When Miami Heat superstar LeBron James commenced to leaping in a triumphant celebration on the sideline as the final seconds evaporated in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, among those who was the most proud was Penny Hardaway.
Hardaway and James established a solid rapport when James entered the NBA out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High in 2003, in large part because Hardaway was among the players James idolized while growing up in Akron, Ohio. Hardaway, who last played for the Heat in 2007 before witnessing his 14-year professional career end prematurely because of an assortment of injuries, said after Sunday’s Heat versus Grizzlies game in FedExForum that while much of the criticism aimed at James in recent years was self-manufactured, he believes the three-time league MVP silenced many of his critics after leading the Heat to their second NBA championship in franchise history.
“I think the pressure is gone,” said Hardaway, when asked if there is more pressure on James to win another title this year. “They now want to see how he responds.”
Five months removed from having earned his that elusive world title, a usual-nonchalant James appeared as moderate as he has been since he arrived at South Beach two years ago. Roughly a half hour after Sunday’s 104-86 loss to the Grizzlies, for instance, with a crowd of reporters assembled in front of his locker, James reached for his iPad to get a quick check of NFL scores. He was pleased by what he discovered.
“Well, I see my Cowboys won,” James said laughing. “(Tony) Romo had a good game.”
Unlike the Dallas Mavericks, who got off to a 0-3 start the year after winning the NBA title, James and Co. appear as if they aren’t affected by a championship hangover, something Hardaway said is pivotal for a veteran team that is the odds-on favorite to claim its third consecutive Eastern Conference crown. Despite having their four-game undefeated streak snapped by the Grizzlies, Miami brought a 5-1 mark into Sunday’s game, with James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh each displaying offensive proficiency, averaging better than 20 points apiece.
As far as capturing another Larry O’Brien trophy goes, Hardaway said much of that will depend largely on the team’s ability to stay healthy and, most importantly, how well James exerts the pressure of being the catalyst of a Heat squad that has emerged as “everybody’s big game.”
“I’m happy I’ve finally got it done,” James said of winning his first NBA title. “It was a goal of mine for quite some time.”
Hardaway, who played in the 1995 NBA Finals during his six-year stint with the Orlando Magic, said though James’ controversial nationally-televised announcement to leave Cleveland coupled with the Heat losing to the Mavericks in the finals in 2011 resulted in immense criticism from the media and his peers, he believed James handled the negative backlash with ease.
Among the reasons is that the Heat had to rally from a two games to one deficit against Indiana in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference playoffs, a 3-2 hole against Boston in the conference finals, and wasted little time dispatching a high-powered Thunder team that was expected to challenge them in the NBA Finals.
Miami swept the Thunder in four games to seize its first NBA title in six years as James was named finals MVP.
“I haven’t spoken to him since he won the championship,” said Hardaway, who visited the Heat locker room Sunday to congratulate James. “He went straight to the Olympics. I’m very proud of him because he was under so much scrutiny because he didn’t win one in his first year (in Miami). He’ll tell you.
“I think it hurt him the first year he went to Miami under a decision,” added Hardaway, alluding to James’ national-televised prime-time announcement in which he revealed to ESPN’s Jim Gray his decision to join Wade and Bosh in Miami. “When he said they would win five or six championships, people didn’t like that. He was booed in every arena he went to.”
Sunday was no exception in FedExForum, although a large contingent of fans amongst the announced sellout crowd turned out wearing James’ No. 6 jerseys. The eight-time All-Star, as expected, was met by scattered boos during player introductions. However, that all changed near the halfway point of the opening quarter when James fielded a perfectly-timed fast break lob from Mario Chalmers then threw down a thunderous two-handed slam, drawing a rousing applause from spectators.
“LeBron is a great guy, a great teammate,” Heat swingman Shane Battier said. “I think the criticism he took was unfair, was unjust. I think they applaud him more now with a championship ring. I don’t think (winning championships) matters. Winning is tough enough. So he’s always going to be under pressure. I mean, he’s the best player in the world.”
Which, of course, is among the obvious reasons James, who turns 28 December 30, will be expected to garner the multiple championships he publicly predicted days after arriving at South Beach.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be under pressure to win (a title) this year,” Hardaway said. “But if they don’t win this year, the pressure will come back.”