LONDON -- The scuffed image of LeBron James has faded, remembered vaguely, if remembered at all. James the selfish, James the choker, James the failure, those tags have all but been erased, with only the still scorched faithful in Cleveland choosing to carry them on. They have been replaced with a new label, one earned on the back of one of the most decorated years in basketball history: James the winner.
Preternaturally talented, James was destined for this. NBA MVP, Finals MVP, NBA champion and, now, Olympic gold medalist, all in the last eight months; its a feat only (guess who) Michael Jordan has accomplished and one only the most cynical of cynics can sneer at and ask why all of this didn't happen long ago. Sure, James needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win a title and as often as not Kevin Durant pop-a-shot'ed Team USA out of scoring droughts. But when Miami needed a big play, James made it. And when the U.S. needed a clutch shot there was James, with just under two minutes to play against Spain on Sunday, turning around Rudy Fernandez and burying a three that swelled the United States lead to an insurmountable nine.
This wasn't Nigeria James helped put away, either. As inept as Spain looked against Russia in the semifinals, putting up 20 points in the first half, needing a Jose Calderon shooting barrage to pull away in the second, they looked as polished against the U.S. Running an inside-out offense through Pau Gasol (24 points, seven assists), Spain dictated the tempo of the game, pounding the U.S. in the paint (48 points) and stunningly thumping them in transition (17-8). Years past, a U.S. team might have folded. Not this team. Not this group. When Spain surged, it answered. When a dagger was needed, James provided one.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," James said. "We didn't want it easy. A lot of teams won gold easy. We didn't want it that way. We're a competitive team. When it gets tight, that's when our will and determination shows."
Will, determination; Indeed, James has come a long way from the bratty, entitled member of the bronze medal winning '04 squad, a team James says had no idea what it meant to represent their country. "I just think we put on the uniform and thought we could just come together in two, three weeks and go out there and win," James said, "just because we had great individuals."
That James, at 19, only dreamed of this level of success. Today, at 27, James understands what it takes to achieve it. James helped rehabilitate USA Basketball as it helped rehabilitate him. "It's been a great ride for me," James said. "I could have never scripted it this way. I've had many dreams about it, about winning an NBA championship and following it up with a gold medal. I'm fortunate."
It's the Era of LeBron now, and there is no telling how high he can reach. James openly admits the Finals failure in 2011 changed him, shaped him in ways nothing else could. He freed himself from the shackles that chain a superstar without a championships, and is playing more loose and fluid as ever. Miami reloaded this offseason, adding sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis without losing anyone of consequence. He will go into the season a prohibitive favorite to repeat as champion and as MVP, and few will doubt he will accomplish both.
James is non-committal about returning wearing a USA jersey in four years -- "I have no idea," James said -- but don't bet against it. USA Basketball boss Jerry Colangelo will tug at James's desire to burnish his resume, to become a four-time Olympian, a three-time gold medalist, to do what no player in the history of USA Basketball has ever done. Of course James expresses uncertainty now, when the ravages of an exhausting NBA season and a tough Olympic tournament overwhelm him. But in a couple of years, when the fatigue fades and the competitor in him resurfaces, he may be singing a different tune.
If he doesn't he doesn't, because nothing can taint this historic run. When the final buzzer sounded James rushed over to embrace USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, letting the emotion of the moment wash over them. The U.S. is a titan again, and though the world continues to catch up, everyone is competing for second place. Four years from now Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola will be deep into their 30's, and the crop of players poised to replace them don't play at their level.
The U.S. will be a favorite to win gold again in Rio, and it has the core of these last two medal winning teams to thank. If James never wins another championship, another MVP, another scoring title, nothing can strip him of this. He was part of something, part of something special, part of something great.
"It's been a long road for USA basketball," James said. "I'm happy to be in a position to say I had something to do with us being back on top."