LeBron has been dealing with the perception that he was somehow a bad guy. That perception isn't accurate, but LeBron played no small role in being perceived that way.
When he was in high school, he became the center of media coverage. He was designated "The Chosen One" and that identity evolved into "King James." The hype was great for selling newspapers and magazines, but it didn't go very far in giving a realistic picture of LeBron the person.
After he was drafted, he worked very hard to lead his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to an NBA championship, but after seven years the Cavs had only a four-game sweep by the Spurs in the Finals and one other trip to the Eastern Conference finals to show for all that effort. In his final series with his home-state team, the Cavs lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 East semis.
LeBron, at that point, decided he would move on to Miami, where he would team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The hype machine revved up once more and the speculation was about how many championships the Heat would win. The result of the trio's first trip to the Finals was a loss to the Dallas Mavericks a year ago. That outcome gave all those who resented LeBron's star status a license to make him into a loser: someone who was all flash and no substance. The story was that LeBron could not get the job done when all the chips were on the table. He was someone who could be voted MVP, but he was unable to lead his team to the winner's circle. An NBA world championship was beyond his reach.
For me, this type of stereotyping is a direct result of the way the game has evolved in the past 20 years. By first allowing players go to the NBA directly from high school and later requiring them to be only one year removed, the game has taken away the opportunity for its most gifted young players to learn about the need for a work ethic. These young players are also unable to learn what the game is all about because they don't spend any time in college programs. When a young player is drafted out of high school, given several millions of dollars and told he is a star, there is a downside. The lack of maturity and an understanding of the finer points of the game are direct results of this.
My high school years were spent learning the game and dealing with the things that most other teenagers had to cope with. The possibility that I might become a pro athlete was many years away and I had to earn a chance to get into the pro ranks by going to college. Going to college meant dealing with academics and a lot of other responsibilities that help to build character in a young man's life. We can see the results of eliminating these steps from a young athlete's life, and I think that most would agree that we've lost something special.
LeBron was seen as a poster child for these developments, and the average fan was drawn into criticizing him for the alleged role he played in creating the image of the modern player. This season, though, LeBron was determined to be a different player: a leader who was going to do all the work that was necessary to lead his team to success in the NBA Finals. LeBron, in effect, went from being a rock star to a blue-collar worker. He understood that the people who watch the game appreciated the work ethic and leadership that distinguished the careers of players like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
Those who watched James closely this season saw a lot less of the flamboyance that was a hallmark of his early career and a lot more of the leadership that makes him a charismatic figure. For me, the "new" LeBron emerged when the Heat had to go to Boston and win the sixth game of the East finals or be eliminated. LeBron's 45-point performance was one of the best playoff games anyone has played and there was no behavior on his part that could be even remotely seen as hot-dogging.
The Heat went on to win that series and face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Finals was played out in five games because the Thunder lacked the maturity and team cohesion that Miami had developed.
The question on many minds is, will Miami repeat? Who knows? One thing is for sure, though: LeBron James is now firmly established as one of basketball's all-time great talents. He has earned this status the hard way and that is probably the way it should be.
It was a pleasure to watch him on the sideline enjoying the last few minutes of Game 5 with his teammates. The Heat have come through the pressure-cooker and proved their worth. My hat is off to them. Enjoy!