MIAMI -- It is pristine and almost perfect, made exotic by the many beautiful people who flock here to frolic in the warm, soothing water. It invites and encourages the topless, both cars and the occasional European vacationer, and is unquestionably the second-biggest draw in town.
What about the biggest? Well, that would be LeBron James, and it turns out he has yet to actually take his talents to South Beach, the sandy part, anyway.
“I know, I know,” he said, shaking his head. “Been here two years. Never been to the beach. Don’t know why. And I have kids, too. Probably just taking it for granted that it’ll always be there.”
He laughs, and funny thing is, we’re taking him for granted. There’s no risk in that at all. He’s not going anywhere, either. He’s not regressing to that cold and dark world of 2011. Not when his main fuel, now that all boos are confined to Cleveland, is the challenge to be the best who ever suited up.
“I know what it takes to get there, to be that special player,” he said on the eve of the Heat’s training camp a couple weeks ago. “And I know I’m willing to put in the work. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’ve thought for a long time that I’m the best player right now. But not the best player all time. Not yet.”
It’s finally safe to respect what he just did, and fathom what he’s about to do. And it’s also safe to appreciate how he matured and reinvented himself and is now worthy of the admiration afforded an NBA champion, MVP and Olympic hero. Even the dwindling few who insist he’s a schmuck must admit the league hasn’t seen anyone like him. No one who stood 6-foot-8 and carried 250 pounds ever went baseline-to-baseline in eight strides, and knocked down three-pointers, and played phone-booth D, and soared over another player for a dunk (the John Lucas III poster is now available) and captivated an audience like the self-proclaimed Chosen One. Certainly not like he did last season, when he captured his third MVP award. Or the postseason, with 13 games of 30 or more points, when he bore through the Knicks, Pacers, Celtics and finally the Thunder like an excavation drill determined to reach China.
“He’s on such a roll right now,” said Miami forward Shane Battier, “that it’s almost like a pitcher working a no-hitter and you really don’t want to talk about it. Just let him ride it out.”
LeBron just had one of the best calendar years in basketball history -- and in a shortened season because of the lockout. He won his first championship and led Team USA to gold at the London Olympics. And most of all -- and this is the important part -- he slammed the door shut on an ugly and hostile two-year journey for peace of mind.
“It took a championship and a gold medal for people to realize that, hey, he’s not a bad guy,” said Battier. “That stuff was overblown anyway.”
The public prosecution of LeBron Raymone James, a case that raged in the court of opinion like none other, is fading into oblivion. In early July, at a final tuneup exhibition game in the States before flying with Team USA to London, LeBron heard and felt the seismic shift, and it was odd. He was cheered, almost obsessively so, in another NBA arena. The applause cascaded from the upper deck at the Verizon Center in Washington when he was introduced, then soared during pregame warmups, and spiked again whenever he did something wonderful with the ball, which was often. He was upstaged only once, when President Obama arrived. Obama’s re-election campaign would love to go so smoothly.
“Humbling,” LeBron called the experience. “I felt very honored.”
With the exception of certain pockets in Cleveland, folks are open to this new reality and the winds of change. That happens when you win a championship and then wear the stars and stripes, all in the span of two months, in a country that gets weak in the knees when it’s time to forgive athletes and forget what they did. The head-spinning process that saw a beloved child prodigy transform into a pampered and self-centered enemy, then a bitter man, and finally a contrite and wounded megastar, was mesmerizing.
In time, given the chance to reflect and apply the proper context, we might all agree the uproar over LeBron was just a colossal waste of our spiteful emotion.
“People have moved on,” said Dwyane Wade. “I think people now see him for the great player he is, and winning a championship has taken a little bit of pressure off him. But not too much. And he’s fine with that. He has higher goals and the ability to do amazing things.”
LeBron has played basketball almost non-stop since last Christmas, catching his breath for a few weeks both before and after the Olympics. He doesn’t feel exhausted, though; rather, given the splendid summer, he seems recharged and ready to capitalize on the performance level he set and the level of acceptance he has felt.
“I don’t think I have to be MVP again for us to win a championship,” he said, “but I’ve got to be at MVP-level. I know what I’m stepping into. I know what’s at stake. All the great players won championships, and that’s how I’ll be judged. That’s how I’ll judge myself. And so that’s my only goal. I’m not a greedy person by nature. But I’m not satisfied with one.”
There was once the notion, inflated by an angry public, that LeBron came to Miami to ride the coattails of Wade to a title. If anything, it’s Wade riding shotgun. And as Wade pushes into his 30s, with a creaky body that can’t always be trusted, LeBron is clearly the main reason Miami can repeat.
The public acceptance is what LeBron craved almost as much as a championship and a gold medal, and it took both to make a truce possible. In London he was cheered by Americans, almost to the point of tears. It was a long time coming, although LeBron is a bit hesitant to assume anything for the upcoming season.
“I’ve always been the marked man,” he said. “That never changes. And it won’t change.”
In 2010, when ESPN aired “The Decision,” 73 athletes in the three major professional sports were arrested. Most of the charges were of the driving-while-impaired variety. Others were more serious: spousal abuse, assault, drugs. None were treated as harshly in public as the player in that ESPN special, who never posed for a single mugshot in his life.
LeBron? Well, he got a year in solitary confinement for kneeing Cleveland basketball fans in the groin. In the history of sports, has anyone ever been treated like a criminal without actually being one?
The issue with LeBron isn’t whether he deserved a flogging for the way he left Cleveland. He probably did. It’s whether the length and intensity of the punishment fit the so-called crime. Of course it didn’t.
Recovering from the fallout and taking a different voyage to find acceptance, he said, was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was going to have to change as a person and a basketball player.”
LeBron was like many of our sports “heroes” who get a taste of fame early. He was spoiled. That can happen when you get adult drool all over your shirt at age 13, when you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN shows your high school games in primetime at age 17, when the NBA drafts you first overall and makes you rich at 18.
“No one went through that journey,” he said, “so I had to learn on my own. All last year, I’d been fighting to prove people wrong. But I had been fighting against myself. It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and a person.”
Once he scraped himself off the floor after melting down in the 2011 NBA Finals, one of the shoulders he leaned on belonged to Keith Dambrot, who coached LeBron in high school before taking over at the University of Akron, where LeBron works out in the summer.
“What he had to do this year is trust his instincts and get through the failures,” Dambrot said. “That’s what we talked about last year, learning how to deal with his failures. He wasn’t used to it. He’d never been a villain. He didn’t know how to download the criticism. I knew he was wounded.”
Dambrot stopped short of saying LeBron didn’t make any mistakes, but added: “People said he got a lot of grief because of the way he left Cleveland. Well, I think people in Northeast Ohio would’ve come down hard on him no matter how he left the Cavs, even if he kissed everyone on the way out the door.”
The admirable side of LeBron was effectively buried under the avalanche of hate caused by his poor decisions. He took far less money than what he could have earned by staying put (roughly $15 million less) in order to win a title in Miami, a rare sacrifice and strategy in an age of athlete greed. He chose to align himself with Wade and therefore share the spotlight with a player nearly his equal.
More than $3 million was raised by “The Decision” for the Boys & Girls Club of America, no mere pocket change, and yet how much public goodwill did that generate?
Frank Sanchez, a vice president with the national chapter of that organization, didn’t wince along with others who watched the train-wreck of a show.
“The outcome of the show was life-changing for hundreds of thousands of kids,” said Sanchez. “I knew what LeBron was attempting to do, it just didn’t come out that way. The right message didn’t get out about LeBron in that show, and that was due to the production, not LeBron.
“What’s interesting about LeBron is he didn’t grow up in our Boys & Girls Club system. He could’ve chosen any charity he wanted. He could’ve done that show anywhere. But he chose to do it at the Club because he understood how it could help. I’ve been with him on trips to places that would’ve closed if not for the money generated by ‘The Decision.’ Over time, I predict he will be remembered more for what he’s done with our organization that the show.”
Ultimately, LeBron needed a historic performance in 2011-12 to preserve his standing. Because, decades from now, his basketball legacy will be more about MVPs and championships than the ancillary aspects of sports the public demands only of its stars: grace and political correctness. LeBron pulled off both in a comeback season that gradually distanced him from a one-hour show.
LeBron put in work over the summer with Hakeem Olajuwon to spruce up a weak inside game that was exploited by the Mavericks the previous June and returned to average 17.6 points per game in the paint against the Thunder – more than double his average of 8.7 in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He took 46 percent of his shots from inside five feet, up from 36 percent in the 2011 Finals, and in crunch time (the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five), he racked up 14 points instead of zero like he was often criticized for in ’11.
“He saw things about his game that needed improving, and he took it upon himself to improve,” said Wade. “That’s what great players do. They don’t get comfortable. They get greater.”
He sounded genuinely sincere about his shortcomings as a person, and his mea culpa, whether anyone felt it was believable or not, received the public stamp of approval.
He said: “The greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. I’ve experienced a lot in this last year, and it helped shape me for the better. I can honestly say I’m a much stronger and smarter person now than before. Because I’ve learned about myself and about people. I’m not letting things affect me the way they did before. I’m comfortable. I’m in a better place, in every way.”
The basketball moments he created, they’re still seared in our memory. Most vivid is the 45-point, 15-rebound demolition of the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, a complete reversal of his meek and suspicious playoff disappearance against the Celtics in his last days as a Cavalier. And then his three-pointer launched from Fort Lauderdale that toppled the Thunder in the final seconds of Game 4, as he cramped badly. He scored 34 points in five fourth quarters of the 2012 Finals, compared to 18 points in six fourth quarters a year earlier. And finally, the London Games and the first-ever U.S. triple double in Olympic history.
“It’s hard to root against LeBron James if you’re a basketball fan,” said Battier. “He’s an amazing talent and someone who plays the game the right way. If there’s anyone who can top what he did last season, it’s him. Can’t doubt him.”
When the 2012-13 NBA season begins, LeBron will welcome it by tossing talcum powder and watching it fall to the floor. He’ll leave his footprints in powder that will serve as sand for a player who once famously promised to head to the beach and never quite made good on it.
“One day I’ll get there,” LeBron said. “To take a break.”
But not yet.