Things rarely unfold the way we expect them to.
As Chris Bosh made his way to the locker room after suffering an abdominal strain during yesterday's Game 1 victory against the Indiana Pacers (the same injury that kept Kevin Garnett sidelined for nearly a month a few years ago), you had to wonder what LeBron James was thinking.
A day removed from being awarded his third Most Valuable Player award and after publicly wrapping up his acceptance speech by telling everyone that the championship was the award he was gunning for, an important piece of the Heat's puzzle was no longer in play.
Nine years into a career that started with him being the most hyped—we can't call it overhyped, as he's more than lived up to it—high schooler in history, James is 27 years old and a three-time MVP.
But he is also ringless.
He thought this would be his year. Most of us assumed there was a very good chance it would be, too.
After getting to the NBA Finals for the second time in his career against the Mavericks last year (don't forget about that series against the Spurs in 2007, when a 22-year-old James willed his rag-tag team of castoffs into the Finals), but failing to show up in the biggest moments of his career, we have witnessed a different James this season.
A throwback James in the sense that he's back to having fun and finding the joys in being the best basketball player in the league, but a new wrinkle has been added to the tapestry that has made up his career thus far: the reserved, cool demeanour has been peeled back and stripped down.
James stands in front of us now as a player who isn't trying to pretend he isn't worried about his legacy. He knows that whatever individual success he might reach on the court no longer matters. With talent like his comes expectations that extend beyond the individual accolades.
His want to win has been replaced by need.
He has the teammates now. Even without Bosh, who is sidelined indefinitely, he has the league's best wingman in Dwyane Wade, a far cry from the help he had while in Cleveland. He's older and more experienced now, too. He won't have the deer in headlights look that comes along with facing a San Antonio Spurs squad that had been there before.
Those nasty rumors that plagued him during his last postseason in Cleveland—you know, the ones that added to the pressure of a looming free agency period after one final shot to leave his mark in Cleveland—those are gone, too.
James has had his share of rough breaks in his quest for a championship. When we talk of sports heroes we rarely look at the uncontrollable, outside factors that can derail, or at least postpone, a legacy from being solidified. He needs a ring, likely more than one, because we are obsessed with them.
While this appeared to be his year, he was stung by the bitterness of circumstance once again, watching helplessly as his teammate went down, perhaps taking the Heat's upper hand along with him. Still, this season is the best opportunity James has had to get a championship, even if things get significantly more difficult without Bosh in the weeks to come.
He's comfortable with his teammates in Miami. He's playing on a level that not even a third MVP award can truly capture. Finally, he's also allowed himself to feel the pain of second place last season. And then he opened up out it and bared his soul by allowing us to see how it hurt him. Through that acceptance of personal failures comes a stronger resolve.
The road to a championship just got tougher for the Heat. If James and company can pull it off, though, the narrative becomes as impressive as it is exciting. Struggles and triumphs are what make sports great. Overcoming obstacles to succeed is how legacies are defined.
Could this be the season James has been waiting for? Tougher than he might have scripted, but an even greater opportunity to silence those who have questioned his path thus far. In sports, it isn't about fairness—it's about survival in spite of the hand you have been dealt.