It's been 32 days since the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Just over a month to synthesize another wild NBA season, categorize the memories and put one important thing away that has bothered the basketball fan inside me for years: LeBron James is an NBA champion.
My appreciation and love for LBJ is a curious one; he wasn't always a favorite of mine, and I didn't always love the man, whether we were discussing the player or the person. I grew up in a home where football was king, hockey was the prince and baseball was something we played in the backyard on weekends. Basketball was an afterthought, which is hilarious having grown up primarily in a Chicago suburb. By the time I started really watching basketball, Michael Jordan was playing out his final days in a Washington Wizards uniform, and Kobe Bryant was taking over as the new "King of the Courts."
I am a 21st-century basketball fan, going to games to see Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James.
I saved up money to go see each of these guys when they walked into the United Center—and most of the time, I wasn't disappointed.
But for the longest time, there was one player I could never wrap my head around.
He was "The King," "The Chosen One," "The Heir Apparent," and even in Chicago, which is ground zero for LBJ hatred, he wasn't always that hated.
I saw LeBron play at the United Center in a Cavaliers jersey, and the crowd appreciated what they were witnessing.
And almost exactly a year later, I saw LeBron play at the United Center in a Miami jersey, and the crowd hated everything he did.
You see, when LeBron first burst onto the scene, he was a hot-shot kid who played basketball with such ease, such fluidity, such beauty. As he grew into a man, he never lost his playful spirit, nor his love for basketball. Even after losing year after year after year with Cleveland, he entered Quicken Loans Arena every night with a smile on his face. It was during this time that I couldn't really relate to James. In fact, though I appreciated his skills on a basketball court, I couldn't really like the guy.
Fast forward to July of 2010. LeBron's Cavaliers are eliminated at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Rumors are swirling that LeBron's mother slept with his teammate Delonte West. After years of trying, and an NBA Finals appearance, the Cavaliers don't seem to want to give James the players he is looking for. Our last image of James on a court is him walking through the tunnel, ripping his jersey off.
And then the moment came, when the world turned on LeBron James. The same moment I turned to LeBron James.
"This summer, I'm taking my talents to South Beach, and joining the Miami Heat."
He did it on national television without any warning, any phone call, any inclination as to where he was going. Most said "no class," some said "rot in hell," many burned his jersey in front of cameras, and all were left to wonder. This was the moment where I became a LeBron James fan.
Over the next season, LeBron was welcomed into every NBA arena with showers of boos, negative chants and pure hatred. He stopped playing the game with love, and started playing with hate. He, along with teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, went all the way to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Dallas Mavericks. All the while, the nation laughed as LeBron fell apart in fourth quarters, differed game-winning shots and earned the nickname "LeBrick" from many fans.
Meanwhile, I sat cheering LeBron every step of the way. As such, I received the same scrutiny everywhere I went wearing an LBJ jersey, or a pair of his shoes or one of his shirts. Why did I do this? Why did I love LeBron so suddenly? Because in my eyes, love and hate are cut from the same thread, and you become who you want to be.
LeBron James is not a bad person, he never was. He's never been arrested, he's marrying his high-school sweetheart, he's fathered two beautiful children and has donated millions of dollars to charities in Ohio even after leaving and becoming the most hated man in the state. All this is a lot to be said for a guy who plays in the same league as convicted felons, excessive gamblers and straight-up bullies, all of whom were thrust into the spotlight and portrayed as role models. Meanwhile, LeBron, whose only crimes were exercising his right as a free agent, announcing it on a television show (which, by the way, we now know was a huge money maker for ESPN through advertisements), and then participating in a circus show when the Heat introduced him, Wade, and Bosh through smoke machines and pyrotechnics.
Through it all, I admired James' toughness. And through it all, the mass fans hated him, said he wasn't mentally tough, that he could never win a title and he'd never measure up to the likes of Jordan, Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Patrick Ewing. The funny part is LeBron never wanted any of that; LeBron James wanted to be LeBron James.
So when the clock was winding down in Game 5 of The Finals with the Heat far enough ahead that they put their reserves in to shut it down, a smile the size of the moon formed on James' face. The eyes lit up, the face relaxed. The love was back.
To me, LeBron represents everything good and bad about America and its people. His story represents pain, suffering, rising above hate, rising above poverty, self-infliction (whether it's warranted or not), flash, excess, exuberance, maturation, peace within oneself and with the world, and redemption.
I was happy for LeBron when those final seconds ticked off, and when he bear-hugged the Larry O'Brien trophy, all smiles. It was the look of a man who had finally climbed the highest mountain; through everything he had endured, he still climbed it.
Within myself, it was the completion of a journey as a fan. It was the end to two years of bar torment. Friends who became enemies when basketball season was in session sought me out to shake my hand and say, "Congrats on your boy, LeBron!"
LeBron James didn't just win it for himself. He won it for his fans, and he won it so we could be told our favorite story again. The story of redemption.