LAS VEGAS – LeBron James sat on the edge of his chair, his arms crossed and a smile on his face as the questions came one after the other.
He’s still basking in that championship glow, the one that had escaped him for years, the one he owns now just weeks removed from his MVP performance in the Miami Heat’s triumph in The Finals.
That doesn’t mean he’s relaxing right now, though. After leading the Heat to the NBA’s ultimate prize, the new-look LeBron has some new responsibilities as the alpha male for the U.S. Olympic team as they prepare for London.
This is his third time preparing for the Olympics but his first time doing it without any loose ends lingering from the NBA season. This is an older, wiser and more focused James than we’ve seen in the past. And even if James insists that what he’s accomplished in the past eight months — a third MVP trophy, the first Finals MVP and Larry O’Brien trophy — change nothing, his Olympic teammates with championship experience of their own know better.
“He’s already an incredible player,” Tyson Chandler said. “He’s going to be a different player now.”
That’s great news for the U.S. and has to be a head-scratcher for the teams that await in London, many of whom are still rubbing the bruises they got from James and the gold medal-winning U.S. team in Beijing four years ago.
James knows this could very well be his last Olympics, what with a new wave of talented players rising up the ranks and the possibility of new rules that may keep veteran players on the sidelines. So he’s conscious of this team and its place in history. He also knows how important it is to lead them into the competition the way the best player in the world is supposed to.
“This is all about pride,” James said of the tone being set during training camp and the lead up to London. “It’s all about pride and representing this country the right way. And I’m happy to be a part of it.”
It’s a good thing that the Olympics came this year and not last. This time a year ago, James had locked himself inside his home. He went into seclusion after the Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals. He said he needed the time after that devastating failure on the biggest stage to assess some things about his life and his career, his game and his approach to it, before rejoining the rest of the world.
He emerged from that period a changed man.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said he noticed the change while watching James during The Finals. He seen more of it in the first few days here.
“These guys have such a great feel for the game of basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “And then, when they are with one another, they have an even better feel. Like LeBron the other day, he made a lot of terrific plays and made passes he may not make with the Heat. This brings out something new in these guys.
“Watching The Finals, there were five or six guys out on the court I’ve had the opportunity to coach. So it’s tough to pull for one. I wanted all of them to do well. In LeBron’s case, he’s taken such criticism for so many things, and I don’t think he’s ever committed a felony or anything like that, in fact I know he hasn’t. So I felt really good for him that [it finally] happened. He earned it. And he’s been great. He’s been terrific in practice. And the fact is, he was a great player in 2008 and he’s even better now. He’s exceptional.”
James is just two and half weeks removed from The Finals. He could have cited fatigue, physical and emotional, and bowed out of the games and left the burden of defending the gold medal to Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and others.
Both of his Heat teammates who are on the national team roster, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, suffered injuries that didn’t allow them to take their spots on the 12-man roster. Neither carried the sort of load James did the last eight months.
But James couldn’t resist.
“It’s a very quick turnaround, a very quick turnaround,” he said. “But I’m happy I’m here. I feel pretty good. Had I been injured and needed the rest, I might have thought about [skipping the Olympics]. But I finished the season pretty strong. And I didn’t have any injuries other than the small nicks and bruises that anyone has throughout the course of the season that would have kept me out of the games. So I’m humbled and blessed I was able to stay healthy and I feel good.”
He feels good enough to assume an even greater leadership role on this team, to help mentor the younger stars in the USA Basketball program in ways that never happened when he and Carmelo Anthony signed on before the 2004 Olympics.
He feels good to chase the latest challenge in a career built on great expectations and his ability to live up to them.
“I still have goals,” James said. “I accomplished one of my goals, the biggest goal I had. And now I have to set out more.”