The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA 2020 championship Sunday night in Orlando, Florida; triumphing over the Miami Heat after winning 4 games to 2 in six Finals games.
It was a well-deserved triumph, with the entire team and coaching staff having contributed to the victory from the start of the season. But one man stood out from all the others in that group: LeBron James.
Aged 35, he just won his fourth NBA championship as well as fourth Finals MVP on his third team after winning one with the Cleveland cavaliers and two with the Miami Heat.
He has also reached the NBA Finals 10 times in his career, including 9 of the last 10 years.
He has an endless resume of records to his name and is rightly considered a front-runner for the throne of NBA’s Greatest Of All Time, if not the outright winner already.
So how did he do it? It all seems rosy and beautiful from the outside. But looking at that picture of him, slumped with fatigue and seated on a fan-made throne with his latest trophy, brought back memories of the long hard road he’s had to trudge through.
Born to a 16 year old Gloria Marie James and an absentee father, Lebron and his mum bounced around from apartment to apartment in the early years of his life as they struggled to make ends meet. His mum had to eventually give him up so he could be raised in a more stable family. This is where he was introduced to the world of basketball where he would go on to become a national phenomenon by the time he was in high school, before going on to be drafted by his native team, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003.
From the start, LeBron James had the talent, IQ, physique and athleticism to take him to the top of the game. ONLY IF he applied himself and trained hard.
There’s countless stories of talented players that never made it big. And talented players who did make it big, but not as big as they could have.
Think of Shaquille O’Neal. Four-time NBA champion with the Lakers and Miami heat. He’s already a legend and Hall Of Fame inductee and can look back proudly on his career. He was a force of nature, crushing everything in his way.
But he could have been even more dominant and won even more rings if he’d had the discipline and ambition to scale the mountain and be the greatest. As Kobe Bryant told the world O’Neal “would be the greatest of all time” if he had committed to being in better shape and had Bryant’s work ethic.
On the other side of it, you had Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant; two of the most talented players ever but also two of the most hard-working players ever. Seems strange, doesn’t it? Having to work hard when you have all that talent. But guess where that took them? To the thrones of being the greatest.
LeBron James is without a doubt more talented than either of those two legends. He could have laid back and taken it easy, relying on his brains, size and talent to win him a few rings and a place in history.
But he wanted more than that. He wanted to be the greatest who ever played, tattooing himself as “The Chosen One” before he had even entered the NBA. Look at that focus for a second. That’s no easy thing to claim for yourself, given there were legends like Bill Russell, who had an inconceivable 11 NBA Championship rings, and Michael Jordan, who was almost universally considered the Greatest Of All Time. Yet here was a kid believing he could surpass those dizzy heights.
He joined the NBA in 2003 to much hype and fanfare. And he delivered, by breaking countless records and wowing fans with his ability. But despite his insane talent and individual accomplishments, after 7 years of playing, he’d only reached the Finals once – losing all four games to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
Realizing time was running out, he made the infamous decision to join fellow superstars Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade at the Miami Heat, so he could finally have the team talent required to win the NBA championship. It was a move that was widely criticized, both by fans and former players, seeing it as Lebron choosing the easy way out and refusing to earn the championship as the main player. The superstar who was so beloved turned into a villain overnight.
To make matters worse, the Miami Heat lost in their first Finals appearance, resulting in more mocking and ridicule of Lebron. He had joined another team, a super team, but was still losing. He was a failure. A laughing stock and source of memes for internet trolls.
And he was already 26. What chance did he have of ever reaching his goal and becoming the greatest?
He didn’t give up though. He realized he had to improve his game even further. So he started training harder than before, improving all his weaknesses and augmenting his strengths. No more room for error or chance. He would dominate and win that ring no matter what it took.
Three years later he walked away from Miami having won two NBA Finals as well as two Finals MVPs.
For any other player that may have been satisfying, after all all the criticism and derision in the first part of his career. But for Lebron, he was just getting started.
He returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014 and once again reached the NBA Finals. They lost to the Warriors, but bounced back the next year and won the championship, fulfilling the promise that Lebron had made to the people of Cleveland.
After two more years of reaching the Finals and losing to the super-powered Warriors, Lebron decided to leave Cleveland once again. He was 33 now. Surely in the twilight of his career. He had broken records and done so many unexpected things in the league. He’d reached the Finals nine times, including eight straight, more than anyone had in over four decades. He would definitely be considered as one of the greatest of all time. But not the greatest. Losing six Finals and only winning three meant he was still behind Michael Jordan who had six championship rings.
What did he do?
He went to a team that was bottom of the league. A team that hadn’t even been to the playoffs in five years. But with Lebron on board, it suddenly seemed possible that they could be a contender for the championship.
However, in the middle of the season, he suffered his worst career injury and resultantly the team failed to make the playoffs once again. Everyone wrote him off, writing eulogies for his career and advising him to retire.
A year later, the Los Angeles Lakers are NBA champions and Lebron James is the Finals MVP for the fourth time in his career, only two behind Jordan now.
And because he works hard and invests almost $2 million per year to keep his body in the best possible condition at all times, while other athletes at 35 are worn out and retiring, Lebron is still playing like he’s 25 and therefore has a real chance of winning those two missing rings before his tank runs empty.
Hard work pays. It may take a while sometimes, but it always pays.