It was the final minute of the game, of the NBA Finals and the most unlikely and odd season in league history. The game had long been decided, but now, as the clock ticked down and Anthony Davis and LeBron James were able to relax and take in the moment, it hit them.
Davis wandered back behind the video board of fans and James followed grabbing him in a headlock as their celebration began, a celebration that felt like any other until it became an exhale for 92 days locked in the improbable Adam Silver-created Disney bubble that allowed them to reach this moment.
"Nothing really was going through my mind. I was just emotional," Davis said. "There was like 25 seconds left. Actually, when I came out of the game, I just started feeling it. About 25 seconds left, that feeling just turned into reality. I was 25 seconds from becoming a champion. I got emotional. It's the type of journey that I've been on, my team has been on, the organization has been on -- it all came just full circle with this championship. So I just got real emotional. He was bothering me, saying, 'You're soft. Oh, you crybaby.' I walked to the back, and there was a banner trophy. I kind of grabbed it. Then we walked back out to the court. It was an unbelievable feeling, and just an emotional moment for me."
When the Lakers' huge lead was trimmed to a respectable 106-93 final score by the Miami Heat, the confetti cannons blasted and the trophy presentation began and the party went on throughout the night. But for James especially, this began like all of his other titles, with a hard decision. He opted to leave Cleveland again, this time for Los Angeles where skeptics and critics decried it as a shortcut to his post-playing life.
And the critics had the stage for a year as the Lakers failed to make the postseason in 2019, a banged-up and frustrated James enduring a very public and ugly front office shakeup and ownership fight off the court and a team that didn’t live up to his expectations on it. But then the Lakers and general manager Rob Pelinka orchestrated the trade for Davis, pushing much of the franchise’s young assets into the pot and gambling that the two stars would be able to reclaim the franchise’s former glory. Frank Vogel took over as coach and was tasked with not only blending it all together but tiptoeing his way around the franchise land mines of star power.
The path was not a direct line.. There was a trip to China that provided a hint of what was to come as the players were confined to their hotel, unable to play when an international political and economic squabble started over a tweet. Then in January the heart of the franchise for two decades, Kobe Bryant, died in a helicopter crash, turning the Staples Center into a memorial site. Little more than a month later, COVID-19 suspended the season until Silver was able to put 22 teams in the bubble to try to crown a champion.
Even if James saw it as a chance at age 35 to capture another title, he didn’t bring the Lakers along as a clear favorite to escape the bubble. The Milwaukee Bucks had the best record in basketball. The rival Los Angeles Clippers seemed built for a postseason run. But while social justice protests and the coronavirus may have dominated much of the restart, James still had the mental focus to isolate with his team and turn this odd obstacle course into a march to history.
As great as James was in earning his fourth Finals MVP award, as dominant as Davis could be against the flailing efforts of the Miami Heat to counter his size and skill, it was not the star power that really owned the day on this last moment of the bubble.
After a disappointing loss to the undermanned Heat in Game 5, the Lakers came out ready to end the series. The difference this time, besides being the more talented team, was that the Lakers simply played harder in overwhelming Miami from the opening tip.
The defense was suffocating, James taking on the task of slowing the one star Miami had, Jimmy Butler, and assembling his entire team into a swarming unit that humiliated the Heat. It echoed a time nearly a decade earlier when James was a part of the Miami Heat and he decided to put an end to the Jeremy Lin hype around "Linsanity" after the NBA added him to All-Star Weekend— hounding him for 94 feet as he went 1-for-11 with seven turnovers and looked as if he was a high schooler playing against men. Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo could do nothing against this onslaught.
If relief and joy had set in by the time the game was over, James was still clawing at the critics after as he spoke on the court.
"We just want our respect," James said. "Rob wants his respect. Coach Vogel wants his respect. Our organization wants their respect. Laker nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect, too."
He had it as he staked another claim to the title of the best player in NBA history, a debate that will rage on even after he finally calls it quits. Perhaps the most similar thing between James and Michael Jordan is just that, creating enemies and obstacles. This season provided them for him - the bubble, the loss of Kobe and his own age all conspiring against him - and he made his way through it.
"I think personally thinking I have something to prove fuels me," he said. "It fueled me over this last year and a half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I've done in my career to this point, there's still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game and has he done this, has he done that. So having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, why not still have something to prove, I think it fuels me.
"I think they are all special in their own right. They all have their obstacles, things that went on throughout the course of the year, both on and off the floor. But one is not less than the other, because when you're able to put yourself in this position to be able to win a championship, first thing you start to think about is how much work you've put in over the course of the year. How much you've sacrificed, how much you've dedicated to the game and to your craft. That's always been the most fulfilling thing for me, besides seeing my teammates as happy as they are. Being able to know that you can put the work in, literally trust the process, live about the process and then see the results. I think not only from a basketball player, but from everybody, whatever craft, whatever workspace you're in, to be able to put the work in and live along the process and build along the process and be able to see results, I think we all live for that moment."
For James and Davis it came after 380 days. A headlock, shared smiles and tears and a celebration that lasted into the night.