ORLANDO, Fla. - LeBron James was only 25 when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to become a member of the Miami Heat, and expectations weighed heavily upon him when making that move.
He said he'd win multiple championships in Miami, so everyone held James accountable right away. Eventually he did, but it took growth and change, which is why he went there in the first place.
"I was still a kid and still trying to figure out who I am as a person and as a man, growing while still trying to compete for a championship every single year," James said. "I grew, and they allowed me to grow. We pushed each other every single day, and like I said, I fit perfectly in that culture because I worked just as hard as anybody else."
The Lakers will play the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, starting a series that calls back to James' past. By the time he joined the Lakers in 2018, he was a 33-year-old man who had grown into who he was and knew exactly what it took to win championships, having won two with the Heat and one upon his return to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014. He came to the Lakers on a streak of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances, and nine total in his career.
Now James has the opportunity to lead the Lakers to the franchise's 17th championship. It's a role he has in part because of who he became while playing for their opponent in this year's Finals.
"Being a part of that culture allowed me to grow, allowed me to see what it takes to not only compete for a championship but also to win a championship," James said. "So it definitely put me in a position where I knew what it took. I saw what it took. But also I fit that culture as well because of how hard I worked. It was a perfect match for those four years."
It's a four-year span that James, in an essay printed in Sports Illustrated, once described as having the same impact on him that going to college had for others.
At 25, James was a villain because he'd announced his move from Cleveland during a one-hour television special that upset stakeholders in his departure. He drew more ire after guaranteeing championships during an introductory celebration with Heat star Dwyane Wade and fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and then more when the Heat were a .500 team to start the season.
They quickly evolved into the best team in the Eastern Conference,, going into the playoffs their first season together as the second seed, and then winning the conference finals. They lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks and the cries once again arose against James.
He was 26 and people wondered what was wrong with him - why hadn't James won a championship yet. James himself felt devastated by the loss.