MIAMI -- Amid the frenzy of the hallways in the winning arena, the sour scent of champagne drifting out of the locker room, LeBron James was hidden. He was in a side room with family, friends and handlers, preparing to take pictures with the glistening Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Earlier, Dwyane Wade had carried the trophy from the court to the interview room and plopped it down on the table in front of Mike Miller. After his press conference was over -- most likely the last of his career -- Miller picked up the trophy and tried, painfully, to walk down a short flight of stairs.
"Leave 'ol Larry up there," Wade shouted from behind a curtained alcove.
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Maverick Carter, James' longtime friend and business manager from Akron, Ohio, was in the middle of a commotion in a hallway under the stands. Wearing a "Witness" T-shirt with the Nike swoosh on the front, Carter was shouting about an exchange with arena security near his courtside seat; someone had stepped over a line and gotten too close to the court.
The images kept coming, unfurling like a slow-motion film reel. Miller, who went out courageously with 23 points and seven 3-pointers, sat on the back of a golf cart, put his head in his hands, and was overcome with tears. The golf cart hummed and moaned as it carried him away, still in his uniform.
The scene was still chaos outside the Heat locker room, where club music bumped and puddles of adult beverage sloshed around the plastic-covered floor. Heat owner Micky Arison pressed through a crowd, an unlit cigar in hand. "I don't smoke," he said. A team official stood watch in the hallway, his dress shirt drenched and the neck of an empty beer bottle sticking out of his pocket.
Soon, one of James' close associates speed-walked down the hall to look for him. It was 1:47 a.m., exactly two hours after James had finally become a champion.
"I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time," James said after the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 to clinch the franchise's second title -- and James' first, after nine long years.
"My dream has become a reality now," he said, "and it's the best feeling I've ever had."
James had been in the interview room, the championship trophy on the table to his right and the Finals MVP trophy to his left. He leaned forward, elbows on the table and unburdened himself -- the way his basketball soul had just been unburdened, his championship albatross finally lifted.
"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. "... I got back to being myself."
The LeBron who'd been skewered with so much hatred for the past two years ... that wasn't him, he said. He'd absorbed the hate and tried to fight it -- tried to dish it right back, with every move he made. It didn't work -- in fact, it failed epically -- and he wouldn't have gotten to this point without letting it all go.
"Last year, I tried to prove something to everybody," James said, "and I played with a lot of hate. And that's not the way I play the game of basketball. I play with a lot of love, a lot of passion, and that's what I got back to this year."
For James, rock bottom was losing in the Finals to the Mavericks last season, when his hate-filled game failed him on the biggest stage. And in a way, maybe now he understands why his resume never compared to the greats -- why Michael Jordan's six championships and Kobe Bryant's five would always dwarf his individual talent if he didn't start assembling his own.
Now, he knows.
His decision to desert Cleveland and join forces with Wade was viewed as a short cut. Maybe James bought the rhetoric; maybe he thought he could assemble a team of All-Stars and the trophy would arrive on a platter, like a bottle of Cristal.
Now, in the interview room Thursday night with his "NBA Champions" ball cap on, James admitted that being a champion was the hardest thing he'd ever done.
"Two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade said. "But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. As much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and suffering."
As the club music thumped in the locker room and players mingled with their families and held their kids, the pain was over. James had finally captured what his peers, his critics and his own psyche demanded that he have.
"The best thing that happened to me was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played," James said. "It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career. ... 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."
In the end, James didn't need a performance for the ages to get it. His greatness has been on display so thoroughly and consistently in this postseason and Finals that 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds seemed ordinary. It was a mature, controlled exertion of his vast basketball arsenal -- a crowning achievement for King James.
"It was definitely a journey," James said. "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 the franchise -- everything that came with it -- I had to deal with [it] and I had to learn through it. ... I'm happy now that eight years later, nine years after I was drafted, that I can finally say that I'm a champion. And I did it the right way. I didn't shortcut anything."
In the final scene from the night James became a champion, Wade and Chris Bosh filed first out of a room behind the visiting locker room. Nike officials, renowned trainer Tim Grover, TV people and James' friend, Carter, lined the hallway. Bosh still had his uniform on. It was 2:25 a.m.
At 2:26, James emerged, wearing black-rimmed glasses, his championship cap, camouflage shorts and a black T-shirt with his own, screaming face emblazoned on the front. His feet were ensconced in shiny, black-and-gold Nikes.
"Congratulations, champ," one of the Nike men said.
"Appreciate you," he said. A handler whispered something about plans for the next couple of days, and a party for players and family on the practice court upstairs.
"I want to go home," James said with a smile.
Finally, he can go home a champion.