LONDON — He didn’t have to be here.
He could have spent this summer lying on a beach somewhere as far removed from the game of basketball as humanly possible. He could have avoided the crush of being one of the four or five most recognizable people — Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, British gold medal-winning heptathlete Jessica Ennis, Kobe Bryant and royals Kate Middleton and Prince William — in this city right now.
No one would have blamed LeBron James for finally taking a little time away from his life’s passion. After a decade of chasing a legacy, and a championship, he finally secured his title, leading the Miami Heat past Oklahoma City in The Finals. James won his third NBA regular season MVP award and snagged a Finals MVP to add to his treasure chest.
With a chance to add a gold medal to his 2012 haul Sunday in the Olympic final against Spain, James is attempting to add an extra layer on top of a cake already drowning in icing. Only Michael Jordan has had a comparable season, piling up all of the aforementioned honors, and that came 20 years ago when he led the Chicago Bulls to the second of what would be six NBA titles and then spent his summer dazzling the world while leading the original Dream Team to gold in the Barcelona Olympics.
Even on a team filled with superstars, James is the headliner and biggest star, playing in a comfort zone and an elite level no one else in this competition or beyond can match.
And now he’s got a chance to cap his best year with gold in a rematch of the 2008 gold meal game in Beijing won by the U.S. Team.
“I don’t think you could have written this script any better for him,” said U.S. forward Kevin Durant, dazzling in his own right throughout this competition, and James’ chief rival with the Thunder during the NBA season. “I’m sure that would be fine for him, the way this has all played out so far. You can’t beat that right there.”
In just two short years, James has gone from the daunting task of trying to live up to expectations few athletes of any generation have ever had to literally winning it all.
Having his best year after his toughest year has to make this current run even for James.
“I would have hoped that this would be it,” James said of the moment, the year, when it all came together. “I would be able to compete for a championship, and win a championship in the NBA. And also be a part of this team and compete for a gold medal. If I would have had to map it out it would have been like this … it’s going in the right direction.”
James left Cleveland for the Heat two summers ago and fell in The Finals in his first season on South Beach and sulked in the days after losing to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
When he did emerge from his funk, he spent time working out with another young star hunting for the same things. The workout session he and Durant dubbed “Hell Week.” It was then that Durant noticed the resolve that James leaned on to carry him through to a new, career-defining year.
“LeBron is a strong-minded guy. You look at his face you couldn’t even tell what he had been through,” Durant said. “They lost in The Finals, but he still had an unbelievable season. I guess people just expected them to win because he went to Miami and all that, but I can tell you first hand that just because you get that opportunity to fight for a championship it doesn’t mean you’re going to win it. And that’s humbling thing to go through. But he went right back to work on his game, worked his tail off and you seriously couldn’t tell if what people were saying about him affected him. He was locked in like that.”
Locked in all the way through a man-among-boys performance in The Finals. But he didn’t stop there. He didn’t even have two full weeks off after The Finals before he was heading to Las Vegas for USA Basketball’s training camp for the Olympics, where he and Carmelo Anthony would become just the third players in the history of the national program to play on three different Olympic teams, joining original Dream Team member David Robinson on that short list.
James could easily have opted out, the grind of a championship season wears on the best of the best. Several of his teammates from the 2008 had to due to injuries, and that includes his Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But James knew he had unfinished business to tend to. There was another gold medal to win. And he’s led the U.S. from the start, dominating the action without having to score points to do it, a testament to his versatility and otherworldly skill and determination.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has used the word “magnificent” to describe James on a daily basis, which, as crazy as it sounds, is a bit of an understatement. James has never looked as sure of himself, on both ends of the floor, as he has in the seven games he’s already played in this competition.
“He’s as big as our centers and power forwards and passes like a point guard,” Argentina and Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili said after the U.S. whipped them twice in five days, the final game of pool play and Friday night’s semifinal. “I don’t know if anyone is unstoppable, but LeBron is about as close as you can get.”
And insists he won’t leave London with anything other than another gold medal.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said before a practice last week. “I’m here because I love to play the game of basketball and I love what this team is all about and I’m trying to represent this country at the highest level. It would be great [to finish this off with another gold medal]. It’s the only reason I’m here. I am not here to win anything but gold and that’s our goal.”
There is a loaded Spanish team standing in their way, a group headlined by James’ NBA rivals Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Jose Calderon. They don’t fear the U.S. at all and played them close until the final minutes in Beijing.
“It’s new teams, different times,” Marc Gasol said. ‘Four years is a long time. Obviously, LeBron and Durant and those guys are better now than they were four years ago and so are we. So we’re going in with a lot of confidence as well.”
They won’t come into the game with any more energy or more confidence than James, who dismissed the notion that Spain somehow has an advantage in Sunday’s final after facing the U.S. so often on the big stage.
“They don’t have our number. They haven’t beat us,” he said. “The danger in playing any team is of you don’t come out and respect the game of basketball and you don’t come out and play hard and respect your opponent, you can get beat. But they don’t have our number.”
They also won’t have the luxury of facing a mentally or physically drained (from the whirlwind of the past two years) James. Competitions like these help recharge his battery.
“I just love the game of basketball,” he said. “I find a way to locate the energy to keep going. I love to compete. I love to win.”
In the past three months, no one has done it better.