By Gary Washburn
MIAMI - On the eve of what could be the most monumental night in a career of monumental personal achievements, LeBron James refused to ponder the repercussions of a victory by his Miami Heat Thursday night.
The three-time NBA MVP has been maligned throughout his career for a lack of consistent team success despite his unquestioned individual greatness. Dubbed the NBA’s next megastar when he entered the 2003 draft directly out of high school, James was the league’s darling for a half a decade as he tried to will his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title.
Suddenly, though, perceptions changed. He was viewed as spoiled, arrogant, and wildly inconsistent in the spotlight.
And that was before he made the heavily scrutinized decision to leave Cleveland as a free agent for South Beach.
And it was before he promised eight championships at a Heat pep rally the day after he agreed to join the team.
Suddenly, the adoration for his athleticism and immense skills turned into disdain and disgust. Suddenly, those Michael Jordan comparisons were laughable because Jordan always seized the moment, while James seemed to back down from those opportunities for immortality.
Jordan has about 20 career-defining moments. Does James currently have any? There were his five 3-pointers to beat the Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, and his 25 consecutive points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals five years ago, but both those seasons ended with drubbings in the NBA Finals.
So it hardly matters whether James scores 50 Thursday to lead the Heat to their first NBA championship in six years. His defining moment will come when the buzzer sounds and he can officially say he survived two painful years of denigration, two years of symbolic beers dumped on his head from fans who once adored his potential.
James turned the hoses of criticism on himself for his “Decision’’ and then with his apparent desire to embrace the villain role, as everyone from staunch Celtics fans at TD Garden to old ladies in Framingham retirement homes rooted against the Heat.
Many laughed loudly last June when James’s promise of a title fell short at the hands of the more cohesive but less talented Dallas Mavericks.
This year, James sought to regain some of the public’s trust by leading quietly and humbly, two characteristics lost in his quest for independence.
After the loss last year, James made the damaging statement: “At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.
“They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.
“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.’’
In other words, those who condemn him do so because they will never be him. Perhaps accurate, but hardly tasteful.
Upon reflection Thursday, James acknowledged his mistakes and admitted the need for growth.
“Last year after Game 6, after losing, once again, I was very frustrated,’’ he said. “I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature.
“Like I said, last year I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and why I fell in love with the game.
“So I was very immature last year after Game 6, towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching.’’
One thing we appreciate from our sports icons is humility, which may have been the most challenging lesson for James to comprehend.
“One thing that I learned, and someone taught me this - the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience,’’ he said. “I’ve experienced some things in my long but short career.
“I’m just happy that I’m able to be in this position today and be back in this stage where I can do the things that I can do to make this team proud, make this organization proud, and we’ll see what happens.’’
James’s next step during this revealing session was vulnerability. He was never supposed to be intimidated by the challenge of winning or those who expected nothing short of greatness and dominance. Somehow, perhaps because he is a mammoth man with a menacing scowl, he was supposed to endure the mountain of criticism with no fear or trepidation.
Even James found the prospect of being the world’s biggest sports villain daunting.
“The pressure? I haven’t really felt it that much,’’ he said. “Last year, it was much more than it is today.
“I remember Game 5 last year with the series tied, 2-2, it just felt more pressure, felt like it was more people here [in the media session], felt like you guys not only brought yourselves but brought your relatives all into Dallas. It just seemed more.
“I probably am wrong about that. But I’m just more comfortable. I think just me being more comfortable and me just trying to seize an opportunity. This is my third crack at it.
“First of all, I’m blessed because a lot of people, first of all, never go to the Finals. Second of all, if they go, they never go back. And this is my third opportunity.
“So I’m just trying to make the most of it. And like I said, win, lose, or draw, I’m giving my all, and I’m going to be happy. I’ll be satisfied with that.’’
James is not seeking love or approval Thursday. He’s seeking redemption and - finally - acceptance.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.