MIAMI -- Half an inch of puddled beer and champagne had turned the plastic floors into a Slip N' Slide, rap music blasted from the speakers, and as the Heat celebrated an NBA title and a hundred different people squeezed their way around the Miami locker room, you couldn't help but get lost in the whole scene.
There was Pat Riley covered in champagne, lecturing a reporter, saying, "I'm not the coach of this team" and pointing to a grinning, beer and gatorade-soaked Erik Spoelstra a few feet away. There was Jalen Rose pushing his way through the crowd to find Juwan Howard at the center of the room, diving into his arms while someone shouted "Fab Five!" and showered them with champagne. There was Udonis Haslem, shirtless and standing on a chair off to the side with teammates at both sides, chugging champagne and nodding his head. A few feet away, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade's famous girlfriend, stood on a chair bobbing her head to "N***as in Paris." Then back at the center, one of the players lifted his son on top of his shoulders, and they danced along, too.
A basketball team has a million different tentacles, and winning an NBA title is as good as it gets for just about everyone involved with the family. But there was one guy missing here. The one who made it possible for all these other guys.
After rotating around the center of the locker room for a few minutes as the media arrived, LeBron James had disappeared, no doubt off somewhere fulfilling any one of the million media requests that come with being one of the most famous athletes in the world.
He resurfaced a few minutes later in the hallway on the way to the interview podium. Walking toward another crowd of media and Heat employees, flanked by his best friend Maverick Carter, someone shouted out at him, "How does it feel?"
"I've never felt anything like this," he said to no one in particular. And as he walked past us, he added, "It's like a contact high." A pretty perfect way to describe holding the NBA Trophy for the first time.
This is what the end of an era feels like. There are all sorts of different stories to tell after the NBA Finals, but only one that we'll tell our kids one day. Where we look back and remember the most surreal two-year spectacle sports had ever seen and tell them how the guy who started it eventually ended it, too. And to understand all this you have to go back to the beginning.
This all felt pre-ordained, and for a long time, LeBron played along. When he was 17, he had already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, played games on ESPN and was universally recognized as the most famous high school athlete that sports had ever seen. I remember reading about him in disbelief that summer. He had a broken wrist and couldn't play in any of the AAU Tournaments or shoe camps, but that didn't stop him from showing up.
He went to Adidas' ABCD Camp in New Jersey and the most important camp of the summer for hundreds of his peers turned into a media junket for LeBron. He gave interviews from the sidelines wearing a jersey that read "King James," and when a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter asked where he got it, he said, "It was in my room when I got here. God gave it to me."
It was technically a gift from Adidas, but maybe the Holy Spirit was working through sneaker reps that summer, I don't know. Either way, that was the guy we all came to know over the next 10 years.
From 16 years old on, there's never been an athlete with more hype engulfing his every step, and I'm not sure if there's ever been an athlete who embraced the hype quite like LeBron. He's the player who openly talked about using basketball to become a "global icon."
At the same time, basketball looked easier for LeBron James than just about anybody we'd ever seen, so we played along with the story. When he ended a playoff game against the Pistons scoring 29 of 30 points and single-handedly steamrolling his way through one of the best defenses in basketball, it felt like a moment we'd remember forever -- when the Chosen One finally realized all the outrageous gifts that made him Chosen in the first place.
But that was a false start. It became the signature game people could point to when they needed to explain why we talked about LeBron like some basketball cyborg sent here to revolutionize the game forever, but when he got swept out of the NBA Finals a few weeks later, we realized that maybe this revolution was going to take longer than we thought.
I think this was the problem all along. LeBron gave everyone just enough reason to believe that revolution was coming, but then we never really got there. While we waited, the expectations (after MVP trophies, triple-doubles, superhuman performances that happened so often they felt normal) and the hype (money, magazine covers, commercials) both skyrocketed side by side.
Then one day they became the same line, as LeBron turned his 2010 free agency into a year-long drama capitalizing on both. Teams were chasing the most famous athlete on earth AND a sure ticket to untold championships, and LeBron embraced it all, personally selling it to us on ESPN.
This was right about when America began to feel insulted. When we realized that LeBron hadn't won anything to merit all this tone deaf insanity. After disappearing against the Celtics in the playoffs that year and then betraying his hometown on national TV, everyone's quiet impatience with LeBron boiled over and turned into the most universal backlash an athlete has ever seen.
So then the 2011 season happened, and the 2011 Finals, where LeBron pulled a disappearing act unlike maybe anything we'd ever seen from a superstar that talented. Before Game 6 of the Finals last year, LeBron told reporters, "It's now or never." So when he went out and scored a quiet 21 points and spent most of the game looking invisible while the Mavericks took his title away, you couldn't help but wonder whether it was just "never."
He was tentative, insecure and weirdly detached from the biggest professional failure of his career. The emperor had no clothes, and he definitely wasn't wearing any rings.
When he shrugged off all the doubts after that Finals loss and told America that we'd all have to wake up to the same, sad lives we had the day before, it made you wonder whether he'd ever turn the corner. Maybe in tuning out all the backlash, LeBron had become so out of touch with reality that he wouldn't understand that championships don't just happen. That pre-ordained greatness isn't the same thing as greatness.
For two years the basketball world has orbited around LeBron and debated whether he'd ever validate this strange world his talent and fame and infamy had created for us, answering questions we never expected to ask. Now that he has, that weird universe from the past two years is gone, and 10 years worth of context that once engulfed him is now just backstory.
After all that, he changed. As he told the media before Game 5, "last year I played to prove people wrong. I was very immature last year after Game 6 towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching. Someone taught me this, the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. I've experienced some things in my long but short career, and I'm able to make it better of myself throughout these playoffs and throughout this whole year, and that's on and off the court."
I'm not a psychologist and athletes say things like this all the time, so who knows if he really changed as a person. But you can see the difference on the court.
Go back and compare the player from that Mavericks series to the one we saw this week in Miami. One's an insanely gifted, underachieving All-Star, the other is a Hall of Famer operating on a whole different plane from anyone else on the court. LeBron just took a Heat team that should have been overmatched and completely outclassed a better team, totally outplayed his closest MVP competition, and by the end, he was making it all look easy.
For the past four games, LeBron anchored Miami's defense on the other end, containing the best scorer on the planet. He hit big shots, he moved off the ball and got himself open early and often. He went into the post and played with patience, destroying Oklahoma City's defense with either supernatural passing or effortless scoring, all depending on how they chose to play him. These are things we've always wanted him to do, but he'd never really put it all together until now.
By the end of the series, "pass it to LeBron" was basically a one-man offense, generating endless wide open looks for his teammates and easy buckets for himself. This was as good as it gets. This was the player we spent 10 years obsessing over, hoping he'd give us basketball memories to last a lifetime. And over the past week and the past month, he finally held up his end of the bargain.
He may have seemed compelling as some sort of cautionary tale or embodiment of poetic justice, but it turns out that was all bullshit. LeBron's lesson is that we don't watch sports to have our morality validated. This Finals series was billed as "Good vs. Evil" by a thousand different people, but ultimately we all walked away in awe of LeBron James, and nothing else mattered.
Root for the good guys, root for the bad guys, whatever. But we never want there to be fewer Hall of Fame superheros to tell our kids about. Watching LeBron was a gift the past few games, and as he carved up the Thunder and just kept making it look easier and easier and getting closer and closer to that ring, it became obvious that we were watching history that we'd never forget. As Henry Abbot said, that "Witness" campaign isn't a joke anymore.
I'm not sure I'll ever root for LeBron, and I wasn't rooting for him this week. But when he talked about a "contact high" afterward, I knew what he meant. This whole series was a contact high for anyone who has ever loved basketball, because even if didn't happen to us as Heat fans or LeBron fans, basketball doesn't get any better than what LeBron just gave us. You couldn't help but get caught up.
And watching his teammates celebrate in the locker room, I realized that even if I never root for them, I'll always remember this week. This was when the Decision Era finally died. Now we get to see what happens next without worrying about his free agency and his fame and his failures teaching us some grand moral lessons. You can still root against LeBron James from here on out, but there's no more room for amateur psychologists nitpicking him to death and wondering if he'll ever "get it." He gets it -- and he just gave us everything we'd ever asked from him.
At least for these Finals, LeBron stopped being the Global Icon who inspired a world of backlash and just became one of the greatest players we've ever seen, basketball history unfolding in real time. To paraphrase the MVP: after 10 years of insanity, it is about damn time.