Commentary

Vindication is theirs

With a reason to celebrate, Heat could get used to this championship parade thing

Updated: June 25, 2012, 9:30 PM ET
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade placed the fashion trend of the 2012 playoffs, the geek-chic black-rimmed glasses, on the Larry O'Brien trophy as he was introduced to the crowd gathered inside AmericanAirlines Arena.

LeBron James acknowledged and laughed at those old jokes told at his expense, specifically the one that claimed if you asked LeBron for change for a dollar, he'd give you only three quarters.

Juwan Howard did the "cabbage patch" again, still looking like the teenager who did the dance while a member of the Fab Five.

Mike Miller leaned toward the front of his tour-bus-turned-parade-float, probably pain-free for the first time in two years, and pointed to the masses of Heat fans gathered to celebrate a championship that felt a year delayed.

They were all pictures of a team freed of burden, liberated of pressures and relieved of unflattering labels.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James reigned in the Heat's parade with a heaping helping of confetti.
The Heat weren't celebrating just being champions during their extended party weekend and Monday's parade. They were celebrating a time, no matter how brief, of living without criticism.

No championship team in recent memory, maybe no team ever, was as publicly scrutinized as this Heat team was over the past two years.

So that championship trophy might as well be an oversized mute button, because for now, those aren't conversations anyone is having.

"There's always going to be something there," Chris Bosh said. "We understand that's a part of the trip. But that is definitely one of the sweet benefits of this process is we get to just shed all those stereotypes, everything -- if only for a couple days, a few days, a few months -- we just get to leave that behind us and just enjoy what's going on.

"I tell people, you can call me this, you can call me that, just call me champ."

James prepared for these playoffs by pretending as if those criticisms never existed.

Without the help or advice of a sports psychologist, which many suggested he needed after his performance in the 2011 Finals, James streamlined his thinking.

He repeated it constantly throughout the playoffs, his intent to simply give his all and be satisfied with the result.

He settled himself by reading books incessantly, including before and after games. While some thought that to be some strange gimmick, it was a device he used to calm and center himself.

So James might not have felt the pressure building the way he might have last season or as deeply as everyone around him felt it for him.

"That's just how I felt," he said. "I didn't put any pressure on me. I just trusted my abilities. I trusted what I'd built ever since those two weeks I took off after we lost to Dallas, all the way to Game 5 [against OKC]."

But this was still a lifelong expectation for James, so the celebration had its relief element.

It was fitting that a handful of his high school teammates, some of the ones featured prominently in the popular 2008 documentary "More Than a Game," were there to celebrate with him either at Game 5 on Thursday night or on Monday during the parade.

"They knew the struggle that I've been through," James said. "They were at a lot of those playoff games in Cleveland. They were at some of those Finals games when we lost 4-0 to San Antonio. And they knew what my dream was. So to be able to celebrate with these guys meant a lot."

If James was happiest to shed some baggage with this title, Erik Spoelstra might have been second in line.

Questions about his ability to coach a team of this caliber began even before the first game the Heat played in the 2010-11 season.

On Monday, though, he was able to ride on a float with his 5-year-old nephew. He did that just a few days after sharing a moment with his father, Jon, and the O'Brien trophy in the Heat locker room.

"He's been in the business now for over 40 years and never envisioned a moment like this with his son," Spoelstra said of his dad, who was an executive with the Portland Trail Blazers.

With some of that pressure off him, Spoelstra happily divulged his most meangingful motivational tactic for these playoffs.

Spoelstra privately chose to replicate a model of the O'Brien trophy, except this one was black and had each player's name on it. It also had the phrase "All In" and the words "together, tough, trust" along the base. Spoelstra revealed the trophy prior to the Heat's first-round series against the Knicks, and asked his players to sign it and make a promise to each other.

"It was a covenant that we made to each other, that we would commit to a handful of things each," Spoelstra said. "We would say them in front of each other, and if we didn't do those things, we wouldn't have a real opportunity to play for the title. That was, I think, a powerful moment for the team."

The Pat Riley disciple didn't even tell Riley about the trophy. Not until after the title run was complete, anyway.

The man who's been known as everything from the "workout guy" to the "stat guy" to the assistant in charge of scouting to the video coordinator to, as Wade cracked, the guy who used to put together the Christmas videos, came up with a motivational device that worked on even the best player in the world.

"It was very meaningful to us, Spo coming to the first playoff meeting before the Knicks series and he has a box," James said. "We had no idea what was in it, and he pulls out a black trophy with all our names on it.

"He basically said we need to recommit ourselves right now. We need to recommit to each other and hold yourself accountable. So everyone is going to sign this trophy and make a pledge that, no matter win, lose or draw, you've got to play as hard as you can and focus and make this championship run memorable."

After each win, Spoelstra would mark the trophy, until No. 16 was notched Thursday.

Then the celebration/relief tour could begin.

After last year's Finals, James essentially sequestered himself in his house for weeks.

This year, he said, he basically has been home only to shower and change clothes since Thursday.

Bosh said he has barely slept.

"Full party mode," he said.

And Spoelstra? He's been in a similar mindset. But even he knows those question marks and criticisms won't be gone forever.

"A part of me still thinks that'll be a part of our world," Spoelstra said. "Maybe it's naive for me to think that way; I don't know. It's the world we lived in for two years. You just become so accustomed to it that you don't necessarily trust anything else.

"So while my family and my friends have been telling me all the nice things that they've been saying about me and the players, I almost kind of cringe when they say it."

Funny, because it looked like nothing but smiles Monday as he was surrounded by those friends and family, and waving to some of the fans who very likely didn't believe he was the proper man for the job.

Perhaps Bosh captured the Heat's collective mood when he said this of celebrating a championship:

"It just feels right. And, uh, I would like to do this all the time."

When you can mix true vindication with pure joy, who wouldn't want to do exactly this every single year?

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.