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July 02, 2012
It was harder than he ever expected, but with a bravura performance in the postseason LeBron James made good on his vow to bring a title to South Beach. Will it be the first of many?
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July 02, 2012

Promise Keeper

It was harder than he ever expected, but with a bravura performance in the postseason LeBron James made good on his vow to bring a title to South Beach. Will it be the first of many?

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What began as a Big Three—James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh—and some other guys ("We even call ourselves the Other Guys," says forward Shane Battier) grew into a modern champion with old-fashioned sensibilities. You may resent how the Heat was built, in one frenzied free-agent period, but at least appreciate how they play, with extra passes and crisp rotations and superstars deferring to afterthoughts. When asked what he will remember of Game 5, James responded, "Mike Miller." The 12-year vet could barely stay upright because of a bad back and hadn't made a three-pointer in more than two weeks, yet when the Oklahoma City defense packed the paint he hit seven of eight from long range.

As the Heat locker room was transformed into a sweaty South Beach club, cigar smoke filling the air along with Drake lyrics ("I was only trying to get ahead/but the spotlight makes you nervous/and you're looking for a purpose"), James posed for pictures in an adjacent room with various combinations of teammates: he and Miller with the trophy, he and Wade with the trophy, he and Wade with two trophies, one from this season and one from the Heat's title in 2006. "Oh, no," James said, stepping out of the frame. "I don't have two yet."

Maybe this is the start of a dynasty, like Jordan's Bulls, but more likely it is the birth of a rivalry, like Lakers-Celtics. When James hugged Durant after the final buzzer, he pushed him back 10 steps, while shouting in his ear. "I told him he's unbelievable," James says. "I told him he shouldn't feel any regrets. And I told him to continue to work. I hope it's us and them every year. That's the next challenge, to do it again." Wade told Durant and Westbrook, "We'll see y'all next year."

Even after dispatching OKC in five games, the Heat recognized that the series felt much tighter. Like everything involving Miami, it was more arduous than it seemed.

Coach Erik Spoelstra presented the Heat with a replica of the Larry O'Brien trophy before the playoffs began. It was black ceramic, and everyone on the roster signed it with a gold marker. "It was a commitment we made to each other to do everything it took," James says. "That trophy became our goal." After each victory, Spoelstra drew one gold line on it.

James turned off his phone for the next two months, checking messages only between series. He stopped tweeting and watching sports on television. A product of the Information Age, James traded his devices for books, devouring The Hunger Games trilogy, Who Moved My Cheese (the self-help best-seller), The Pact (the best-seller about three young black men who make a promise to become doctors), Decoded (Jay-Z's autobiography) and West by West (Jerry West's memoir). The Lakers great didn't win a title until his eighth trip to the Finals. James let that sink in.

In July 2010, when James united with Wade and Bosh in Miami, he never even contemplated enduring the agony West did. "Obviously, we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade says. Perhaps no team in sports history has come under more scrutiny than the Heat. When James and Spoelstra brushed shoulders, it was Bump Gate. When players broke down in the locker room, it was The Crying Game. Bulls center Joakim Noah said they were as "Hollywood as hell." The Mavericks beat Miami in the Finals last June, and the catcalls amplified.

But this season the Heat grew comfortable in its tropical Petri dish, and no one found it all that strange when 30 cameras filmed James as he dressed. "In my quiet time, I do think to myself, This is crazy," James says. "But it comes with the territory. You have to embrace it." One day in the middle of the season he stood in front of his teammates and described his life. "I just spilled how it is on and off the court for me," he says. "And I let them know I'm going to give it all. I owe it to them." He couldn't carry the Heat, though, if Wade was going to claim the load. "He basically looked at me one day and told me, 'I need you to lead this team now,'" James says. "And then he did it during games. He'd say, 'I need you to lead us right here.'"

By the time the playoffs began, roles were defined. James was the headliner. Wade, suffering from an injured left knee, was the sidekick. "It was hard for me to do it," Wade admits, "but it was easy for me to do it for the team." The Heat, already playing without a traditional point guard, played without a traditional center also. At 6'11" and 235 pounds, Bosh was undersized for the position, but his shooting ability drew defenders away from the basket and opened the key for James and Wade. "He became one of the tougher covers in the league," Spoelstra says.

Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers, Bosh strained his abdomen and was ruled out indefinitely. "Not now," James said to himself. "Not in the playoffs. We can't afford it."

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