November 26, 2012

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year on our Facebook page.

Three years ago, I interviewed Idan Ravin -- an NBA trainer who's worked with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, among others. At the time, Ravin had recently finished working out a new client, and he was not complimentary of the young player. Sure the guy has a lot of talent, Ravin said, but he's coasting. He'd rather fly around the country and be a celebrity than dedicate himself to the game. He doesn't take criticism well and his work ethic is suspect. "He can't even dribble that well with his left hand," Ravin said.

The player he was referring to was LeBron James.

It's hard to reconcile that James -- the one who took plays off, pouted and too often fired up lazy threes -- with the James of 2012. The LeBron of 2012 spent a startling amount of time playing his ass off, first during the NBA season and then in the Olympics. He eschewed bad jumpers for tough drives, closed out on defense and banged in the post. He carried Dwyane Wade through portions of the playoffs, believed in his teammates and absolutely owned the Olympics. Along the way, James set all manner of regular season career highs -- in FG percentage (53.1), true shooting percentage (60.5) and EFG% (.554). The number that sticks out to me, though, was the career-low he posted. It was in 3-point attempts -- 2.4 per game -- and was accompanied by a related career-high: the 36.2 percentage he shot on those threes. That's the sign of someone playing smarter.

Along the way, James dropped his tired public act, the one in which he came off like a tone-deaf rap impresario, always boasting and pretending to be above it all. Remember this in June 2011? "Because at the end of the day, all the people that were rooting for me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today."

The LeBron of 2012, at least the version we've seen in public, is different. This James has showed flashes of humility -- most notably in a pair of interviews with my colleague Lee Jenkins. He talked about disappointment, about realizing what mattered, about learning from his mistakes. And, by showing weakness, he gained strength. Go back and watch highlights of last year's NBA playoffs and check out the expression on James' face throughout. That's a guy who cared.

Whether all this make James qualified to be Sportsman of the Year depends on how we define the award (and that is a separate, and worthwhile, debate). Athletes shouldn't get points for acting like a normal human being, and they shouldn't be lauded for taking their profession seriously. Those should be expectations, not bonuses. Furthermore, James wasn't an exemplary 'sportsman' in the traditional sense of the word -- he hasn't done enough to earn a reputation for compassion, thoughtfulness or empathy.

If we base the Sportsman honor more on performance than on good deeds off the court, then James' 2012 was as dominant a year as we've seen from a team sports figure in recent memory. Cry superteam all you want, but James won without Chris Bosh and when Wade was ineffective and/or hurt. He won with Joel Anthony and Mike Miller and a bunch of other one-trick ponies. He was the Heat's best point guard, small forward, power forward and center (and you could make the case he was a better shooting guard than Wade). He was their best passer, rebounder, scorer and defender. At the Olympics he was not only the heart of the U.S. team -- the guy who made the big plays, who regulated the tempo, who pulled off the unlikely feat of making Kobe Bryant an afterthought -- but also far and away the best player in the world. He stands above the game like no one has since Michael Jordan.

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