LeBron James said it did not cross his mind to skip the Olympics. Even after his two-month grind through the NBA playoffs to win a title for the Miami Heat this spring, he was locked in on London.
"Never had a second thought about it," James said.
No one ranks the most crucial non-thoughts in sports history. But for these Games, let’s put that one right at the top. Because in the fourth quarter here Sunday, the United States of America needed James. Really needed him. And fortunately, he wanted to be needed.
"It’s all about the USA," James said. "It’s about the three letters on the chest."
An easy cliché to utter. And sometimes, you wonder whether to be cynical when the NBA uber-millionaires utter them. But anyone who watched James play down the stretch of the nervous-time 107-100 victory over Spain would never doubt his commitment to the cause. And perhaps James’ performance here will silence some of the folks — the LeBron Haters — who are convinced he is a selfish narcissist.
Before tipoff, the USA’s gold medal victory over Spain had been considered a foregone conclusion. Trouble is, Spain did not agree with that conclusion. Outrebounding the Americans, the exasperatingly gritty Spaniards were hanging in there. When the fourth period began, the USA held an 83-82 lead.
Much intensity ensued. With three minutes left in regulation, the USA’s edge had been expanded to 97-91, largely thanks to the good work of point guard Chris Paul. But it didn’t seem like a safe lead. You could still sniff USA anxiety. At such times, you always turn to your best player.
And with all respect to Kobe Bryant, James is the USA’s best player. And just as best players will do, he confronted the closing-stretch anxiety head on. He slashed to the basket for a dunk. Spain answered back with two. On the next USA possession, James called for the ball again. He nailed a 3-pointer.
If not a dagger, the sequence was a psychological whammy. You could read the body language of Spain’s players: How are we ever going to beat this guy and his team?
Answer: They weren’t. Yes, James had help delivering gold to the USA. Kevin Durant dropped 30 points on Spain. Kobe Bryant made some big shots. Paul directed traffic magnificently.
But at the hairiest moments of crunch time, it was James. He was clearly the team leader throughout the tournament — for the second straight Olympics. James also did it in 2008 when the USA defeated the same Spanish team for gold in Beijing.
The Olympics do mean something to him. He has not forgotten how, as a 20-year-old kid, he was on the embarrassing USA team at the 2004 Athens Games that stumbled to a bronze medal. And in 2007, after James’ commitment to international play was called into question, executives of USA Basketball basically sat down with him and said they were ready to move ahead without him unless he made a serious commitment to the national team.
James took the talk to heart. He committed. He has not wavered.
"It’s been a long road," James said Sunday. "But I’m happy to say I had something to do with putting the USA back up on top."
The USA players receive no compensation beyond the $25,000 that each USA gold medal winner in every sport receives from the United States Olympic Committee.
James, among a segment of hoop fans, will always be considered a bum. The way he handled "The Decision" to leave Cleveland for Miami was indeed clunky and off-putting. He deserved the criticism he took. But on the flip side, James should also receive some respect for helping steer the USA toward consecutive golds. The trifecta of being named NBA MVP, winning the NBA title and winning the Olympic gold in the same year has been achieved by just one other man — Michael Jordan.
James, 28, said he wasn’t sure about his plans for playing at the next Summer Games in Brazil come 2016.
"I have no idea," he said. "I want to celebrate with my teammates. I’m not even thinking about it right now."
Hold that non-thought, LeBron. Your country may need you again in Rio.
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