Pat Riley stood in the mouth of the tunnel at Boston's TD Garden, between the court and the locker room, and waited for the Boat. That's what he calls LeBron James—"You know," Riley explains, "best of all time"—an acronym he conjured to remind the planet's preeminent basketball player of frontiers still to be conquered. "Hey, Boat," Riley will say. "How is the Boat doing today?" James will reflexively laugh and shake his head because he is not the Boat, at least not yet. But on that sweaty night at the Garden, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, facing yet another summer cast as the villain foiled, he delivered one of the Boat performances in NBA history. The image of James throughout the game, bent at the waist, staring skyward with pupils pushed to his eyelids, recalled predators of different breeds. "He was primal," Riley says. "He was a cobra, a leopard, a tiger hunched over his kill."
After James had unleashed 45 points, snatched 15 rebounds and sucked all the juice from an expectant crowd, he marched toward Riley, the Heat president who lured him to South Beach two years ago with his six sparkling rings. He was just a few steps from Riley when a 20-something man perched above the tunnel poured what remained of his beer through a net canopy, dousing James's head and jersey. While a national television audience recoiled, Riley was transported back to the 1980s, when he coached the Lakers and rabble-rousers at the old Garden rocked their buses, spit in their faces and once shoved his mother-in-law over a railing.
"I'm a Catholic, and I was an altar boy, so I say my prayers at night and I believe someone up there is taking care of us," Riley begins. "From where I was standing, there was a backlight on LeBron from the arena, and as the [beer] pellets sprayed up in the air, they looked like they were forming a halo over him. This is what I saw: The good Lord was saying, 'LeBron, I'm going to help you through this night because you're a nice person, and I'm going to give you 45 and 15. But as you walk off, I'm going to humble the heck out of you.' And, you know what, that's the best thing that could have happened."
It was the story of his life. James could log 47 flawless minutes, or win 60 regular-season games, or spend seven years as a one-man stimulus package for a hard-bitten Rust Belt city and still end up with a beer in the face. We forgive our favorite athletes many imperfections and foibles, but James was held to a higher standard. He was too strong, too fast, too blessed to stumble, especially in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. "I'm in a different place than other people," he says. "That's O.K. I understand. I was chosen for this. It's my gift. It's my responsibility."
When James was nine, he played running back for a Pop Warner team in his hometown of Akron called the East Dragons, and he scored 18 touchdowns in six games. "That's when I first knew I had talent," he says. When he was a freshman at St. Vincent--St. Mary High, a basketball coach confided in friends that the best player of all time was on his roster. When he was a sophomore, a local newspaper dubbed him King James, and never again did he play in front of a gym that wasn't jammed.
James is a sucker for underdogs—"I love Arian Foster, from the Houston Texans," he says, "because he didn't get drafted, he played on the practice squad, and now he's probably the best running back in the NFL"—knowing full well he will never be one himself. He will never win in an upset, never know what it feels like to overachieve. He assumes the most unsustainable position in sports, the eternal front-runner, and he kept coming up short at the finish. But after each colossal disappointment, while the talking heads returned their attention to Tim Tebow or whatever topic du jour gooses the ratings, James wiped the beer from his chin and resumed his discovery. "In every adversity there is a seed of equivalent benefit," Riley says, and the Boat finds it. When James lost in the Finals in 2007, with the Cavaliers, he remade his jump shot. When he fell again in 2011, with the Heat, he built a post game. James was born with supernatural ability, but he lets none of it lie dormant. He extracts every ounce, through a distillation process created and refined by failure.
"The game is a house, and some players only have one or two windows in their house because they can't absorb any more light," says Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Team USA. "When I met LeBron, he only had a few windows, but then he learned how beautiful the game can be, so he put more windows in. Now he sees the damn game so well, it's like he lives in a glass building. He has entered a state of mastery. There's nothing he can't do. God gave him a lot but he is using everything. He's one of the unique sports figures of all time, really, and he's right in that area where it's all come together." A voracious mind has caught up with a supreme body. The marriage is a marvel.
It gets no better for a basketball player," says Heat guard Dwyane Wade of the year James just completed: NBA champion, NBA MVP, Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, hardwood revolutionary. Call him the best point guard in the league, or the best power forward, or both, or neither. "He has no position," says an NBA scout. "His position is to do whatever he wants. There's never been anything like it. You just give him the ball and you win the game." Defend James with bigger players and he pulls them out to the three-point line so he can breeze past them. Try smaller, more nimble players and he backs them all the way into the basket stanchion. The formula sounds simple, for a Mack truck with a Ferrari engine, but only now has it come into focus.
And so, less than 29 months after he sat on a stage at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., and incurred a nation's wrath, LeBron James is the Sportsman of the Year. He is not the Sportsman of 2010, when he announced his decision to leave Cleveland in a misguided television special, or 2011, when he paid dearly for his lapse in judgment. He is the Sportsman of 2012. "Did I think an award like this was possible two years ago?" James says. "No, I did not. I thought I would be helping a lot of kids and raise $3 million by going on TV and saying, 'Hey, I want to play for the Miami Heat.' But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am."
He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch. "He got rid of the bulls---," says one of his former coaches, and he quietly hoped the public would notice. When James strides into an opposing arena, he takes in the crowd, gazes up at the expressions on the faces. "I can tell the difference between 2010 and 2012," he says. Anger has turned to appreciation, perhaps grudging, but appreciation nonetheless. James has become an entry on a bucket list, a spectacle you have to see at least once, whether you crave the violence of sports or the grace, the force or the finesse. He attracts the casual fan with his ferocious dunks and the junkie with his sublime pocket passes. He is a Hollywood blockbuster with art-house appeal.