MIAMI – LeBron James walked over to the side of the championship stage before proudly facing the other members of "The Four Horsemen" standing about 20 yards away. With his NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy cradled in his arm and a championship hat on his head, the Miami Heat forward yelled out, "Yo."
James then pointed at his friends, saluted them with his right hand and put his hand on his heart before dipping his head to give a silent thank you. The moment was missed by most of the celebrating Miami Heat fans as red and black confetti fell to the court after Miami's clinching 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night. But for Maverick Carter, Randy Mims and Rich Paul, James' longtime friends and business managers, that show of love and appreciation after their bumpy road together will never be forgotten.
"He has us in his heart and we've been there with him the whole way," said Carter, wearing one of James' old Nike "Witness" T-shirts.
Said Mims: "It's a long time coming for him. I know everything he has been through."
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This group of childhood friends, who called themselves "The Four Horsemen," formally announced their arrival in 2005 when James fired agent Aaron Goodwin. They decided as a team they would determine the All-Star's fate off the court. The move seemed ridiculous at the time given their inexperience. Goodwin also had negotiated more than $135 million in endorsements for James, including a $90 million Nike contract.
"The Four Horsemen" gave birth to their own marketing firm to not only represent James but other athletes like Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul and NFL wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. James did eventually sign to be represented by agent Leon Rose with Creative Artists Agency. But Carter, the CEO of the LRMR group, led James' endorsement portfolio.
LRMR was initially laughed at. Now seven years after departing from Goodwin, James was recently ranked fourth on Forbes' list of richest athletes after making $53 million from June 2011 to June 2012. He is the top-ranked NBA player in that group.
"Being young and black and going into a business where you are trying to establish position and where you are able to make business decisions with the lack of what people would call an education, not having a degree, no one wanted to give us a chance," Paul said. "We were able to come through that and learn from a lot of people that we had around us and position ourselves to be, not necessarily just successful economically, but successful from a positioning standpoint to have a bright future.
"It was a rough situation. But given the opportunity he gave all of us, it's a blessing. It was up to us to cultivate that blessing and move forward."
This group began their bond in Northeast Ohio, a place where James was once deified before "The Decision" ended a seven-year love affair with Cleveland. James would later say he wished he better handled his departure from the Cavaliers, but the damage was done. James is arguably more hated in the area than Michigan football. Who knows if "The Four Horsemen" and Cleveland will ever reconcile.
"I represent Cleveland," Paul said. "I was born and raised there and I appreciated it. There are a lot of great people in Cleveland. It's a great town. Yeah, they'll let it go. Part of it is on them, too."
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The fallout from "The Decision" brought speculation that the "The Four Horsemen" would have their own falling out. James' meltdown in last year's Finals against the Dallas Mavericks added to the friction. But throughout all the criticism, "The Four Horsemen" grew closer and continued a common understanding that James was always the center of their empire.
"We stuck to the routine, what got us here," Carter said. "We never changed nothing. No matter what went on with LeBron, we stuck with what we did, talking with each other, being honest with each other and truthful with each other. And if I messed up LeBron told me. And if LeBron messed up or Randy messed up, we just told each other. And we never gave into anything around us."
The group received their ultimate measure of satisfaction Thursday night after James led the Heat to their second crown with a triple-double of 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds. "Knowing LeBron from the beginning and seeing what he went through as a person and a player on the court, how hard he worked, he is well deserving of this moment. It's one of those priceless moments that you can't imagine," Paul said.
The Heat's locker room turned into a makeshift South Beach night club as the champions popped open champagne bottles, knocked down beers and sprayed one another as hip-hop music blared. James loves Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and all his teammates. But when he left the locker room to do his media interviews, it was Carter who had his arm around James' neck with Mims and Paul also right.
After navigating the tough terrain, "The Four Horsemen" have finally galloped into the sunset as winners.
"Those are my brothers," Paul said. "We went through a lot of things personally within the scheme of things. We fight, we argue, we disagree. But at the end of the day, we pricked our finger and blood is blood. We may not have the same mother, but we're brothers at heart and love one another."
Long after the celebration began, James gave one more thanks to his longtime friends. "This," James posted on Twitter, "was for you."
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