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LeBron James’ legacy: Ring and everlasting tarnish

Critics may be forced respect LeBrJames little more now thhe has an NBA title but he’s nowhere near beloved or

Critics may be forced to respect LeBron James a little more now that he has an NBA title, but he’s nowhere near beloved or elite status. | Lynne Sladky~AP

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Updated: July 24, 2012 9:51AM

MIAMI — Well, that settles that.

With yet another MVP-caliber performance on the NBA’s biggest stage, LeBron James won the elusive championship ring that will validate his Hall of Fame career, erase the stigma of being a superstar who can’t win the big one and win the hearts of NBA fans around the world as the beloved and rightful heir to Michael Jordan’s throne as the best of all time.

Yeah, right.

James indeed won his first NBA championship by leading the Miami Heat to a 121-106 victory over the incredible shrinking Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

But a coronation this was not.

It’s a ring nobody can take from LeBron. And his critics — those dreaded haters — would have to be in serious denial to ignore the greatness of James’ performance in the Finals. He did everything the best player in the world could do and then some.

And all of Miami reveled in his vindication.

‘‘LeBron, man . . . I don’t know what people can say now. He’s done everything,’’ teammate Juwan Howard said. ‘‘What are they going to beat him up about now? What did he do wrong this time? He’s LeBron James — world champion. Now what? Give the guy a break.’’

But if LeBron’s supporters are expecting this to be a watershed moment that elevates James to the Magic-Bird-Jordan stratosphere of NBA greatness, they’re in for a disappointment. The best they can hope for is grudging respect — LeBron no longer stands with Charles Barkley and Karl Malone as MVP winners without a ring. Now he stands with Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal as MVP winners who left their original teams to win titles with a lot of help.

The hope is that LeBron’s first title will allow everybody to see James in a bias-free light and bridge the gap between the critics who have an irrational hatred of LeBron and the supporters who can’t fathom why anyone would criticize him at all.

Reality lies somewhere in between: Yes, LeBron had a right to play wherever he wanted and people need to get over ‘‘The Decision’’ and the ‘‘Not two, not three, not four’’ pep rally. But even with title in tow, LeBron still is the guy who manufactured his championship by joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan all had help, but their championship teams weren’t store-bought. Jordan helped make Scottie Pippen an all-star. He nurtured his supporting cast. LeBron created his — at least the key elements of it. Sorry, but it’s not unfair to respect Jordan’s path to the title more than LeBron’s.

But some people don’t get it.

‘‘When you get to know LeBron,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, ‘‘you don’t understand why he was such a lightning rod for the criticism, and all of just the incessant critiques about a player who embodies all the qualities you want of a champion.

‘‘He’s one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever been around. He’s an incredible teammate. He gives everything and sacrifices and does everything for the team. He’s never been in trouble. He does so many things that you want a team player to do, and yet he was criticized. And that’s why to go through this journey — he had to get out of his comfort zone to leave the place where he grew up to start fresh with a new team — not many people would have had the courage to do that.’’

‘‘And then to go through all those trials and tribulations to get to this point — he’s earned it. And we’re so proud of him.’’

Spoelstra couldn’t have illustrated the dissonance that fuels the LeBron debate any better. What he sees as courageous, many others see as taking the easy way out. It’s difficult to reconcile the difference.

But this much is true: It would have taken much more courage for LeBron to stay in Cleveland and try to build a championship team himself. No matter how many titles LeBron wins, that always will be a part of his NBA legacy.

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