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MIAMI -- I posed the question to LeBron James about a year ago. In November 2009, to be exact. It was just the two of us. I had no tape recorder, no pen and pad. It was just two guys chatting.
"Could you play with Dwyane Wade?'' I asked. "I've always assumed you guys couldn't play together because I felt like each of you was a No. 1 guy who needed your own team.''
"I don't need my own team,'' he shot back quickly. "If I had gotten drafted by Detroit instead of Cleveland, I could've fit right in there. I'm just the No. 1 guy here because that's what they need me to be. So yeah, I'd love to play with D-Wade.''
I didn't believe him.
Even though the cameras were off, I thought he was being politically correct. I wrote a few days later that LeBron should consider joining Miami because he needed a second star to get over the hump, but even then, I figured LeBron in a Heat jersey was fantasy.
Obviously, I was wrong.
LeBron James doesn't need his own team. One thing that's been lost in all the condemnation, all the censure, all the "LeBron's an egomaniac''-driven derision these past few months is that the two-time MVP sacrificed individual stardom for a team goal.
He almost certainly won't win a third straight MVP award this season, since having a top-five teammate is a huge voter deterrent (which explains why Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have but one MVP apiece). Instead of being "The King," he's willingly become one of "Three Kings,'' as the signing party in Miami so brazenly advertised the night after "The Decision.'' And his days of averaging 30 points a game are done, at least for the next few seasons.
Heck, he's even been a wingman -- allowing Wade to sit or stand in the more prominent middle spot -- in most photos and interviews the Big Three, SuperFriends or whatever you're calling them have done. And in Tuesday's 105-89 preseason trouncing of Detroit, his first game with this historic club, his name was called first in the player introductions, not last (Wade got that honor) as is typically the case with a team's best player.
It's quite obvious LeBron isn't concerned with having his own team. The irony, however, is that as long as he's in his prime, he will.
Make no mistake about it: The Miami Heat will be LeBron James' team. They clearly were Tuesday, when he ran the offense, tossed no-look passes, threw down monstrous dunks and keyed a swarming defense. That, of course, wasn't an accurate barometer, since Wade played just 3 minutes and 17 seconds due to a strained right hamstring.
But even when Wade is healthy, James will shine the brightest. Detractors have said Miami will always be Wade's team, that LeBron is now the second banana, that he'll never lead a team to a title, that he'll always be one championship behind D-Wade.
First of all, Udonis Haslem is the only Heat player other than Wade who was on the 2006 championship team, so it's not like James joined a title-heavy crew that was used to following "Flash."
Second, if James plays the best and is the clear team leader on the court, Miami will be his team. And playing the best doesn't necessarily mean scoring the most points or even making the last shot.
The Showtime Lakers were regarded as Magic Johnson's team, yet he led them in scoring in only three seasons, and in the clutch, they often went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or "Big Game'' James Worthy. Magic wasn't the Finals MVP in two of his last three titles, yet everyone watching those Lakers teams could see he made them go.
The Celtics of that era were definitely Larry Bird's team, but in Bird's first title, it was Cedric "Cornbread'' Maxwell who took home the Finals MVP award. Of course, Bird, with his passing, rebounding, scoring and all-around ability, was the key.
So it will be with LeBron, who, like Kevin Garnett in Boston, has already become the vocal and inspirational leader of this Heat ballclub. Wade probably will lead the team in scoring, but the do-it-all James will be the engine.
On Tuesday, he essentially played point guard, finishing with 18 points and four assists in 27 minutes. No, he won't be a point guard on the box score or the All-Star ballot.
"I don't want to be called a point guard,'' he said, laughing, after the game. "I don't have a position now. I'm just a basketball player.''
But if Tuesday was any indication, he'll be the de facto point guard. Sometimes, he brought the ball upcourt; other times, Carlos Arroyo dribbled past half court and then passed to James, who initiated the offense from the wing. And most of the outlet passes went to LeBron, who's devastating in the open floor. That won't change with Wade on the court.
"On the break, he is dynamic,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That is a unique talent to be able to move that fast, to make decisions and handle the ball at that speed. It really is remarkable.''
The other thing is that while Tuesday's hamstring injury was minor, Wade is injury-prone. He's never played 80 games, and he's played fewer than 62 in three of his seven seasons. So there could be stretches this season when it's a Big Two of LeBron and Chris Bosh instead of a Big Three.
But James, who apparently couldn't care less, will never claim Miami as his team. Most of the time you see him in national interviews, he'll probably be with Wade and Bosh. The Heat will be promoted as the Big Three's team, just like the Celtics of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are.
But on the court, while Wade will score the most points and Bosh will get the most rebounds, James will be the driving force of this team, of his team.