For a long time, LeBron James had it easy. And that's what made it so hard.
The NBA hadn't really seen a player with such a mix of talent, size and a willingness to being the ultimate team player. So much of this was natural. Not just James' athleticism, either. James had a personality that made him want to be well-liked by his teammates, not just by the public.
Those are the ingredients of a champion. And they were identified early and coveted by every team in the league.
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."
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."
Twice in Cleveland, after he'd won MVP awards, James played on teams seeded No. 1 in the playoffs. These teams were different than the overmatched team of '07. The Cavs' payroll spiked to $100 million as they brought in teammates for him, players such as Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal. The Cavs were not loaded with All-Stars, but they didn't have to be -- the MVP was supposed to carry the group just as he'd done before, back when it was all about potential.
Now there was demand. But he wouldn't reach the Finals again with the Cavaliers.
When he went to the Heat, it was to join two of the best players of his day, the sort of stars he never had with him in Cleveland. But when he walked away from the Finals again in 2011 without a title, even with the help of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, no one dared think about potential. The last scraps of potential for James were buried in the two-day period in July 2010 when he announced his decision to sign with the Heat and then projected the number of championships he planned to win into a microphone the next night.
Now, all was expectation. That embrace is much colder. It wasn't just the expectations of the basketball-viewing public and his sponsors and his new teammates. It was the expectations that James had placed on his own shoulders with his words and his actions. Even if James could take back the line that stays attached to him like a tattoo -- "Not one, not two ... " -- the expectations would be smothering to him.
"When he went to Miami, I sent him a text and told him that this was going to be the hardest thing he's tried to do in his life," said Paul Silas, who coached James for two seasons in Cleveland. "I think he thought it might be easy. And they might have had it all as a team. But he was still going to have to put them on his shoulders, and it took him a while to understand that."
James' understanding of how tough it was going to be was stunted by emotional bruises. After a poor playoff series against the Boston Celtics in 2010, he deflected its effects by saying, "I spoil a lot of people with my play." When it happened again last year on a higher-profile stage in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, James again snapped back at the consequences of living with expectations.
I can finally say that I'm a champion.
”-- LeBron James
"All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," James said, angry in defeat.
No smile this time. No hug from Duncan. No safety net of potential to rely on.
Coming to grips with all of this has been one of the great challenges of James' life. Right up there with improving his jump shot, asking for the help of others like Hakeem Olajuwon, and understanding that being a leader is more than just scoring a lot of points and making a fiery speech before a big game. It took humility, self-evaluation and soul-searching.
"I was very immature," James said this week, looking back on it all.
"I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and why I fell in love with the game. One thing that I learned, and someone taught me this, the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. I've experienced some things in my long but short career, and I'm able to make it better of myself throughout these playoffs and throughout this whole year, and that's on and off the court."
James could've said things like that in the past and maybe even thought he meant them. But now, nine years into his career, there are actions to back them up. James' statistics in leading the Heat to this trophy were fantastic, but his statistics always were. His highlight plays were incredible, but that's been the case since he was 18.
James realized that to manage expectation, to meet expectation, he had to remove himself from expectation.
These entire playoffs -- in fact, most of the season -- have been one long exercise in doing so. And for the first time in years, he's been able to call it a success.
Now, for a little while, he can forget expectation. And focus on celebration.
"It was a journey," James said. "Everything that went along with me being a high school prodigy when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise and everything that came with it. I had to deal with it and I had to learn through it. No one had gone through that journey and I had to learn on my own. I can finally say that I'm a champion."