By Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
When the Miami Heat forward accepted the Finals MVP trophy from legend and Hall of Famer Bill Russell, James relinquished the championship trophy and cradled that.
The moment had arrived finally: LeBron James is an NBA champion.
"It's about damn time," James said on national television Thursday.
He had just completed an amazing run through the NBA playoffs, leading the Heat to the championship with a 121-106 victory and 4-1 series triumph against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
And he led.
He didn't follow. He didn't partner with Dwyane Wade or anyone else.
The Heat became James' team at some point in the regular season, remained his team in the playoffs when Chris Bosh was out with an injury or Wade wasn't playing well and was undoubtedly his team in the Finals.
James scored 26 points, delivered 13 assists and collected 11 rebounds, his first triple-double of the season, eighth of his playoff career and second in a Finals game.
Redemption was sweet.
"I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today," James said. "You know, my dream has become a reality now."
James had taken a hiatus from Twitter at the start of the playoffs, but he resumed early Friday morning for the first time since April 27. He tweeted, "I love you guys. This was for you," with a link to a video in which James said:
"I'm at a loss of words right now. I want to shout-out (to) my fans. I know I haven't been with you all the last couple months. I think April 27th was the last time I sent out a Tweet. I want you all to know I just wanted to get as focused as possible on this championship run. As you can see, I am a champion. Without you guys, it wouldn't have been possible. You guys stuck with me throughout the whole playoffs. You guys stuck with me through the last couple of years and thank you guys so much. You guys share this championship with me and this MVP trophy with me. Love you guys and I am back."
James came out aggressively right from the start of Game 5, and he didn't relent until coach Erik Spoelstra took him out for good, to a standing ovation, with 3:01 left.
James hugged Bosh, Juwan Howard, Terrel Harris, Norris Cole, Mike Miller and assistant coach Bob McAdoo.
It was pure joy for James from that point on. He celebrated for a short time in the Heat locker room, which was packed, claustrophobic even, from video and still photographers, reporters and players. Heat owner Micky Arison was there. So was former Heat star Alonzo Mourning, the club's vice president of player programs.
"I just told him I was proud of him," Mourning said. "I've watched him grow up. I've watched him earn this. I've watched him block out all of the negativity, all the doubters, all the naysayers, and I watched him focus on the prize.
"No money in the world can buy this moment right here, and he earned every bit of it. He made a tremendous amount of sacrifices throughout his career, and he deserves every moment that's happening right now."
You could barely move in the locker room - and James was in the middle, enjoying popping champagne, having it sprayed on him. But it didn't last long for him because he was whisked away by NBA staffers for interviews and photo opps, with news reporters, ESPN and NBA TV.
He was serious but still joyous while conducting interviews. He walked from interview to interview with a smile he couldn't suppress.
"I've never had this feeling before. ... Ever," he said.
Intoxicated with joy and awash in relief, James walked through the corridors, surrounded by close friends, Nike executives and business associates. Maverick Carter, his business manager and longtime friend, wore a Witness T-shirt. James' mother, Gloria, also was on hand.
"The fact that I have a family, a fiancée, two kids, supporting cast, supporting family - it took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom, basically, to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person," James said.
The Thunder had no answer for James. He was unguardable in the low post. The Thunder had trouble stopping James when he drove to the basket. His passing skills left the Thunder scrambling to defend an open shooter. And true to Spoelstra's words, James defended every position on the court - center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard.
"When you get to know LeBron, you don't understand why he was such a lightning rod for the criticism, and all of just the incessant critiques about a player who embodies all the qualities you want of a champion," Spoelstra said.
But James in last year's Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and James this year against the Thunder wasn't the same player. He replaced apprehension and uncertainty with confidence and assertiveness.
"The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals. And me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically, I got back to the basics," James said. "It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted."\
Wade, James' good friend, got a glimpse of what was to come at a team meeting at the start of the season.
"For the first time I heard LeBron James open up, and he kind of let us in on what it's like to be LeBron James," Wade said. "None of us really know. I said, as one of his close friends, I said, 'Wow, I don't deal with that, and I deal with a lot.'
"So to be here, man, and see him get his first championship, I'm so happy for him. I don't know if I could be happy for another guy, another man to succeed in life as I am for him."
Rarely has James been so introspective. As the regular season opened, he began revealing bits of himself that he didn't like about last season. Tiny mea culpas here and there. Maybe leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers the way he did wasn't the best idea.
He embraced the villain's role last season, a mistake he later admitted. He acknowledged he didn't play well in last year's Finals and let his teammates down.
He didn't let anyone down on or off the court this season.
"Everything that went along with me being a high school prodigy when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to being drafted and having to be the face of a franchise, everything that came with it, I had to deal with and I had to learn through it," James said. "No one had went through that journey, so I had to learn on my own. All the ups and downs, everything that came along with it, I had to basically figure it out on my own."
In the face of hypercriticism - some of it fair, some not - James delivered when so many questioned if he ever would. Or could.
"He's gotten so much crap and he doesn't deserve it," Arison said. "Man I hope, I hope that people realize that he's a special, special talent that people should enjoy. I don't care where they live in the country, in the world, they should enjoy his special talents because he is a special player."
James left his postgame news conference shortly after 1 a.m. ET - he and Spoelstra hugged again, James on his way off the podium, the coach on his way up.
Next stop for James, he said, would be the shower.
He had the championship trophy in one arm, the Finals MVP award in the other.