Now James has finally reached that pedestal after nine long years of trying. No one thought it would take this long, especially James himself. For years, James' career had been all about potential and the mostly stress-free rewards of acclaim, fame and cash. Then something changed -- potential gave way to expectation, and it was a blow to James' ego and a reputation he was both unprepared for and slow to accept. That burden and the relief from it was what made lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy on Thursday night so liberating.
James didn't just have to learn the hard way, he had to be hurt the hard way: in front of everyone. He didn't just have to grow up as a player, he had to do it with millions breaking down his mistakes. It created one of the most fascinating and polarizing plots in history, an arc that finally reached a climax with the Miami Heat's NBA Finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I just think it's a normal process that, not just LeBron, but anybody has to do to learn to be a champion," said Mike Krzyzewski, James' coach for Team USA. "But in LeBron's case, because he's recognized as one of the great players, he had to learn out in the open. And so a great player will get criticized as he's learning."LeBron's first trip to the Finals in 2007 ended in a Spurs sweep.
When James first made the Finals, with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, it was received with commendation, even though he'd played terribly by his standards as the Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. At age 22, he was ahead of the curve, and excitement surrounded future trips to the Finals. In one of the more memorable moments of James' early career, he was embraced by Tim Duncan in a hallway after Duncan had won his fourth title.
Holding the O'Brien trophy in one arm and with the other around James, Duncan whispered into James' ear: "Some day the league is going to belong to you."
As James walked away from the Finals that night, he did so with a smile at the thought of that. The warm blanket of potential serves as a shell that deflects criticism. This turned out to be fleeting.
"A lot of people said we were the worst team to ever make the Finals and LeBron really used that as motivation," said Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Malone, who coached James as an assistant with the Cavs for five years. "He went out and made himself an MVP after that; he really worked on his game. But it still felt like a tease because he could see where he wanted to go, but we just couldn't get there."
[via Brain Windhorst, ESPN]