The 2012 NBA season came to a dramatic close, with LeBron James finally winning his first championship as a member of the Miami Heat. Hate him or love him, there's no denying that James' performance this postseason was anything less than heroic. He brought his team back from the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics and stormed past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. This not only helped James secure his first ring, but it also helped him overcome years of criticism from his critics and shed his title as "villain".
But James' journey to redemption wasn't the only one we witnessed this summer. In fact, his path to triumph was eerily similar to that of another character: the Incredible Hulk from The Avengers. As crazy as it may seem, James and the Hulk have more in common than you may think.
Before he even set foot on an NBA court as a rookie in 2003, James was already being hailed as the "Chosen One," destined to carry the NBA into the future and transcend the game the way Michael Jordan had during his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bulls. Couple James' physical skill set with his stellar basketball I.Q. and there was no reason to believe he couldn't live up to the hype.
Then there's James' Marvel counterpart, Bruce Banner from The Avengers. He, too, was the best in his field. His work in gamma radiation was unparalleled and, like James, he appeared to have no equal . Both men were overly confident in their abilities, and this confidence is what ultimately led to fateful decisions by each, decisions which would have lasting ramifications.
For Banner, his decision led him to test a gamma radiation experiment on himself in his lab, putting himself in a high-tech lab chair of his own design. The experiment was a massive failure, and Banner was exposed to lethal amounts of radiation that ultimately led to his transformation into the Incredible Hulk.
For James, his fateful decision was The Decision, a live ESPN special he used to publicize where he would go as a free agent. Sitting in that chair in the Boys & Girls Club was for James the equivalent of Banner sitting in his lab chair. And, whereas Banner got hit with a high-dose of radiation from his machine, James' radiation came in the form of Jim Gray asking, "LeBron, what's your decision?"
The moment James responded with the now infamous, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," his transformation into the Hulk was complete. Like with Banner, the world now viewed him as a monster. He was hated. And, while James likely anticipated some hostility from Cleveland Cavaliers fans, it was clear when Jim Gray showed James footage of the streets of Cleveland after his announcement that he hadn't anticipated just how bad it would actually be.
People were screaming in bars and burning LeBron jerseys in the streets. Throw in a couple of pitchforks and some toothless gypsies with warts, and you had yourself a good old-fashioned Kill-Frankenstein-type riot on your hands. In a matter of seconds, all the praise and accolades James had accumulated in Cleveland over the years -- which included a scoring title, two league MVPs, and six All-Star appearances -- meant nothing now.
James and Banner had entered unfamiliar territory. Never before had they faced such scrutiny and disdain. They were used to being the peak performers of their profession, placed on a pedestal by peers as an example of excellence and professionalism in their respective fields. Banner did all he could to hide himself from the public eye as he traveled the world and wandered through remote locations. It wasn't as easy for James, a sports icon and celebrity. He was blasted left and right by fans and critics alike who chastised him for his decision to leave Cleveland and form a "Super Team" in Miami alongside Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.
Despite the outpouring of anger directed at him, James did the best he could to try and embrace his new role as a villain in Miami, even doing a Nike commercial to promote the image. However, it was clear he was never entirely comfortable with his negative image. The problem seemed to be that he cared about what fans and critics thought of him, and he realized they no longer saw anything heroic about him.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Things only got worse for James after last season's embarrassing performance in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. James averaged just 17.8 points per game in the series -- down 8.9 points from his season average of 26.7 PPG. That point differential was the largest drop off from a regular season to an NBA Finals in league history. James also averaged just three points in the fourth quarter during the series, and endured the majority of the blame for Miami's loss.
So when James and the Heat entered the 2012 postseason, fans and critics alike were chomping at the bit waiting to see another postseason failure from the self-proclaimed King. However, after the Heat fell behind 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed as though the LeBron-haters would have more to cheer about.
Yet, something changed in James prior to Game 6 in Boston. With the Heat facing elimination, James came out and had one of the best games of his career, and arguably one of the most memorable performances in NBA postseason history. All the anger James had held inside since The Decision finally surfaced. You could see it in his face after each made field goal. He'd finally accepted who he was.
Seeing this acceptance reminded me of the scene in The Avengers when Captain America says to Bruce Banner, "Now might be a really good time for you to get angry," (i.e. turn into the Hulk). Banner's response? "That's my secret, Cap: I'm always angry."
When Banner finally came to this realization in The Avengers, he unleashed his fury on the Chitauri and Loki -- the film's villains -- and in doing so, earned the admiration of his teammates and the people of New York. He became a hero by learning how to channel his anger for good and how to use it to his advantage.
James coming to this realization before Game 6 helped him unleash his fury on the Celtics as he went 19-26 from the field and finished with 45 points in a 19-point win. More importantly, throughout the game, James exuded a demeanor and attitude that he seemed to lack in past postseasons. He was now playing for himself.
James helped the Heat finish off the Celtics in Game 7, and then continued his rampage into the Finals, defeating the young, run-and-gun Thunder in five games and capping off his historic postseason run with a 26 point, 11 rebound and 13 assist performance in a blowout-win that sealed his first title and first Finals MVP.
James' steamroll through this year's playoffs was nothing less than heroic. He lifted his game and played with an edge we haven't seen from him before, and despite how people feel about James, it's hard no to appreciate his valiant effort and how he responded time and time again in the face of adversity in the playoffs. He relished the pressure and used it to fuel him and elevate his game. James "Hulked Out" and led his team to victory and, like Banner, helped silence his critics and put him back on the path of redemption.
And, that in itself, is pretty incredible.
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