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"Hey," said Riley playfully, "try one on."
They had spoken in other settings, and Riley knew he had James's attention. After also meeting with the Nets, Knicks, Clippers, Cavaliers and Bulls over the first three days of July in Cleveland, James quickly narrowed his final choices to Miami, Cleveland and Chicago. "The process was taken extremely seriously, and it was not predetermined," says Rose. "I can tell you he vacillated after certain meetings. He went back and forth."
Early last week he was leaning toward Miami, but James insists he didn't make a final decision until a heart-to-heart last Thursday morning with his mother, Gloria. Seven ringless years in the NBA had left James hungry to begin winning championships, even at the cost of his legacy. No doubt he found himself recalling the message Riley delivered: "The main thing is the main thing."
The irony of Miami's coup is that Riley, of all people, was so eager to marry three leaders of rival teams—the same Riley who as a coach used to famously scold his own players for fraternizing with opponents. And the trend of tribalism among NBA players was on display again at Carmelo Anthony's wedding to MTV personality LaLa Vazquez last Saturday in New York City. Among the guests were James (who was booed by spurned Knicks fans as he climbed out of his limo) and Hornets point guard Chris Paul, who may have been inspired by Miami's new big three. According to the New York Post, Paul offered a toast suggesting that he, the groom and new Knick Amar'e Stoudemire should form their own power trio in New York.
PART IV: THE FUTURE
Rivals who are hoping the Heat will need time to fill out the roster are making a serious mistake in underestimating Riley. By dumping Michael Beasley and his $5 million salary on the Timberwolves and offering packages of draft picks and $16 million trade exceptions to Toronto and Cleveland to complete sign-and-trade deals for Bosh and James, Riley has freed up a salary slot for swingman Mike Miller while creating room to re-sign big man Udonis Haslem, whose defense-first mind-set and physical play upfront will be indispensable throughout the playoffs next spring. "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," says James of his expectations for titles. "When I say that, I really believe it. I'm about business."
Even if the three win and win big, there will be complaints that they cut corners to their parades. "I guess I'm a purist, but I believe the journey to the championship is really what it's all about," says a former star who is now a league executive, and who asks to remain anonymous because he may try to acquire one of the Heat stars if their partnership fails. "It's the heartache, the ups and downs, the winning 60 games and losing in the playoffs, and then all of a sudden the breakthrough. Winning the championship is more about the journey than it is about getting three or four guys and [saying] let's win because we're so much better than everybody else. It's like if Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had gotten together and said, 'Let's both play together in Chicago'—what would have been the meaning of that?"
The championships will be hard to come by if James, Wade and Bosh can't learn how to share the rock over the course of more than 100 regular-season and playoff games. After winning the championship in 2008 with his new All-Star threesome of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that the experiment might not have succeeded a few years earlier, when each player was still exploring his own potential. But by the time the three united in Boston, each was in his 30s and ready to sacrifice for the team. "I had a group of guys that were very willing to be coached and weren't stuck on who they were," said Rivers two years ago. "I hear guys say they want to win it, but I think what they're really saying is, 'I want to win it as long as I can keep doing what I do.' I had three stars who said they wanted to win and they would change to do it. I don't think you get that a lot."
Gilbert remained skeptical of his former star, accusing James of quitting on the Cavs during the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. "He's going to need to do some deep, deep soul-searching and get an understanding on who he is and if it is important enough to him," Gilbert said on Saturday. "Without that I don't think he'll ever reach his potential from a championship standpoint. It's not anything physical on the outside; he'll have to do some work on the inside to get to the Kobe level, or the Michael Jordan or the Tim Duncan level."
For years Gilbert had dreaded the possibility that James would leave. Now that the day was here, what was he feeling? "It's kind of a relief on the organization," he said, acknowledging that the franchise had made trade after trade with the short-term goal of convincing James to reenlist. "People have to understand this was a Lebron-centric situation," said Gilbert. "We haven't experienced trying to do it the right way, and in a way it's exciting for us to move forward without that kind of weight on us. Because you do start compromising."