Jamie Epstein and Shaun Kolnick were married last Saturday night at the Ritz Carlton in Coconut Grove, Fla., and when the young couple arrived at the grand ballroom, they spotted an uninvited guest on the terrace. LeBron James sat among the swaying palm trees, his two sons climbing over him like help defenders, seven-year-old LeBron Jr. on his lap and five-year-old Bryce Maximus on his knee. The boys nibbled chicken fingers and dipped them in maple syrup, to their father's playful disgust. Members of the wedding party, about 20 deep in tuxedos and gowns, fought to press their noses to the window.
Jamie and Shaun took the requisite photographs with bridesmaids, groomsmen and relatives, but on their mantel one snapshot will dwarf the rest. As James posed between Jamie and Shaun with a giant grin, he offered his congratulations and they offered their mazel tovs, because all of them were experiencing a rite of passage. All of them were getting a ring.
James has grown in front of the world's eyes, through Technicolor lenses on high-definition flat screens, from a prodigy in Akron, Ohio, to a colossus in Cleveland to a polarizing sun god in Miami. At 4:15 a.m. last Saturday, as James struggled to sleep, he felt himself enter a new stage. "It just finally hit me," he wrote in a text message to Maverick Carter, his childhood friend and business manager. "I'm a champion." Twelve hours later, James sat under overcast skies on the Ritz terrace, wearing a white T-shirt with the slogan EARNED NOT GIVEN and sipping a Sprite. He was still sleepless and in no hurry to nap. "I'm having all my best dreams wrapped into one," he said.
Pressure remains, the burden of the supernaturally gifted, but in a different form. All the breathless questions that hounded James since the Cleveland days—Can you close a game? Can you lead a team? Can you win a title?—are gone, sunk at the bottom of Biscayne Bay. "It's time to make a new challenge," James says. "I've got to figure out what that is. I know I can get better. And I know I'm not satisfied with one of these." Twenty-nine teams should be very afraid, because James has breached the championship levee, just as Michael Jordan did in 1991. Jordan was 28, and he won five more titles in the next seven years, even with a break for baseball. James is 27, and for the first time he will get to play without a baboon on his back. "With freedom," Heat president Pat Riley says.
James considers whether the TV cameras, trained on him like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, will move on to the next ringless wonder. "The fishbowl has been there since I was 16," he says, laughing. "I haven't lived any other way. I may not be able to survive without it!"
The reality show that kicked off two years ago—"when I sat up there and decided I was going to take my talents to South Beach"—reached its climax Thursday night, as he gathered his teammates at American Airlines Arena before Game 5. "This is what I told them," he says. "If someone came to you right now and told you, 'If you don't win tonight you won't see your family again,' how would you play? Approach this game like your family is in danger. How bad do you want to see your family again?"
James became the first player in nine years to clinch a championship with a triple double, a feat that evoked John Stockton and Karl Malone—if they inhabited one body. Here was a 6'8", 250-pound point guard cast as a power forward, beating two and three defenders with drives and dishes, whichever he was in the mood to choose. In Game 5 he scored 26 points with 11 rebounds and 13 assists, eight of which led to three-pointers by five different teammates, accounting for 60 points in a 121--106 throttling of the Thunder.
LeBron was sure he would sob like Michael Jordan ("I remember him with the trophy," he says), but he responded more like Magic Johnson ("I remember him spraying champagne and yelling, 'Yeah!'"). James hopped up and down on the sideline, the way college football players do before kickoff, and unleashed a smile that no one but family and friends have glimpsed since the whole Decision fiasco. He's already seen the replay of the game on NBA TV. "It was a different type of smile," James says. "I know why it came out so big. I've been waiting for it a long time."
He punctuated one of the best regular seasons in the modern era with one of the best playoffs, leading the Heat with 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists, while shooting 50% and guarding everyone from Carmelo Anthony to Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant. But after James retreated to the locker room, where teammates bathed him in a Budweiser--Dom Perignon cocktail, he caught a scare. He couldn't find his Finals MVP trophy.
"Where's my trophy?" James hollered, rummaging through his locker. "I left it right here!" He rushed through the tunnel back to the court, where he had to give an interview, but the moment it ended he asked, "Have you seen my trophy? Who took my trophy?" On the way to the press conference, where the MVP trophy was waiting all along, he relaxed a bit. "It's just an individual award, anyway," he says. "It's not the one that matters." He took the Larry O'Brien trophy from the podium and cradled it like a third son, and when friends offered to help carry it down a hallway, he waved them off.