LeBron James and the Miami Heat: An American Love Story

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LeBron James and the Miami Heat: An American Love Story
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

For one beautiful moment, I thought it was all over.

With 28 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs led the game by five and the series three games to two.

Sure, LeBron James had lost his headband, and the broadcasters hadn’t talked about much else for most of the fourth quarter, but that’s what you get when you watch the Heat. Besides, in a few moments, the Spurs would win the series, Tim Duncan would make grown men cry by announcing his retirement with trophy in hand and Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith would finally talk about a different team.

There is credit to go around for the Heat and blame to share for the Spurs as to why Game 6 ended the way it did. Kawhi Leonard should have made both of his free throws. Duncan should have been in the game. How the hell did Ray Allen hit that shot?

The Spurs should have won, and there should have been fallout. Chris Bosh should have been traded. The Heat should have been knocked down a peg. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers or New York Knicks should have been the favorite to win the Eastern Conference next season.

Heat fans would have cried out for the firing of Erik Spoelstra and demanded the aforementioned trade of Bosh. It would have been the beginning of the end of the soap opera, at least for a little while.

The fans who stormed out early in Game 6 would not have been rewarded with a second consecutive world championship but instead would have remained the most irrationally dissatisfied group of onlookers in all of professional sports.

The Miami Heat, historically, has been a relatively successful NBA franchise. Since their expansion season in 1988-89, the Heat have made the playoffs 17 times and made it at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals six of those years.

I’m not sure where this ranks when compared with the rest of the NBA, but Heat fans have not had to endure the same level of hardship as, say, those of the Los Angeles Clippers, who, in 42 years as a franchise have only made the playoffs nine times and have never advanced past the second round.

Historical relevance aside, the story of the Miami Heat as the most interesting franchise in professional sports really started three years ago almost to the day, with an over-the-top ceremony at AmericanAirlines Arena.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, 2010 was something of a banner year in terms of NBA superstars who became free agents. Players like Allen, Dirk Nowitzki, Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire were all on the free agent block. In the league-wide personnel shake-up that Sports Blog Nation called the “Free Agent Apocalypse,” some teams made out better than others. Nobody made out like the Heat.

LeBron was the League MVP in 2009-10. The seventh-year player from Akron, Ohio, had just led the Cleveland Cavaliers to its fifth straight playoff appearance and had been almost universally anointed as the next Michael Jordan. LeBron averaged 29.6 points, 8.4 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game in his final year in Cleveland. To say he meant everything to this team would be an understatement as the Cavs won just 19 games the following year without him.

Joining King LeBron would be Bosh, who averaged 24 points and 10.8 rebounds a game for the perpetually irrelevant Toronto Raptors. These two superstars would join 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade as complements to a team that was already good enough to be the fifth seed in the 2010 NBA Playoffs. Without so much as practicing together, this team was the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 NBA Championship and maybe make a run at the 1995-96 Bulls’ record of 72 wins in the regular season.

The anticipation of what could be the greatest team in NBA history was enough to make anyone excited. I’m not a particularly passionate NBA fan, and I was excited. I was excited to see if they’d live up to the hype. I was excited to see if anyone would catch lightning in a bottle and take them down. I was excited to see what drama would unfold.

And has there ever been drama.

It all started with the comment from LeBron. The comment proves it is possible to be a bit too caught up in the moment. The Big Three had just been formally introduced at AmericanAirlines Arena when they—specifically LeBron—were asked about their expectations for bringing championships to Miami.

“Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven”—at this point he and Wade exchanged a look indicating that everyone ought to be impressed by how very high he can count—“and when I say that, I really believe it. So I’m not here blowing smoke at these fans because that’s not what I’m about, I’m about business. We believe we can win multiple championships if we take care of business and do it the right way.”

He then proceeded to explain how “it will be easy” and that the team would not be set back if they swapped out one of their other starters for then 65-year-old Team President Pat Riley.

These comments were not taken hyperbolically, nor should they have been. LeBron, after all, is about business and not blowing smoke. This wasn’t a love-struck teenager promising his girlfriend the moon, and LeBron made sure Heat fans knew the difference.

I’m not saying any of this to take away from the success that the Heat have had on the court or from how great this year’s NBA Finals was.

The Heat have won 170 regular-season games since the assembly of the Big Three—it would have been more than that were it not for the shortened season in 2011-12—and have an astounding 44-21 playoff record in that time. Quite justifiably, LeBron is the back-to-back reigning Regular Season and Finals MVP.

En route to this year’s 66-16 regular season mark, the Heat won an NBA-record 27 consecutive games during a winning streak that lasted almost two calendar months. To put that in perspective, the New Orleans Hornets won 27 games all season. The Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns didn’t even win that many.

On top of the historic regular season, this year’s NBA Finals was the best I have ever seen, and arguably the best of all time. This was so much more than a seven-game series.

We saw a role player go 7-for-9 from behind the three-point line in Game 3 en route to the most prolific three-point shooting performance in Finals history. We saw another one go 6-for-8 in Game 7.

We saw Allen become the only player in Finals history to convert two four-point plays in the same game and steal the trophy right out of the case in Game 6.

LeBron was a man possessed in the final two games and, with his surrounding cast struggling in Game 4, Wade did what the Spanish settlers who colonized Florida could not when he found the Fountain of Youth.

This series was refreshingly and remarkably flush with heroes and short on villains. Through seven games of the fiercest competition NBA fans have seen in some time, the referees were not forced to call a single technical foul.

The problem is not that the Heat are all sizzle and no steak. The problem is that the entire institution is an annoying soap opera that refuses to stop unfolding. And everyone with any connection to the organization—fans, players and, especially, the media—has found a way to make it worse.

LeBron is an institution unto himself, and that notoriety was going to follow him wherever he went, but it seems to have gained even more momentum in Miami.

From his infamous “What should I do?” YouTube video to the videos he makes to taunt his critics after each championship to his tendency to refer to himself in the third person—“LeBron’s team is never desperate.” For Pete’s sake, he’s got a tattoo on his leg that says “witness,” which he explained is to remind him and everyone else watching him how very fortunate we are to get to share the planet with him.

The guy’s a great player—maybe the best of all time—but he absolutely worships himself and prefers that everyone else do too. The guy who cures cancer won’t be this famous.

Then we have Miami’s fans. Miami’s flighty, inconsistent, always-pissed-about-something fans. Cries for the release of Bosh go up every time he misses a shot. They still can’t figure out if they like Spoelstra. This is all while attendance has skyrocketed, leaving teams like the Marlins and Dolphins with tickets they can’t give away.

These are the same fans who stormed out of AmericanAirlines Arena during the Heat’s come-from-behind win in Game 6. These fans who were supposedly just trying to beat traffic were seen outside the arena flipping off the building and then were irate that they couldn’t get back in when the game went to overtime. That, apparently, is what you get in Miami for only making it to the NBA Finals: the middle finger from your fans.

Keep in mind that the Heat were only down five with 28 seconds left; a comeback was unlikely but not impossible. These fans were rebuked publicly by Bosh, who told them not even to show up for Game 7. Where else does it come to that? All the traffic statistics that the Internet has to offer won’t change the fact that such an exodus would never have happened in Boston.

Possibly the worst enabler for Miami’s pathological need to hear itself talked about is the media. During basketball season, ESPN is all Heat all the time, and during the offseason, it’s all Heat most of the time.

During his incredible performance in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Lebron’s headband was ripped off during an aggressive play in the low post. For reasons not directly specified, LeBron played the rest of the game without it.

It looked odd. I’ll concede that much. It looked almost comical to see LeBron playing without a headband for the first time since before he was in high school, but was it really so newsworthy that it deserved to be talked about two days later in the wake of only the second NBA Finals Game 7 since 2005?

All this media attention has cultivated the idea that the Heat couldn’t lose if they wanted to, and the media makes it worse. After San Antonio’s sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, Bill Simmons, one of the most knowledgeable sports historians alive today, said that it was “pretty safe to assume the Heat are coming” to play the Spurs in the Finals.

At that point, the Heat’s Eastern Conference Finals series with the Indiana Pacers was tied at two games each. The Pacers had won a game in Miami and just tied the series with a win in Game 4. Was the Heat’s advantage really so definitive that the last three games of the series weren’t even worth watching? When did it become an NBA analyst’s job to try to convince me not to watch the only playoff series currently running?

More than any other professional sports league, the NBA is consumed by the idea of legacy, to the point that individual championships are almost ignored. During the post-game euphoria that followed Game 7, LeBron could be seen holding up two fingers with the hand not clutching his newly acquired trophy. He wasn’t excited that he won a championship. He was excited that he’d won his second because that puts him one step closer to the ultimate goal of one day winning more championships than Jordan.

There are those who would make the argument that the manner in which Jordan’s legacy seems to transcend the game has inadvertently ruined it. Maybe the saga of the Heat is just an unfortunate byproduct of a standard that is too high for its own good. Fans aren’t interested in single championships anymore, and maybe that’s why the atmosphere surrounding the Heat is the way it is.

Maybe guaranteeing eight championships before you’ve ever made a jump shot or grabbed a rebound is the only way to ensure that history will remember you. Maybe video documentation of all the celebrities who called to congratulate you or commercials that remind us you know Dre are how you convince the world you matter in 2013. Maybe that’s what it takes to be the next Jordan.

For whoever history brands the next LeBron, I certainly hope it isn’t.

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