Ten years after his debut in the NBA as a gangling 18-year old playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James has done something that few ever thought he would. He has exceeded the high expectations set for him by the sports commentariat and now owns the league.
James, whose Miami Heat took the title 95-88 in a thrilling seventh game with the San Antonio Spurs, finds himself in rare company, indeed. Only two players have won back to back league MVP and Finals MVP — James and Michael Jordan. The temptation to compare the two superstars should be resisted, however. They belong to different eras — two entirely different games. Besides, how can you quantify pure athleticism? Both men had skill sets that fit the times in which they played, both competed ferociously, and both possessed the gift of making those around them better players.
But LeBron James, like Jordan before him, is now the unquestioned owner of the National Basketball Association. He wrested that title from the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant whose aging body is beginning to betray him. Bryant, who succeeded Jordan as the dominant superstar of his era, won 5 championships during the first decade of this century. James, still a relatively young 28 and with 2 titles already under his belt, seems destined to surpass Bryant and perhaps even Jordan’s 6 titles.
And James has the opportunity to dominate the game in ways that Jordan and Bryant never could. At the moment, there is no one on the horizon who could challenge James for supremacy. He’s too big, too fast, too talented for any defender currently in the NBA to consistently guard him. Every other superstar in the league today clearly suffers by comparison. And as long as the Miami ownership is willing to build teams around him that can compete — and barring serious injury — his run as King of the NBA may last a while.
But James may end up being the most unpopular superstar ever to own the league. Since his ill-conceived live show to announce his free agent plans in 2010, LeBron has become the athlete everyone likes to hate. This is a trifle unfair given his charitable and philanthropic activities which are legion. But the image of James “taking his talents to South Beach” while his Cleveland fans wept with rage and disgust, has proven to be a lasting impression on the sporting public.
As for the seventh game of the NBA finals, the line for James reveals how much he was able to dominate the Spurs; 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists. He plunged the dagger into San Antonio with less than a minute to play with a sequence of plays that achieved instant legend status. San Antonio’s future Hall of Fame center Tim Duncan took one of his patented sweeping hooks that failed to go in with 50 seconds to play.
James followed with a jumper — the shot the Spurs were daring him to take earlier in the series — to make it 92-88, sending San Antonio to a timeout as Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” blared over the arena’s sound system.
He then came up with a steal and made two free throws for a six-point lead, and after Ginobili missed, James stalked toward the sideline, knowing it was over and that he was, once again, the last one standing.
The great ones always seem to come through at crunch time. That’s why they’re considered great. And that’s why LeBron James has been able to slough off the criticism and mount the dais to receive his just reward as the unquestioned owner of professional basketball.