MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James won a championship and nothing changed.
Sure, there were a few events. The obligatory champagne shower at his stall in the Miami Heat locker room. The parade before an estimated 400,000 fans. A pep rally at his high school. And Tuesday night brings the ultimate capper, the ring-and-banner ceremony just minutes before the start of a new season.
Then it begins again, another year, another quest for a title.
Having one title is not completely satisfying for James, who put the he-can’t-win notion to rest when the Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games for last season’s NBA crown. It was a perfect run for the perennial All-Star: Besides getting engaged and winning his second Olympic gold, James walked away with the NBA’s three most coveted trophies: MVP, Finals MVP and the championship.
For an encore, he wants more.
“I want to be the best of all-time,” James said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s that simple.”
He expressed similar sentiment last year, and the year before that, and probably all the way back to high school in Akron, Ohio. He always wondered if a championship would change that perspective.
He now has his answer.
“Not really, honestly,” James said. “I haven’t had much time to really just think about what actually happened. At the end of the day, there’s still going to be people that say, well, he’s not going to be able to win two. He’s not going to be able to do it again.”
Time will tell.
At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds and blessed with a speed-and-strength combination — “he’s a freak,” Detroit coach Lawrence Frank said — James is widely considered the best player in the game today. He has won three MVP awards and some opposing coaches say he might keep winning those until voters get tired of selecting him.
But the best of all time, that title will obviously take some work.
So this summer — partly because of the desire to win another ring, partly because of his incessant need to silence doubters, partly because it’s just who he is — James took very little time off. He went straight from the finals to the Olympics, then rested briefly before getting back in the gym. James arrived at camp in essentially the same shape as he ended last season.
“He has great perspective on this game and what it takes to be a champion,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s one of the most self-motivated players I’ve ever been around. But yes, he also needs to be stimulated from time to time. It’s a joy for our franchise to have this opportunity to be able to work with him.”
Last season was a joy for James as well, and not just because of the title.
After the hating-the-Heat phenomenon that followed his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010 — and the manner in which he made that decision — James said last season was about getting back to the basics of basketball. He surrounded himself with friends and family whenever he could. He tried to ignore at least some of the round-the-clock coverage of all things LeBron. He was going to be happy again, no matter what.
The two knocks about James a year ago were that he couldn’t close games, that he couldn’t rise to the ultimate moments and that he couldn’t win a title. He debunked all of that — the 45-point game in win-or-else Game 6 at Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, the one-legged 3-pointer when he was cramping against Oklahoma City that helped the Heat win Game 4 of the finals, and then, the triple-double in the season’s last game.
James went to the bench with 3:01 left in that game, and within moments, started dancing and jumping around, waving his arms and grinning.
“The best thing about last year is we got all the way to the mountaintop and then we crossed over,” James said. “So now I know what it takes to get there and actually get over the top of that mountain.”
James is on the verge of entering even more rarefied NBA air.
He enters the season 47th all-time in scoring, with a chance to move up to around No. 30 if he posts average-for-him numbers over the next 82 games. Among active players, he’s ninth in scoring, and each of the eight names above him on that list have completed at least 14 NBA seasons. James has completed nine.
“LeBron takes no days off,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “After winning the championship, he goes straight to the Olympics, then comes back and is straight into the season. It’d be easy for him to make excuses and take a practice day off. But not this guy. No days off. He’s nonstop, he’s motivated and he brings it every day.”
With James, as most basketball fans know, scoring is just part of the story.
He’s 10th among active players in assists. James enters the season with three more assists than San Antonio’s Tony Parker — a point guard who has played 117 more games than James. And James’ average combined points, assists and rebounds per game (41.7) is considerably ahead of the No. 2 active player on that list, that being Heat teammate Dwyane Wade (36.4).
“LeBron is very talented on the court and he’s probably the best player in the NBA,” Heat forward Rashard Lewis said. “But I don’t think people know his personable side. He’s a great guy, loves his teammates, is very sharing, is always bringing gifts into the locker room for his teammates. He’s a funny guy, a class clown, but when he steps on the court he’s all about the game.”
And he insists nothing has changed in that respect.
The Heat are generally considered favorites to win another title this season, though the external expectation does little to faze James. At this point, he knows championships will define whether it was a good year or not, much as it was for the stars before him like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, some of the few on whom the spotlight has shone brightest.
“The target, that doesn’t change for me,” James said. “I’ve had a target, champion or not champion, since probably ’05. And now that we’ve won one, the target, it’s no different for me.”
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