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In Focus: Sportsman of the Year

LeBron James (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)

By Andy Gray

LeBron James has been named SI's Sportsman of the Year for 2012. Here's a look at former NBA players who have won the award, with an excerpt from their Sportsman stories.

*****

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Bill Russell, 1968: "The trophies are downstairs in a cellar room that has a covered pool table in the middle, an unstocked bar at one end and posters of Allen Ginsberg and Marlon Brando on the wall. The room is dark and dusty and, unlike most athletes' trophy rooms, apparently little used. Russell says that one day he hopes to devote the floor space to a large electric train system for his children and also for himself. He'd clear everything out for that, including the trophies. These stand in a tall case against one wall—rows of them, mostly yard-high replicas of players poised, right arm up, to shoot one-handed shots with silver basketballs. They commemorate one of the most remarkable records in sports: 14 years of play at the pinnacle of basketball—two years leading the University of San Francisco to the national championship and then 12 years with the Boston Celtics, leading them to two second-place finishes and 10 world championships."

Read all of George Plimpton's 1968 Sportsman of the Year story. 

*****

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1985: "Last season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers in scoring for the 10th time in his 10 years with the club (22.0 points per game), had his most rebounds since 1982-83 and most points since 1981-82 and achieved the second-highest shooting percentage (.599) of his career. After the Lakers' embarrassing 148-114 loss in Game 1 of last spring's NBA championship series, in which he had looked as tired and dispirited as one might expect a 38-year-old player to look, he had shocked the Boston Celtics and the cynics by playing five of the most intense games of his life, capturing his fourth championship trophy and his second playoff MVP award. While doing this he laughed and shouted his joy, capturing America. 'Six or seven years ago I thought he was not a good player,' admits Denver coach Doug Moe. 'He didn't seem to have the interest—he wasn't there. He's 10 times better now; he hasn't played any better in his career than in the last two years. He's 38, and he's a bitch.'"

Read all of Gary Smith's 1985 Sportsman of the Year story.

*****

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Michael Jordan, 1991: "At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands Alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We've heard it so often that it's now a cliché, though nonetheless accurate: He transcends sports. He keeps a championship ring on his dresser at home and will be making room for another if his team (18-3 at week's end) plays the next six months of the season the way it has played the first two. A two-time MVP, he was probably the best player in the world even before Magic Johnson's retirement, but now the subject isn't even worth debating."

Read all of Jack McCallum's 1991 Sportsman of the Year story.

*****

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Tim Duncan and David Robinson, 2003: "We honor them too for the way they fit together in San Antonio, one superstar and No. 1 draft pick ( Duncan in '97) biding his time until the other superstar and No. 1 draft pick ( Robinson in '87) was ready to cede the starring role. The mind boggles at the clamorous scenes that would have unfolded in Los Angeles had Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had to share the same spot for the Lakers. Robinson, a post-up center, and Duncan, a post-up power forward, figuratively and literally had to make room for each other, a display of selflessness at which both men shrug their shoulders. 'It was a natural process,' says Duncan. 'When I came in, David was the Man and I was just trying to learn the game, develop under his wing. And when it was time for me to do more, David understood it without a word being spoken.'"

Read all of Jack McCallum's 2003 Sportsman of the Year story.

*****

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Dwyane Wade, 2006: "Wade had spoken all season about winning a title for old-timers Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton, and now they had their rings. Coach Pat Riley, a onetime burnout case who hadn't won a championship in 18 years and had been vilified for replacing Van Gundy six weeks into the season, now stood vindicated. And a league that, in comparison with its glorious past, had been found wanting at last had the real deal: a throwback star with crossover cachet and 21st-century moves. For all that, not to mention the emotional vein tapped in South Florida's notoriously fractured populace, some 250,000 of whom would gather three days later for the team's victory rally in a resurging downtown Miami, Wade has been named SI's 2006 Sportsman of the Year."

Read all of S.L. Price's 2006 Sportsman of the Year story.
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