Winning takes care of everything—not just what goes on between the lines or inside the locker room.
And not just because Tiger Woods and Nike said so.
Like his Swoosh-sporting counterpart, LeBron James had something of an image problem not too long ago, albeit one that paled in comparison to that which did (and, in many ways, still does) plague golf's singular superstar.
No cars crashed and smashed. No Thanksgiving nightmares. No unfurling of infidelities or jaw-droppingly expensive divorce proceedings.
Just a bad game:
Followed by a frustrating final performance:
A poorly conceived, prime-time television special:
An even-more-poorly conceived pre-pre-pre-championship celebration:
And an unabashed embrace (for marketing purposes) of the "villain" as which he'd since been cast:
Thus, in a matter of weeks, if not mere days, LeBron had gone from a lovable superstar with back-to-back MVPs for the Cleveland Cavaliers to persona non grata on a Miami Heat team that'd been branded the NBA's next "Evil Empire."
Started From the Bottom...
Three years later, everyone and their mother are going out of their way to kiss up to LeBron, and for good reason. He's a winner now, and if there's anything sports fans in America love (other than an underdog), it's a winner.
Magic Johnson practically tripped over himself in his attempts to praise James after the Heat's recent Game 7 triumph over the San Antonio Spurs:
Front-running pop stars like Drake were lining up for a chance to share in the celebration of James' success:
After all, he's a two-time champ now, not a two-timing chump. Winning takes care of everything, you know.
But victory comes at a price. Before he could claim even his first ring and get back in the good graces of the court of public opinion, LeBron had to find humility, either on his own or with a little help from a thing called karma.
It came early, when the Heat stumbled out to a 9-8 start in 2010. It came late, when Miami fell in six games to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 finals, with LeBron missing jumpers and failing to hit the 20-point plateau between Games 3 and 5. It nearly came again in 2012 (and 2013), when injuries to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh left the Heat critically hobbled and forced LeBron to channel his inner Emeril Lagasse in elimination game after elimination game after elimination game.
Along the way, the Heat alternated between unstoppable and unsolvable. Until Bosh went down with an abdominal injury in Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semis, Miami had subsisted on its superior talent and the motivation derived from the showers of boos from the disdainful masses.
It was the Big Three against the world...and often against each other. Wade continued to dominate the ball at times, even though he counted the best player on Planet Earth as his teammate. Bosh couldn't quite fit himself into a role that was nothing like the starring one he'd filled with the Toronto Raptors.
And yet, all eyes remained on James. He was the one who ruffled feathers by fleeing his hometown in such an unprecedentedly public manner. He was the one who became the face of "evil" in the NBA—the one to whom every over-analyzed shortfall would ultimately be traced.
Because Wade already had his ring, and Bosh just wanted to win.
So did LeBron. Difference is, the greatest players in the game are (or were) expected to build winners around them rather than seek them out. Michael Jordan didn't ditch the Chicago Bulls after six straight playoff exits without a championship. Kobe Bryant ultimately stuck with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, even after suffering through the franchise's post-Shaquille O'Neal slump. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would've never considered teaming up in such a way.
And on and on and on it went...
Back to Basics
Until LeBron decided to give up being the "bad guy." Until he decided to play the game for the joy and the fun of it—as he always had—rather than for the adulation of his fans or the silence of his critics.
So back LeBron came, with a brand new, brilliantly crafted post game; with an ease, confidence and looseness that perfectly complemented his inherent desire to win and to be the best he could possibly be. His on-court brilliance was too bright to ignore, even by those who were so blinded by their disdain for "The Decision" that they dropped LeBron to third in the MVP balloting for the 2010-11 campaign.
James captured his third such statuette in 2012, but he'd been there and done that. There was no ring attached, no ultimate glory with which LeBron could etch his names into the annals of NBA history.
Naturally, then, he went out and added that all-important line to his legacy. When Bosh went down against the Indiana Pacers, James stepped up. He averaged 31 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 44.1 minutes per game from that point on. In four games when the Heat were either down in a series or on the brink of elimination, James upped the ante to 37 points, 13.3 points, and 5.3 assists, including an awe-inspiring 45-15-5 in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics in Boston that was a bildungsroman unto itself:
A triple-double in Game 5 of the 2012 finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder helped seal the deal for the Heat and set off a full-blown reevaluation of LeBron's legacy. At the age of 27, no less. Finally, the King had a ring. He was a champion, not a "choker"—an all-time great in the making rather than a gifted disappointment.
The Road, Now Traveled
And thus began LeBron's year-long coronation. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra worked in tandem to construct a small-ball edifice that accentuated James' prodigious all-around talents. Wade and Bosh fell in line, understanding full well that James was their proverbial meal ticket. Ray Allen climbed aboard as the most overqualified three-point specialist the sport had ever seen.
Off the Heat went, pillaging city after city while leaving behind only trace amounts of ill will. (In most places, anyway. Good luck getting anyone in Boston or Chicago to praise a sworn enemy.)
Nearly every stop served as another victory lap for LeBron. He played with the same relaxed, care-free demeanor that he'd rediscovered the season prior. He shook hands and shared greetings with courtside celebrities, and (presumably) kissed babies when shuffling through subterranean tunnels in his finest threads.
Sixty-six wins, 27 of them in a row. A fourth MVP in five seasons. Another round of All-Everything honors...one of the great runs in modern NBA history seemed to come so effortlessly, as if by divine right, to James and the Heat.
Along the way, the rest of the NBA did its part to draw eyes away from South Beach while unfurling the red carpet to American Airlines Arena.
The Los Angeles Lakers reloaded with not one, but TWO Hall of Famers, only to see their presumptive champagne showers give way to an injury-plagued charade. The Thunder blinked in their face-off with the league's collective bargaining agreement, sending one of their own Big Three (James Harden) to Houston. Major injuries—to the Bulls' Derrick Rose and the Indiana Pacers' Danny Green—sapped the East of worthy challengers to Miami's throne, and left another (Russell Westbrook's Thunder) at least one superstar short of coming back for a second shot.
The Final Hurdles
Two quick playoff series victories against the Milwaukee Bucks (in four games) and the Bulls (in five) set stage for what appeared to be a quick return to the NBA mountaintop.
But the final two matchups of Miami's championship chase proved much more stressful than the first two. The Pacers and the Spurs both pushed the Heat to seventh games, with a do-or-die sixth game against San Antonio only adding to the drama.
Those series led the national punditry to cast doubt on LeBron's all-time-great credentials. His struggles therein led many to question whether he was, indeed, fit to be one of the defining figures of NBA history or just another Stuart Smalley playing the part.
For the second year running, though, LeBron rose to the occasion whenever his team needed him to do so. In Miami's three elimination games, James averaged 33.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.3 steals. In the finals, that included his 18-point outburst during the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 6 and his barrage of mid-range jumpers to seal the deal in Game 7.
In doing so, LeBron not only grappled with questions and concerns about his game and his fame, but also (and more importantly) overcame them. After Game 7 of the finals, James spoke of how he came to trust in his jump shot and the countless hours he spent sharpening it, even after struggling for most of the series to convert open looks against San Antonio's baiting defense (via Marc Berman of the New York Post):
Asked if he’s unstoppable when he’s making jump shots, James said, “Yes I am. After 2 1/2 games [I said] this is how they’re going to play me the rest of the series. I looked back and said don't abandon what you did all year.’’
What he'd done all year went far beyond just hitting jump shots—he'd spent an entire season furthering his legacy rather than resting on his laurels. He and the Heat absorbed everyone's best shot and came back with heavy hits of their own.
LeBron trusted in his teammates and in himself in overcoming adversity, even if at least some of that adversity seemed self-inflicted. Along the way, James lent a new layer of humanity to his superhuman efforts, showing that even the most gifted and most confident among us have their moments of doubt.
How to Win
It's that vulnerability that's helped the most in restoring LeBron James' standing in the eyes of America. Winning takes care of everything, but only if the journey therein builds and reveals character.
LeBron, if nothing else, is a winner now. He's a winner who's dealt with the repercussions of his own hubris, who's faced the music for his mistakes, and who's atoned for his transgressions—by taking care of business on the court and continuing his charitable work off of it.
If there's anything America loves more than a straight-up winner or even an underdog, it's a comeback story—a second chance made good. So far, LeBron has more than made good on his own second chance at beloved superstardom.
But James' career isn't over, which means that there will be ample opportunity for him to fall in and out of favor with the American sports fan. Nothing's ever settled in this country, especially in this brave, new world of social media and 24-hour debate-as-filler. So long as there's buzz and benefit to be generated from LeBron-bashing, there will be those who seek to reopen the same tired lines of questioning.
Yes, winning takes care of everything, but only as long as defeat doesn't creep into the picture. The solution for LeBron, then? WIN FOREVER.