On the backs of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the Miami Heat came back to defeat the Indiana Pacers and will face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. But before Dwyane Wade recovered and while Chris Bosh was still out, the Miami Heat survived on nothing but the will of LeBron James.
That sentence, freshly typed, is one I never thought my hands would agree to put in print. Mainly because I didn’t believe it would ever be true.
Bear with me in this column—there is a lot of ground to cover.
I am a grown man who still believes with the certainty of a small child in the potential of the human spirit. I believe the spirit and imagination we had as children never leaves us. Most people think it does. They think, in adulthood, it’s dead.
I think—worse than dead—it is ignored.
Simply stated: I watch my NBA for more than just athleticism.
If I only watched for natural ability, LeBron James might have been my favorite player from the start of his career. Never have I questioned the natural abilities of LeBron James. You know how basketball players get a head of steam and wind up three to five rows into the crowd? You get the impression, with the overwhelming physical abilities of LeBron James, that he could get a head of steam and wind up from the floor all the way to the nosebleed seats.
I think that’s only barely a stretch.
His gifts are that prominent. His crime, at times, is that he doesn’t play an inch beyond where his natural abilities end.
I have had the impression many times that he expects to win on his talent alone, which is fine. What is not fine, however, is how he seems to sometimes react when those expectations are not met.
I’ve seen him shook easily. I’ve seen him whine. I’ve seen him strip off his Cleveland jersey and storm off the court. I’ve seen him not only not come back in games, but seemingly not try to come back.
And all the while, some in the media seemed to call him the greatest ever and placed him with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan—not for his sake, but for theirs.
I say all this for a reason: It was easy (and even somewhat fair) to get an impression of LeBron James that was so strong you could not rightfully look at the man as human. You could not judge him for who he was because of all that was said about him. You could not see his head or face for the heavy crown that had been placed atop him.
When he went to Miami, it wasn’t the speech that bothered me as much as it did some.
It was that impression again. The one that the most naturally gifted player would go to a team with such big-time players because his best chance at winning was maximum wins with minimum effort.
I began to wonder if there were any internal reserves in the man LeBron James.
And then the strangest thing happened: Dwyane Wade turned into the picture I had in my mind of LeBron James.
Dwyane Wade became temperamental and pitched a fit on the sidelines of a playoff game against the Indiana Pacers. He seemed to be saying, If the win won’t come easy, the loss will come ugly and fast.
There was a moment that the Heat seemed rocked and I thought they were beginning to behave exactly as I expected them to. Meaning I thought they’d just as soon end the series short if it meant having to come back and struggle and potentially still lose.
But something happened after Dwyane Wade took on the image I had of LeBron James.
LeBron James, in turn, took on the image I had of Dwyane Wade, of Michael Jordan, of Kobe Bryant.
LeBron James put his head down and went to work.
There was no King James or proclamations of what he would do or even a guarantee that his best effort would save the much-wounded Miami Heat.
It was also not a given that natural talent would save them this time.
When you are on the decline, sliding down, the momentum is with your opponent. At that moment, even the best of physical play can’t save you.
LeBron James finally reached inside for the things that make me a fan of the NBA. Or, perhaps, I finally saw him do it. Or, probably, it was a bit of both.
LeBron James gave 110 percent when his team would have lost anyway if Dwyane Wade hadn’t recovered.
That is called faith.
LeBron James got the rest of the team involved even when they hadn’t been playing their best.
That is called teamwork.
LeBron James was seemingly on the court reviving his team and on the sidelines giving a pep talk to Dwyane Wade and the bench at the same time.
That is called leadership.
LeBron James didn’t take the bait when Indiana wanted to push him over the edge and make him react stupidly.
That is called maturity.
Faith, Teamwork, Leadership, Maturity and LeBron James: that is the first time I’ve written that sequence together.
But most of all, LeBron James did the one thing I have been waiting for him to do for many years: He wanted it even if he couldn’t have it.
He was going to play like a winner even in losing.
Imagine, if you will, if LeBron James were a King, but he only wanted to be one when everything went right.
What would happen to that kingdom?
Against Indiana, we didn’t have to find out. Because the man who has, at times, been none of those things was the most faithful, team-oriented, mature leader on the court.
LeBron James didn’t just have the most talent for once; he had the most heart.
And I looked inside myself and discovered that the way I felt about LeBron James and the Miami Heat at the beginning of the Pacer series is not how I felt about them at the end.
I wanted them to lose.
Moreover: I thought they deserved to lose.
Because I believed they would be the first to pitch a fit if things didn’t go their way. And for a moment, I was right.
But I have since seen evidence of all the things I’ve always thought absent in LeBron James.
I never considered myself a hater, because I only hated what I couldn’t see from him. I had to face a fact, though: If I couldn’t give LeBron James the credit he deserved for what he did in Indiana, truly I had become a hater.
I will still be critical of LeBron James when I think it is warranted, just as, clearly, I can praise him when I think it’s deserved.
But I will never forget the series in Indiana.
Something beautiful happened.
LeBron James found something inside of himself that made me see him for who he is, or at least who he is capable of being. He wasn’t King James, nor was he riding a media wave. He was grunting and pushing and striving and reaching, not for the natural talent that comes so easily, but for the internal spirit that had died in the heart of his team.
And like Disney movies and fantasy books teach us, the spirit can always be revived and when it does, great things tend to happen.
Like Disney movies and fantasy books and maybe now LeBron James teach us: Man can’t live on talent alone, but if he is to be a champion and a King, he must muster those unseen qualities that separate him from every other would-be King. That separates him from every other would-be NBA champion.
He must play with more heart than talent.
He must play like LeBron James-Indiana 2012.