My Sportsman: Miami Heat's LeBron James
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
In 2012, LeBron James won the NBA championship, NBA MVP, Finals MVP and Olympic gold medal. He delivered a playoff performance that was unforgettable, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana, and then one that was epic, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Boston. He rescued the United States in pool play versus Lithuania and again in the gold-medal game versus Spain. During the regular season he shot 53 percent -- Larry Bird never even shot 53 percent -- with an efficiency rating nearly four points higher than anybody else's. He set a career-high in rebounds and attempted fewer three-pointers than ever while sinking them at a higher clip than ever. He was named SI's Sportsman of the Year. "It gets no better for a basketball player," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
And yet, in 2013, it did.
There were no Olympics, but James again captured the NBA championship, NBA MVP and Finals MVP. His field goal percentage rose to an unfathomable 56.5 percent. His three-point percentage crossed the 40 percent threshold for the first time. He also averaged eight rebounds for the first time, his assist totals improved and so did his efficiency rating. He hoisted Miami through a 27-game winning streak -- in one of those victories, over Sacramento, he accounted for a staggering 77 points -- and then he logged 960 minutes in the playoffs while serving as the Heat's primary ball-handler, playmaker and post threat. In the Finals against San Antonio, he struggled to eat and sleep yet he averaged more than 43 minutes, leading the Heat in every major statistical category while shadowing Tony Parker around upwards of 300 pick-and-rolls. Yes, 2012 was a historic year for James, but 2013 was superior by far.
We have entered an age when James could win Sportsman of the Year every year and probably should. His domination of the basketball world is so thorough he seems to be competing only against himself. The questions about whether he could win the championship were answered by consecutive titles. The questions about whether he could perform in the clutch were answered by the most timely jumper anybody could imagine, to seal a Game 7 victory over the Spurs. The only question now is how exactly he can keep expanding his own craft. In 2012, he mastered the post, and in 2013, he mastered the perimeter. You could make an argument that he's the sport's best point guard and also its premier power forward. Basketball has never seen anything like James in his prime. The only danger is that the public becomes bored by his solitary pursuit. He could use a foil, and while Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are worthy adversaries, they have yet to really challenge him.
Three years have passed since The Decision and the rehabilitation is complete. James makes few missteps, whether he's triggering a three-on-two fast break, or addressing a hundred unforgiving TV cameras. He leads the NBA in every way. His philanthropic efforts -- highlighted by a program that brings every at-risk third grader in the Akron public school system into an educational cocoon conceived and funded by James -- stand in overwhelming contrast to the requisite charity golf tournaments and bowling outings staged by other athletes. Everybody who's made an All Star team seems to have a foundation and they invariably donate a scoreboard here, a goal post there. James used to be like them, passing out bikes. Now he is tangibly enriching the lives of a city's most vulnerable citizens. He is saving those who were not chosen.
James was hailed, before his high school graduation, as a phenomenon unlike any other, and the most remarkable thing about him is that he doesn't disappoint. He doesn't slack in the regular season. He doesn't coast on defense. He rarely paces himself. But he is no automaton, either. He puts his foibles on display so they can be conquered. James was tested in the Finals, baited by the Spurs to take outside shots, and he failed bitterly. Through the first six games, he averaged 8.2 points outside the paint on 33.89 percent shooting and 29.2 percent from three. He could have stopped. He could have deferred. He could have retreated inside. Instead, he visualized himself making those shots, and studied old tape to remember that he could. He uncorked 20 shots outside the paint in Game 7 and drilled nine of them, including five threes. The last J, from 20 feet, yielded the second ring.
It also earned him my vote for Sportsman of the Year. When SI gave him the award last December, the choice was a bit of a surprise. Now, it's almost too obvious. He's the Sportsman of the Era.