We learn little from victory, much from defeat.” – Japanese proverb
“It’s about damn time.” – LeBron James on winning the NBA championship
He’s there. After the Heat’s 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s finally there.
LeBron James has reached the place where so few stars reach. He is certified. He is bonafide. He is the best player in the land, the best player in the start, the middle and the end of the game, the NBA MVP, the NBA Finals MVP, and an NBA champion. There will be talk of how many more he must or will win. But it does not take away what he has accomplished, what he has shown, what he has surrendered in his pursuit of being great.
James entered the league as the most heralded player in the history of the league. There were no doubters. He was always “the Chosen One.” He was the singular most athletic player to ever enter the league with his skillset. And from the start, he wowed us. We looked to the future, for what he would accomplish. And we expected, always expected, because his marketing team told us to, because pundits to, and by extension, he told us to.
But it never came.
There was greatness, but it was always followed by defeat. Disappointment and debate about whether he was overrated, a sham, a product of hype and not product. Hardware defines this league. It’s the lens through which legacy is measured. Without it, James was nothing but numbers in the eyes of so many. Some have tried to note that what made him great was his production, that he was the player. But he needed the results.
He has them. He’s there.
LeBron James is a champion.
To focus on comparing him to Michael Jordan is flawed. No one is. But to the same point, no one is LeBron James. Nothing showed that like these playoffs, like these Finals. James’ dominance was not two-dimensional. It wasn’t just scoring points and defending his man on the other end. It was the modern NBA player, brought to the nexus of ability. It was working the post, scoring on the drop-step hook, challenging the pick and roll, providing help, recovering, blocking the shot, grabbing the rebound, running the floor, finishing at the other end. Repeat. Over and over again.
In Game 2 it was scoring, in Game 5 it was passing. And scoring. And rebounding. James’ first triple-double of the season lands in his final game of the season. No player since Wilt Chamberlain has been able to impact the game on so many levels at such a high level from so many positions. And James plays in an era of legends. His game is the drive and finish, the drive and kick to the open shooter, and now the post-move to the drop-step hook. It’s the offensive rebound for the muscling putback, as he showed in the willingness to do the dirty work for maybe the first time in his career. It’s the timely three-pointer. It’s the board over bigger opponents. It’s the no-look whip pass. It’s the ability to do all these things, lock down the best player on the other team, and do it for 40-plus minutes a night.
James learned something from that defeat last year, learned something from this season, and it all clicked in the Boston series. He put away those childish things and became a man. No more dancing before the clock struck zero. No picture-taking miming. No laughs. James was simultaneously at peace and more driven, more business-like and yet enjoying his game. He brought it all together. Maybe that’s what we learn most from his playoffs performance.
James may have needed to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win the NBA title. But it was James that brought the team together. It was James that made the model work. It says something about the greatness of his game that he was able to take a team of stars and still be the most important player on the team by a mile. He was the scorer, the rebounder, the point guard, the creator, the playmaker, the shotblocker.
But move past that. That’s basketball stuff.
James lead in these playoffs, for maybe the first time in his life. He wasn’t waiting for other people to tell him what to do. He did not try to be Michael Jordan hitting mid-range jumpers. He said “I am bigger than you. I am badder than you. I am better than you” and then he entered the post and obliterated the Thunder. They doubled? He found open shooters.
Those players are going to hit those shots because that’s what happens when you’re open. Instead of Michael Jordan, James won the title like Hakeem Olajuwon, being more talented inside, and getting the ball to open shooters because of doubles. He took responsibility for his actions. Last year, last year’s Finals, the failures throughout his career, the team’s struggles this year. He looked inside himself. We can’t know what that process was like or what we found when he saw that mirror. But we know what he showed us when he came out of it.
There is more to a King than lineage.
LeBron James discovered it, and in doing so has taken his rightful place. Nothing can take away this moment, nothing can change his legacy. He’s not through, he hasn’t lived up to “not 2, not 3…” or whatever standard you want to find. But you also can no longer list him as the man without a ring. That era is over.
Crown him. Witness. Give that man his ring.
Long live the King.