For the second time in six years, a member of the Miami Heat has been anointed by Sports Illustrated as their Sportsman of the Year.
This year’s winner, the reigning three-time MVP LeBron James, joins 2006 winner Dwyane Wade. The Heat shooting guard won his after a historic ’06 NBA Finals when he averaged 35 points per game and brought his team back from a 2-0 deficit against the Dallas Mavericks. According to John Hollinger, it was the most efficient individual performance in the Finals ever. Wade was only 24 at the time, but had the veteran leadership of a 30-year-old and the game of a 27-year-old.
Fast forward to 2012 and we have yet another athlete wearing the Heat red, black, and white on the cover of SI with the prestigious title. LeBron didn’t average 35 points per game. Instead, he posted up a near triple-double, garnering 28 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists per in a 4-1 series victory over MVP runner-up Kevin Durant and the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. James’ defense was equally impressive, holding the three-time scoring champion to four consecutive quiet fourth quarters.
Naturally, LeBron ended the Finals with a triple-double in the form of 26 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds because why wouldn’t he? The Heat ended up winning that game by 15, the game being decided by the third quarter when an onslaught of three-pointers–possible because of LeBron’s facilitation–featured Miami with an advantage that reached as high as 27 early in the fourth quarter.
For years, we have been pondering just how LeBron would react when he won that first title. Would he break down on the court? Bringing up memories of Michael Jordan when he collapsed in the lockerroom? Would he embrace Dwyane Wade and let all his emotions pour out on the shoulder of his second-in-command?
Or would he celebrate with a toothy grin and a beaming smile that would truly be representative of the player who has only wanted people to like him? That sounds right. It sounds like the LeBron James we’ve come to know. Since the Heat were up by such a large margin throughout the second half, the championship win sank in early for James, who spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench dancing with his teammates and embracing each key player and coach that enabled him to get to this point.
It’s not just the NBA championship win and the Finals MVP that led to him being known as the 2012 Sportsman of the Year. It’s what led up to it that enticed SI into giving him the honor. James certainly had his moments throughout the Finals–the clutch shot in Game 2 and the cramp three-pointer in Game 4–but both moments pale in comparison to the instances that pushed LeBron and the Heat to the brink.
It’s when someone faces adversity do we begin to see their true colors. For years we have seen LeBron fail to step up in those intense moments of adversity, whether it was against the Boston Celtics in 2010 when he was still a member of Cleveland or the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Those two series acted as if a skunk had sprayed LeBron with a stench that he couldn’t rid himself of.
People wanted to see LeBron win. They were tired of the regular season achievements and the occasional postseason outburst. Everybody knew LeBron James was a great player; what everyone wanted to know, however, was how great of a leader he was. Up until the 2012 postseason, that was hardly seen in dire situations. In the ’11 Finals, it was LeBron deferring to Dwyane Wade, and it reverted every critic to reminisce of the nightmare that was LeBron’s Game 5 against Boston in 2010.
He would end up having two of the biggest postseason games of his career in 2012, both coming with the team’s backs against the wall.
Following an embarrassing loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 3, many questioned whether the Heat would survive without Chris Bosh, who suffered an abdominal strain early in Game 1 of the series. The Heat’s offense was stagnant in Games 1 and 2, and it led to Indiana taking a 2-1 lead with a Game 4 in Indiana awaiting. Not only that, but Dwyane Wade was seriously hurting after a five-point performance in Game 3.
Basically, this game was going to fall on LeBron’s shoulders. Wade would get some treatment on his knee in between games, meaning that it would be up to James to prop the Heat up and somehow lead them to victory against a huge Pacers team. It didn’t appear that way at first when the Pacers opened up a 9-0 lead to start and an eight-point lead heading into the half. If the LeBron that so desperately wanted to win a title wanted to show up, the second half of Game 4 would have been a good time.
40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists later, and LeBron and the Heat were going back home with a tied series. Miami held a 30-16 advantage in the third quarter as Wade and James become next to unstoppable and the defense began to clamp down. The chemistry exhibited by Wade and James in the third quarter would feature some of the most fluent basketball being played between two athletes who featured extremely similar playing styles.
The Heat would go on to win the series 4-2, thanks in part to LeBron having a historic performance that came when his team was in dire need of a momentum-boosting victory.
A few weeks later and the Heat are in an eerily similar situation. This time, however, the situation was far more dire as the Heat were one loss away from seeing their championship dreams eradicated at the hands of the Boston Celtics. The Celtics had just won three consecutive, including a heartbreaker of a win in Game 5 that featured Paul Pierce hitting an improbable three-pointer over the outstretched hands of LeBron.
Pierce chimed that LeBron couldn’t guard him after he made the shot. He didn’t realize there were still two more games to play. He had no idea that he just gave life to a monster just waiting for someone to give him a reason to have yet another legendary performance.
In Game 6, Pierce would shoot 4-of-18 to finish with nine points. His counterpart in LeBron? Well, he ended up having the game of his life. 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists for the player who had appeared to quit in so many situations such as the one that presented itself in Game 6: a road against in a hostile environment against a balanced team that was riding some serious momentum.
LeBron started off the game with a blow-by dunk over Pierce, before proceeding to hit just about every single jumper he attempted. He would shoot 19-of-26 from the field, 2-of-4 from deep, and 5-of-9 from the free throw line. Pierce and Mickael Pietrus, LeBron’s defenders for the night, had no answer and became mere spectators to one of the greatest postseason performances in the history of the game. James only needed to score four points in the fourth quarter, including hitting a cutting layup that put the Heat up by 24 on Boston’s home floor.
Once again, this was a game that fell on LeBron’s shoulders. Dwyane had been pulling a disappearing act in the first half of each game and Bosh’s return hardly meant much when he returned from his injury because of how desperate the Heat were. Bosh wasn’t ready to contribute his usual numbers, leaving LeBron as the one to fight his team off the ropes and back into the center of the ring.
The Heat ended up winning by 19 points, and LeBron would have a statline that had not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain was scoring 50 points with relative ease.
This certainly wasn’t the first time we’ve seen LeBron perform as well as he did in a postseason setting.
LeBron had an incredible run leading up to the ’11 Finals, but it hardly mattered upon seeing how bewildered and lost he was throughout the six-game series loss. The Mavericks ran a tight zone and forced LeBron into situations he wasn’t comfortable in, specifically having him post-up. LeBron had dabbled in the past, but not consistent enough to know what he was doing.
He spent the majority of the 2011 summer thinking of ways to better himself. After two weeks in seclusion, LeBron took his talents to Hakeem Olajuwon’s gym and learned the art of the post-up. He would showcase his new-found moves in the team’s first regular season game, a road matchup with the Mavericks team that had beaten them in the Finals only six months prior. James would make every Mavs defender look foolish as he finished with 37 points, leading the Heat to an 11-point win in a game where they led by as much as 33.
I wonder if seeing that Dallas championship banner being raised had anything to do with it.
It’s the commitment and the strength through adversity that LeBron exhibited that has earned him yet another honor to add to his expanding trophy case. Good players come and go, but it’s the great players that always seem to leave that lasting impression on us. The great players like LeBron James, who prove that this game is far more than just a physical ordeal; it’s a mental battle where your biggest enemy is yourself.
For too long, LeBron’s biggest enemy was getting the better. Disappointing ending after disappointing ending came and went, with LeBron being the one that’s blamed even if he was the one averaging 37 points per game in the Conference Finals. No player in basketball history, possibly sports history in general, had to deal with the immense amount of pressure LeBron dealt with and it’s what makes this Sportsman of the Year award rightfully his.
It’s one thing to win an NBA championship when you’re being criticized for every negative that happens on or off the court. It’s another when that criticism spans over the course of a decade, only becoming more in the spotlight with LeBron’s move to Miami. With a good team surrounding him, LeBron really had no excuses not to win since the poor supporting cast on his Cleveland team’s took partial blame for the shortcomings James dealt with for eight years.
Pressure mounted and LeBron couldn’t respond in 2011. He was still too much like the LeBron of Cleveland, getting cocky when there was no room to have such an attribute. It cost the Heat a second championship and nobody knows that more than LeBron, who took personal blame for the Heat’s disappointing end. It didn’t matter that many analysts had the Heat failing to make the Finals, but it did once LeBron lost and they could say they were right.
2012 featured a completely different player. A two-time MVP that was willing to make sacrifices and adjustments for the sole purpose of winning a title. James would greatly improve on his post-game, exhibiting it throughout the year, and would buy into coach Erik Spoelstra’s lineup approach of having a positionless team. As a result, James would end up playing power forward and even center along with the time he already spent at point guard and small forward.
It’s that type of feverish commitment that has LeBron as the world’s greatest basketball player and why it isn’t even really close right now. No player has dealt with the pressure he has and no player at his magnitude and caliber has ever gone through the work he went through in the summer of 2011 in order to better himself, with the possible exception of Michael Jordan’s return from his first comeback when he improved on his jumper.
Last year was the first time an NBA player had won league MVP, Finals MVP, an NBA championship and a gold medal in the same year since Jordan did in his historic 1991-’92 season.
There’s that name again. In the past year, LeBron has drawn up more comparisons to MJ than ever before, and it actually holds water now because of the title. Now, now, LeBron isn’t even close to being the greatest player of all time. However, the 2012 postseason proved to us that he is capable of becoming the ‘BOAT’, and that’s all we’ve been waiting to see from the three-time MVP and NBA champion.