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After setbacks, it's hard not to like LeBron's approach to achieve undeniable greatness


LeBron, who reads before games to slow his mind down, has a routine that works well for him. (Getty Images)  
LeBron, who reads before games to slow his mind down, has a routine that works well for him. (Getty Images)  

MIAMI -- LeBron James is owning it now, owning all of his talent and his position of power and influence in sports and all of his mistakes. It's all his, for better or worse. However this plays out from here, there will be no second-guessing.

No regrets, as James said when he found a Game 7 against the Celtics staring him down in the Eastern Conference finals.

James is 0-for-2 in the NBA Finals, 0-for-eight years if you view his championship chase through the prism of what he called Wednesday his "long but short career." He is still chasing that championship, but not trying to please people or prove anything at the same time.

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He's still fighting the fight, but for once, it's the right fight.

What would he have to prove if, at age 27, he and the Heat were able to close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the Finals Thursday night for his first title? Not from the knee-jerk, LeBron-hating perspective, but objectively speaking, what would be left to justify?

At 27, Michael Jordan had one league MVP award, no championships and no Finals MVPs -- not even a trip to the Finals. If James and the Heat avoid something that has never happened in Finals history, blowing a 3-1 lead, LeBron at 27 would have three league MVP awards, three trips to the Finals, one championship and, unless LSD infiltrates the voting, one Finals MVP.

That's not really the point, but it is a fact. Jordan won his first title and Finals MVP in his first trip to the Finals, at age 28 in 1991. It was in his seventh season; James is in his ninth. If James finishes the job -- Thursday night, or back in Oklahoma City -- this won't be revisionist history. But perhaps it will be the strongest proof yet that the perception of James' first eight seasons was a case of previsionist history, if I may.

Since James is such a big reader now, it was like writing the review before getting halfway through the book.

James has been the star of two novels so far: the antagonist in the first one and the protagonist of the sequel. We haven't changed; he has. And the extent of his transformation was never more evident than when he strode to the interview table Wednesday, on the cusp of his first title.

Reflecting on his past Finals failures Wednesday, James said that in 2007 against the Spurs, "I was young and inexperienced." Last year against the Mavs, after a season in which he'd turned the whole basketball world against him, James acknowledged, "I was very frustrated. I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature.

"Like I said," James continued, "last year I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving. ... So I was very immature last year after Game 6 towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching."

That was the LeBron James who uttered those infamous words after Game 6 against the Mavs last year, telling his critics that he would wake up the next day and still be LeBron James while they would "have the same life they had before they woke up today."

The real awakening has been within James, who's finally put all of this baggage on a one-way flight to nowhere.

"I'm just happy that I'm able to be in this position today and be back on this stage where I can do the things that I can do to make this team proud, make this organization proud," James said. "We'll see what happens."

Go ahead, say it. Say it's easy for James to be reflective and contrite and endearing when he's up 3-1 in the Finals, on the brink of that title he's pursued in such a flawed way. That may be true, but it would ignore the fact that James' approach didn't change when the sun came up in South Florida Wednesday, hours after he'd left American Airlines Arena with his cramped thighs screaming at him and a historically insurmountable advantage in the Finals.

This has been James all season, and if you'd been beamed down from outer space at some point after the lockout ended in November, you'd ask yourself why everyone hated this guy. I can't tell you with certainty that if the roles were reversed, if James were on the verge of another devastating Finals failure, that he wouldn't revert to his old ways -- the old bitterness and sensitivity to the hatred. I can only tell you that I don't think he would have. Unless the Thunder are able to do something that's never been done before, we'll never know.

But we know what James is now, the most prominent of athletes at the peak of his powers who's figured out that replacing arrogance with humility isn't that hard. The reality always was that James would never get the benefit of the doubt, never join the true greats who've played the game until he was the last one standing with the trophy in June. That's not really the point, but it is a fact.

"Like it or not, that's how we value our icons in this society," teammate and resident philosopher Shane Battier said. "How many Oscars have you won? How many Nobel Peace Prizes have you won? What was your salary last year as a CEO? You can be great, but it's hard -- I'm not going to say you can't -- but it's difficult to reach the pantheon without it."

Battier isn't sure if the anti-LeBron and anti-Heat sentiment will dissipate for good with one more victory. He just hopes to be around to tell the story.

"Just talking to the guys from last year, the vitriol was pretty thick against this team," Battier said. "And it was softening this year. People weren't throwing rose petals at us when we came into town, but there seemed to be a better appreciation for the talents of LeBron, the talents of D-Wade and Chris Bosh and the talents of our team. If you like basketball, it's hard to root against us because we play an exciting brand of basketball."

Battier paused for a moment.

"That's interesting," he said. "That's a question I'd love to sit down and talk to you about hopefully at some point."

This was not the time or the place, because there was still work to be done. James won't spend the next 24 hours dreaming up ways to say, "I told you so," because he's found a place where he no longer needs that.

"I'm not comfortable right now," James said. "I'm comfortable in my game, but I'm not going to be comfortable until we seal this thing."

And the pressure?

"I haven't really felt it that much," he said.

His routine won't change, because it's a routine that works. He'll get treatment on his sore legs, watch the film, say something to inspire his teammates -- he's not sure what yet -- and settle in with a good book in the locker room before the game Thursday night. The reading "just slows my mind down," he said. "It just gives me another outlet."

However it ends, I like this LeBron James book a lot better, I have to say. I like LeBron, the sequel.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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