Tim Duncan took LeBron James aside after the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 National Basketball Association Finals and told James the league would soon be his.
While it may have taken longer than expected by many -- including Duncan, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and three- time NBA Finals MVP -- James now sits at the sport’s pinnacle after capturing his first championship with the Miami Heat.
Nine years after turning professional out of high school and two seasons into his move to Miami, James’s All-Star resume finally includes an NBA title, after the Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 last night to win the series in an upset.
“It’s about damn time,” James said at the trophy presentation after being named Most Valuable Player of the Finals. He scored 26 points and had 11 rebounds and 13 assists last night.
James pledged to produce multiple titles when he left the Cavaliers and signed with the Heat as a free agent in 2010. Last night’s victory to clinch the best-of-seven Finals 4-1 was his first step in delivering on that promise and may have also furthered his global brand.
James at 27 is younger than Michael Jordan was when he captured the first of his six NBA titles over an eight-year stretch. Jordan, the Hall of Fame player with whom James has most often been compared, was 28 and in his seventh season when he and the Chicago Bulls broke through in 1991.
While he can’t yet match Jordan’s legacy as a champion and pitchman, the title may stamp James’s ascension as the international face of the NBA. The three-time MVP already was among the league’s most popular -- and polarizing -- players. He boosts television ratings, jersey sales and attendance while making millions of dollars in endorsements.
James also made money for gamblers who bet on the Heat. Before the series, the betting lines in Las Vegas favored the Thunder, giving Oklahoma City a 61 percent chance of winning, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
A winning $100 bet on the Heat -- which had a 39 percent chance of winning before the series -- returned $145 plus the initial stake.
Jordan hasn’t played in the NBA since 2003 -- six months before James broke into the league -- and now owns the Charlotte Bobcats. Even so, Forbes estimated in September that Jordan made a total of $60 million the previous year from endorsements with Nike Inc. (NKE:US), with whom he has a signature brand, and companies such as PepsiCo Inc. (PEP:US)’s Gatorade, Hanesbrands Inc. (HBI:US) and Upper Deck Co.
Now that James has earned a ring of his own and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is turning 34 next month, the NBA may be under James’s rule, as Duncan predicted five years ago.
“He’s at a point where he has to decide does he want to be more of an aggressive endorser-slash-businessman than he has in the past,” Steve Rosner, co-founder of Rutherford, New Jersey- based 16W Marketing LLC, said in a telephone interview. “Jordan at one point made that decision. If there was any kind of reluctance to do it before because, ‘I haven’t won the championship and that’s still my No. 1 goal,’ well, at least that box will be checked.”
James averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the Heat’s postseason run.
In the clinching game, Mike Miller came off the bench to hit all four of his 3-point attempts in the opening two periods and Miami used a 19-4 run to take a 59-49 halftime lead. The Heat built that into a 95-71 lead entering the fourth period, and led by as many as 27 points. They tied an NBA Finals record with 14 3-pointers.
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 32 points and Russell Westbrook added 19.
Walt Disney Co.’s ABC television network said the Finals attracted the largest average audience for the series since 2004. Last night’s Game 5 delivered a 12.6 overnight rating, matching last year’s Game 5, according to preliminary Nielsen ratings released today.
After James teamed with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last season, the Heat reached the championship round before losing in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. In 2007, James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, where Duncan and the Spurs swept the series for their third title in a five-year span.
A native of Akron, Ohio, James spent his first seven seasons with the Cavaliers before moving to Miami. His arrival immediately made the Heat title favorites, and at an introductory rally James proclaimed that he, Wade and Bosh would lead the team to at least seven titles in addition to the one the franchise won in 2006. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert guaranteed at the time that his team would win a championship “before the self-titled former ‘king’ wins one.”
When James’s first attempt fell short last season, he lashed out at those he said took joy in his failure.
“All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up and have the same life that they had before,” James, who has a six-year, $110 million contract, said at the time. “They have the same personal problems. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live.”
James has twice had the NBA’s best-selling jersey, including during his first year with the Heat in 2011, and was the fourth highest-paid athlete in the world over the past year, according to Forbes. He made a total of $53 million in salary and endorsements, Forbes said, trailing only boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, and golfer Tiger Woods.
James hauled in an estimated $40 million in the past year from sponsorships with companies such as McDonald’s Corp., Coca- Cola Co. (KO:US) and Nike, where he’s followed Jordan as a top endorser for the world’s largest sporting-goods maker. ABC aired a Nike ad immediately after the game ended depicting James as an NBA champion.
His one-hour television special to announce he was going to “take my talents to South Beach” was “ill-conceived,” in the words of NBA Commissioner David Stern, yet James remains a draw. He had the league’s fourth-best selling jersey in the U.S. and third-best seller internationally this season.
“He still has some ‘fixing’ to do with his image based on the negative publicity he got for the ‘Decision’ and purists not thrilled the three guys got together and game-planned about putting this together,” Rosner said. “But this is more about perception and the way he’s seen rather than actual dollars attached to the winning.”
James is especially influential in China, where the NBA is the most popular sports league. He helped the U.S. capture a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a year ago sought to expand his marketing opportunities in Asia by joining hedge-fund billionaire John Henry as part-owner of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and England’s Liverpool Football Club.
Winning an NBA championship may only enhance James’s standing in the world’s most populous country, said Terry Rhoads, who left as Nike’s China sports marketing director in 2002 to form Shanghai-based Zou Marketing Inc.
While the title is probably a boon for Nike, which posted $2.44 billion in sales from China in the 12 months through February, it’s the ultimate coronation for James. He became the eighth player in league history to win at least three MVP awards after finishing third in the NBA this season with an average of 27.1 points a game. His production increased during the postseason, when the Heat knocked off the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics to reach the Finals.
James helped keep Miami’s season alive with a 45-point, 15- rebound performance in a Game 6 win in Boston, and then had 31 points and 12 rebounds as the Heat captured the Eastern Conference title with a seventh-game victory at home.
After leaving last night’s game with three minutes to play, James danced on the sidelines and embraced teammates, coach Erik Spoelstra and Heat officials.
“This might be the happiest day of my life,” James said at the trophy presentation. “It’s a dream come true.”
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