The Spurs are such a fitting foil for the Heat that it's a shame it took three seasons to see it. Young vs. old, free agent extravaganza vs. savvy drafting, sunglasses and Advil vs. small-town Texas life: there's no end to the contrasts, and it's a large part of what made this intoxicating television.
There might always be selfish stars in the NBA, but despite Miami's bright light indulgence, these Finals put an end to the thought of selfish champions. The Heat play the game The Right Way, a term first patented by the Spurs. Hero Ball is for those who spend the first three weeks of June in casinos or on golf courses. These Finals were every bit about the intelligence of the teams as they were about specific gifts of athleticism. The ball movement, the cutting, the help defense -- it was all on display.
Detractors of the great game of basketball will never cease to exist, but those folks should really find a new crusade. This was fantastic theater that provided a world full of basketball fans with more than one moment that felt emotionally moving.
And the Heat are great champions. Very few watch the NBA without a vested interest in one team in particular, so it makes sense that no one likes Miami. After all, they destroyed your favorite team this season and didn't apologize for it. But what gets lost in rooting for laundry is that the Heat aren't only perfect overlords, but also the realization of what basketball fans have always wanted from their world-beating superpowers.
"The Decision" made LeBron James a villain and it's taken time to forgive him, but what was framed as outright dickishness was really nothing more than a tone-deaf man accepting some bad advice. That's worthy of a certain amount of criticism but it's not a crime, not when half the NFL is committing real ones. Don't forget, The Decision raised millions for the Boys & Girls Club near and dear to James' heart. What was taken as a nationally televised shanking of LeBron's downtrodden hometown was never genuinely intended that way.
The Heat's Big Three took less money to make this happen. Isn't that what the public yearns for, personal sacrifice for the greater good of the team and the community? James has plenty of money in endorsements, sure, but $250 million from adidas didn't convince a decent man like Derrick Rose to take less money from the cap-strapped Chicago Bulls. No person is ever less of a man for strangling every last penny of their worth, but we should credit James and Dwyane Wade for forgoing millions to have a stronger supporting cast.
It's just funny, or maybe sad, that the Heat are always framed as America's chief evildoers, because it's not hard to make an argument that this is a group of legitimately respectable people. Michael Jordan twice punched teammates during practice while his Bulls were chasing championships; all LeBron ever did was choreograph seven-step handshakes and dance moves.
Put it this way: if you found yourself as a student at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School circa the first half of the last decade, there seems to be a great chance you'd leave with a favorable opinion of James. If you were enrolled at North Carolina's Laney High around 1980, Michael Jordan probably would have been the guy stealing your lunch money and never letting you forget about your most embarrassing moments in gym class.
Which is to say James has the upper hand on Jordan in one very specific sense: he's a much nicer fellow. This isn't your villain, America. This is the guy wondering why we all can't be friends.
Legacy talk is inevitable after LeBron and the Heat secured their second title, and for all of the hand-wringing over it, it's a large part of what makes us watch. LeBron doesn't care what the detractors say about him on sports radio or Twitter; he's too busy taking his friends on vacation, picking up the tab at the club and spending time inspiring youth through his play and his actions.
And so we kiss the NBA goodbye for a few long months after a trying, injury-plagued regular season and a breathtaking Finals showdown that made it all seem worth it. The NBA is healthier than ever, and players like James and his cross-court foes in San Antonio are the reason. Fail to embrace at your own discretion, but there's nothing here not to like.