The waking dreams of LeBron James

MIAMI -- LeBron James is a basketball fan with a photographic memory. It's a blessing and a curse.

Whenever he walks the long hallway from the floor to the locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena he's immersed in life-sized images on the walls from the 2006 NBA Finals. James watched that series, the Miami Heat's victory over the Dallas Mavericks that's now in for a redux, like any other fan.

James can recall crucial plays, some of the big rebounds even a few of the controversial fouls.

"I remember the big comeback in Game 3 when Miami pretty much stole the game to get back in the series," James said. "I remember D-Wade's 40-point game in Game 5. And of course I remember D-Wade throwing the ball up after J.T. missed the 3-pointer and celebrating."

As James cataloged these moments and others from five years ago in a series he merely watched on TV, Dwyane Wade stood next to him and closed his eyes. As James talked about the final seconds of the clinching Game 6 in Dallas, Wade shook his head and smiled as he relived them.

"I want to be in that moment," James said. "Winning and holding that trophy up."

James can do this with most of the Finals over the past 20 years. He's studied them, rewatched them on NBA TV and ESPN Classic as they cycle through every year. He views them all the way to the end, through the final horns, trophy presentations and celebrations.

Always a spectator, never a participant.

It is so easy to criticize James' résumé as a player because it lacks one of these moments. But the critics will never drive this reality home more than James does to himself. It's something he doesn't just think about, but finds himself obsessing over.

There's no escaping it in Miami. The image of the Larry O'Brien Trophy is everywhere from the floor of the locker room to a decal on the team's traveling grease board. It's a message crafted by Pat Riley that the Heat were champions and a reminder to James that he isn't one.

"I think about winning all day, it happens all the time," James said. "You dream about it, hosting that trophy up, the title, seeing the confetti rain. You have to have that vision. If you don't have that vision, I don't know exactly what you're being a part of this postseason for. I have that vision all the time. Even when I'm awake or I'm sleeping."

Several times over the past few years, James thought he was in line to end such thoughts, to have his own wall-sized reprints of champagne-drenched madness in a locker room somewhere.

He believed that a 10-player trade the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off in 2008 gave him his best chance ever, even better than the year before when he unexpectedly led the team to the Finals. That journey came to an end when a 3-pointer in the final minute -- he was sure was on line and in, it had felt perfect leaving his hands -- hit the back of the rim and he lost to the Boston Celtics in a Game 7. After that one, James sat in his locker with tears in his eyes unable to move.

He believed his 66-win Cavs team in 2009 was going to be unbeatable. They barely lost a game in the second half of the season and didn't lose a game for the first two rounds of the playoffs. When things got tough, James delivered a breathtaking performance by averaging 39 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the Eastern Conference finals. After being vanquished by an Orlando Magic team that seemed to have destiny on its side and made nearly every clutch play, James couldn't face it and stormed off the floor.

Over the next several weeks he was stuck in bed recovering from a five-hour surgery that removed a tumor from his jaw less than 48 hours after the end. Those long days, unable to talk or chew very well, James had to stew over the disappointment as he watched yet another championship celebration unfold without him.

He believed last year was the year. With veterans like Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison on his team there was depth, experience and talent he'd never had before. He'd been better than all the top teams in the league during the regular season, beating the Lakers, Magic and even the Celtics with ease. When he received his most valuable player trophy he professed his love for his hometown and that there was nothing else for him to accomplish in his career other than to win the title he'd been craving now for as long as he could remember.

Not to be, again. With the pressure on, he and his team couldn't match the level they'd played at for six months. Injuries cropped up at inopportune moments, slumps began at the wrong time, and the Celtics never looked so good. When it was over, James tore off his jersey and sped out of the building in anger and pain.

The commissioner handed the trophy to someone else again, another parade down another street in another town.

Over that next month, wallowing in self-inflicted blame and bewildered by the repeated failures of his team, James was faced with a reality he couldn't get past. He had been convinced the Cavs were good enough but came to the realization that they were not and he was unsure he could get any closer.

As he watched the Celtics push the Lakers to the limit in Game 7 of the Finals last year, he saw two teams with multiple All-Stars that looked like they would be title challengers into the future. These two teams he wasn't sure he could beat with the Cavs then or the next season. Kobe Bryant looked like he was on a mission to catch Michael Jordan in titles. Kevin Garnett's knee looked nearly healed and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen never looked so good.

Over the next several weeks, James talked with some of the fellow free agents that were in his historic class. Yes, these decisions had been broken down for years by fans and media, but James was only then seriously dealing with the weight of the decision he had to make. He learned quickly that neither Chris Bosh nor Dwyane Wade were interested in joining him in Cleveland, where the Cavs had no salary-cap room and limited options to compete with the strong teams already at the top.

"He's my best friend but he wasn't getting me to Cleveland," Wade said.

"Cleveland wasn't really one of my options, it wasn't something I thought about," Bosh said.

Within days of the start of free agency as Wade and Bosh were each mulling both Chicago or Miami, two other top free agents came to terms with other teams. Joe Johnson re-signed with the Atlanta Hawks and Amare Stoudemire decided to go to New York. When Wade and Bosh finalized their pick to go to Miami, James was faced with a naked truth.

He could re-sign with the Cavs and continue to fight perhaps an uphill battle as the underdog and face seeing the new Heat and old Celtics and up-and-coming Bulls in the postseason. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah had impressed James greatly in the playoffs, even though his Cavs won the series 4-1.

Or James could go to Miami and perhaps have the best team of all right away in a place with no snow, blue skies and year-round warm weather. Regardless of what his hometown or anyone else in the league felt about it, he ultimately determined it was a situation he could not say no to.

Jordan wouldn't have done it. Charles Barkley may not have done it. But never in his life has James called on veterans like those for advice, not when he was 18 nor now at 25. He didn't even want to listen to one of his mentors, Jay-Z, who was recruiting him to come to New Jersey where a Russian billionaire was making promises no one else was brash enough to make.

James was going to upset a lot of people and he knew it -- and he did it anyway because he was tired of watching trophy presentations on television.

"I understand a lot of the backlash that came with me going to Miami, but I understand also that I did what was best for me, what was best for my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete," James said. "I understand what this league is all about."

The league is about needing several stars -- in recent years perhaps even several Hall-of-Famers -- on the same team to win a championship. So James decided to shove a stick of dynamite into his and his family's lives to blow it up and start over. He did so knowing the fallout would be worst in his own backyard, and he did it in pursuit of that elusive dream that won't stop playing in his mind.

"I've been in situations where I say why me at this point?" James said. "But you have to keep working and be put in those positions time after time after time where if you fail, you have to be ready to take that challenge again and again and again. I never lost confidence in my ability. I know what I'm capable of."

Now it is 2011 and for the fifth consecutive year James is legitimately challenging to win the title. Most players never get so many opportunities, and few truly great players have come up dry with so many chances.

Armed with home-court advantage on the most talented team he's been a part of and playing the best defensive and clutch basketball of his career, James knows this is his best shot yet. With the structure of the league uncertain in the future, it may be the best shot he ever gets. Coming into his second Finals, James has never felt more in the moment of the stakes and the chance to make his own history.

"It's been such a long road," James said. "It's so tough, it's the toughest thing I've ever tried to do."