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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

LeBron James on the brink of a title, ultimate vindication - Arizona Republic

by Dan Bickley - Jun. 11, 2012 05:37 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com

Michael Jordan sobbed with relief, cradling his first NBA championship trophy like a newborn.

Bug-eyed with euphoria, Steve Young hugged his Super Bowl trophy so hard it nearly left an imprint on his 49ers jersey.

What will LeBron James do if the Heat beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals?

"I've never seen a great player more ridiculed than he has been," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.

It's true. In the new-world media, no athlete has been demonized and vilified like James. Some of it is deserved. Much of it is nitpicking nonsense. All of it spawns from a collision of unprecedented circumstances.

We've never seen a basketball player so freakishly talented. We've never heard a great player so insulated, self-assured, uncaring of public opinion. And from social media to a 24/7 news cycle, we've never had so many ways to express our jealousy, dissatisfaction or glee whenever he misfires or misspeaks.

Entering his third NBA Finals, James has become the sporting equivalent of Barry Bonds, one of the more-reviled athletic figures in history. They do not belong in the same sentence or team picture.

"Honestly, I think the guy has done miraculously well," said Jeff Van Gundy, NBA coach turned analyst. "He had no college and no father figure growing up. People talk (negatively) about the AAU culture, and he was a part of that. But he's come through.

"I think this guy has done everything and withstood it all very well. As far as standard of behavior, I absolutely applaud how he's conducted himself. I don't know how many young people could come into the league at age 18 and withstand all of this scrutiny."

Van Gundy points out that James has never had any trouble with teammates, and never had any trouble with the law. He is not a ball hog. He'll pass to an open teammate with the game on the line, and get zero points for unselfish play.

To the contrary, he'll get crushed for not singlehandedly delivering a victory.

"If he gets 40, people wonder why (Dwyane) Wade took the last shot and he didn't," Gentry said. "If he has 18 rebounds, they'll wonder why he didn't get a key rebound late in the game. But I think he's finally putting all of that to rest."

James has been a natural target. His high school games became media events. He bypassed college. He has "Chosen 1" tattooed on his back. He has an unfortunate assortment of crunch-time failures and tone-deaf comments.

His decision to jilt the Cavaliers on national television and join two other stars in Miami was a stark departure from the established NBA archetype, where great players are expected to take the high road and the hard way. They are expected to climb a mountain with a grateful franchise strapped to their shoulders.

When legends such as Jordan, Charles Barkley and others ripped James for his unorthodox career choice, it confirmed the public distrust. It provided fuel for a hate fire that has grown out of control.

To wit: Jordan won a title in his seventh season, at age 28. But he benefited greatly from three years of charm school under Dean Smith at North Carolina.

James is in his ninth season, but won't be 28 until December. And there are strong indications that James finally has grown up, becoming all man and no child. Off the court, he apologized for bailing on the Cavaliers in unseemly fashion. On the court, he seems to have conquered his fear of big moments.

Without the injured Chris Bosh, James rallied the Heat from a 2-1 series deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers. In the face of another public thrashing, he took his team to a different level in Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics.

Yet with James, it's championship or bust. Nothing less will be good enough. It's because he took the easy way out, thereby guaranteeing a path littered with struggles, derision and a gloating audience.

In the end, it's been anything but easy. And that's why the best show of the NBA Finals might come after the final buzzer, when James has a trophy in his arms and nothing left to prove.

Reach Bickley at dan.bickley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8253. Follow him at twitter.com/danbickley. Listen to "Bickley and MJ" weekdays at 2-6 p.m. on XTRA Sports 910.

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