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LeBron gets his championship, at long last

Friday - 6/22/2012, 12:03am  ET

By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Sports Writer

MIAMI (AP) - LeBron James looked at the crowd, knowing he had just a few moments left on the court for the season.

He waved his arms to them. They roared back. Moments later, he was atop the stage at center court, wearing a champions' hat and T-shirt, and waving a champions' towel.

He smiled. He danced.

For the first time in nine years, he enjoyed the ultimate relief. Maligned for so long, by so many, it brought him to this moment. On Thursday night _ with a triple-double, no less, 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds _ LeBron James got his NBA title.

"You can't win," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, speaking about James, "unless you win."

That's no longer an issue.

The man who was called heartless, callous, narcissistic, cowardly and selfish _ and that was just in one scorned, angry letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers _ will forever be called something else.

He's a champion.

"When he gets involved in something, business, basketball, he puts everything he has into it," longtime associate Maverick Carter said. "And this year, during the playoffs, he took it up another notch. He dedicated himself even more. I don't think he's any more dedicated than he was last year, but he found ways this year to channel it better, to limit his distractions and it raised his focus."

It raised the city of Miami, and raised the Heat back to the mountaintop as well.

And next fall, James will be there when they raise a second championship banner.

"He's one of a kind," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "One of a kind."

Vilified for both exercising his right to leave Cleveland and for the manner in which he announced the move, James came to Miami for this very thing. It took two years _ one more than many people expected. The change of address didn't come with a change in stature. He remains one of the world's most polarizing and best-paid athletes, with his annual income recently estimated by Forbes to be $53 million.

But apparently, when it comes to James, enormous money and fame is not enough to satisfy everyone. A guy who is already a lock for the Hall of Fame _ and might only be halfway or so through his career _ needed a championship as validation.

Fairly or unfairly, that was the deal. And that title is now his.

"Perceptions better change, OK?" Heat forward Mike Miller said before Game 5. "You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There's a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I've seen him improve in just the two years I've been around him, I've seen the maturation the whole time, and it's a scary thought because it's not going to stop. It's a freight train right now."

James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships.

Which raises one question that might just scare a few people around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going to accomplish?

Maybe.

"I see LeBron James," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "I see the best and most dominant player in the game."

Most talked-about as well.

He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not long after last season's finals ended, one where he answered by saying "I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do." That criticism was deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his hairline.

With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing.

"He's been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and that makes you stronger," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "Just the fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his strength of mind, his will to win, I think that's just really important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on."

There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the phrase "take my talents." He might be more criticized than any athlete in American pro sports today, and that's even without some huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume.

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