A year ago, LeBron James didn’t exist.
After mourning in his house over the loss of the NBA Finals for several weeks, dealing with the way his entire world had been turned upside down, how the public had revolted against him, James was simply absent. He rarely made appearances if ever at the NBA-NBPA meetings in futile efforts to resolve the lockout. He didn’t bring his weight to the negotiation. He didn’t do publicity tours or release cartoons or even commercials. He wasn’t making terrible, facepalm-inducing comments. He was just silent.
He didn’t exist.
Twelve months later, and James’ statements have been made with his actions. And his exposure is not in the form of boneheaded press conference comments or a television special in a plaid shirt, but in the simple step to the podium and a grasp of his legacy.
If the NBA Finals were the rise of James as the undisputed best player in the world and a dramatic shift in his legacy, Sunday’s win over Spain in the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympic games was the cementing of that identity. Draped in the American flag on NBC, when asked about his accomplishments over the past year, James responded with nothing complex, controversial, or self-centered. It was simple.
“This is all about USA.”
In truth, the Olympics showed maybe even more than the NBA season what James’ stature is. On a team of the greatest players in the world, James was the rock. When the offense stalled, James would force his way to the rim with his singular athleticism. When the ball movement became stagnant, James would probe, post, and dish, drawing multiple defenders and leaving players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony wide open on the perimeter. It was an elite showing of his all-around, every-position skills.
Late in the fourth, Rudy Fernandez foolishly went to challenge a ball-fake from James, leaving the lane wide open when Marc Gasol rotated to cover an off-ball screen. James detonated to the rim and finished with authority. His three-pointer minutes later was the kind of shot he said he was done with, but its satisfying fall through the net a reminder that there is no shot he can’t hit, no ability he does not have in the bag.
James was not the spokesman on the team, nor the emotional leader. That was Kobe Bryant. Similar to Magic Johnson’s role in ’92, Bryant was the player that spoke first and most authoritatively for Team USA. He spoke on the identity, on their goals, on who they were and why they were there. James, Durant, Melo they all deferred to the five-time champion playing in his final Olympics. But on the floor, just like it was with Jordan, it was apparent. James was the best. Kevin Durant’s scoring ability cannot be bested, and it was a collective effort by Team USA to form a cohesive identity. But James’ ability to defend, create the break, pass in transition or in the post, and to attack the rim separated him.
James is the best player in the NBA, in America, on the planet. And if alien life is discovered and they know how to play basketball, you have to like James’ chances there, too.
James will still be hated by many and there is an undercurrent of rumor that James hasn’t changed his personality, that his new identity is simply the result of a new PR team that has focused on shifting how he relates. He’s no longer as candid, and that’s a good thing. He’s no longer as loose-lipped, and that’s a good thing. He’s abandoned his perimeter game by about 80 percent, even in a game with a shortened three like under FIBA rules. He’s somehow taken the vast number of talents he has and made them make more sense together, linked them to one another.
Maybe he’s not more likable. But it’s impossible not to respect what he’s capable of, and how he leads by example.
The 2012 Olympic Gold Medal in basketball will be remembered for the talk of how they match up with the Dream Team (hint: they don’t), for Kobe’s last run, for Kevin Love’s coming out party and Kevin Durant stepping to the stage as the deadliest shooter in the world (if he wasn’t already). But there will also be the knowledge that there is no step back for LeBron, no reconfiguration of his identity, no regression. After three months of the best basketball he could play, he threw another six weeks on, added his gold medal, and left no doubt.
The King has his ring, and the gold to go with it.