It might not totally make up for the Miami Heat having to spend another Christmas on the road, but hopefully LeBron James finds his Thursday brightened by the announcement that he's just been named The Associated Press' 2013 Male Athlete of the Year, becoming only the third NBA player ever to win the award, which has been given out every year since 1931.
James received 31 of 96 votes cast by sportswriters in the AP's poll. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning finished second with 20 votes, while NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson came in third with seven votes, according to the AP's Tim Reynolds:
"I'm chasing something and it's bigger than me as a basketball player," James told the AP. "I believe my calling is much higher than being a basketball player. I can inspire people. Youth is huge to me. If I can get kids to look at me as a role model, as a leader, a superhero ... those things mean so much, and that's what I think I was built for. I was put here for this lovely game of basketball, but I don't think this is the biggest role that I'm going to have."
Past winners include Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis, Joe Montana, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps. Serena Williams was the AP Female Athlete of the Year, announced Wednesday.
James joins Michael Jordan and Larry Bird as NBA players to win the award.
"I don't think I've changed much this year," James said. "I've just improved and continued to improve on being more than just as a basketball player. I've matured as a leader, as a father, as a husband, as a friend."
James earned recognition as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 2012 after winning his first NBA championship, his third NBA Most Valuable Player Award and an Olympic gold medal. He was nominated for that honor again this year, but was topped by Manning in a decision that displeased some observers.
As good as James was in his historic 2012, you could argue that he performed even more brilliantly in 2013. From Jan. 1, 2013, through the end of the 2012-13 regular season, James averaged 27.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game on 58 percent shooting, a 40 percent mark from 3-point land and 77 percent from the charity stripe. He led Miami on an historic 27-game winning streak, played basketball about as well as it could be played during the month of February, led the Heat to their best regular-season record in franchise history and won his fourth MVP.
James kept his sensational level of play up into the postseason, continuing to do a little bit of everything in breezing past the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls in the first two rounds of the 2013 playoffs before averaging 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 51/44.1/77.8 shooting splits in a classic seven-game Eastern Conference finals against ascendant star Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. And while Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs flummoxed James and his teammates by packing the paint to deny penetration and force jump shots early in the NBA Finals, LeBron responded by working out the kinks, watching tape of his improved shooting and remaining confident in his ability to can open shots ... like the one that sealed Game 7 of the Finals and give him his "MJ moment." With the Heat trailing the Spurs 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, James responded with a triple-double in Game 6 (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) and a 37-point, 12-rebound Game 7 that locked up his second straight NBA Finals MVP trophy.
And how did James respond to winning two straight titles, MVPs and NBA Finals MVPs? By getting even better this summer. Through 28 games, James has made a career-best 59.5 percent of his shots from the field and is once again just a tick under 40 percent from long distance, while continuing to improve his low-post game — he's averaged 1.19 points per post-up possession, making him the most efficient post scorer in the NBA this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data — and playing his customarily stifling brand of defense for a Heat team that's gone 22-6 to the 2013-14 season.
His growth has continued off the court, too, as Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins wrote in nominating James for the 2013 Sportsman of the Year award:
Three years have passed since The Decision and the rehabilitation is complete. James makes few missteps, whether he's triggering a three-on-two fast break, or addressing a hundred unforgiving TV cameras. He leads the NBA in every way. His philanthropic efforts -- highlighted by a program that brings every at-risk third grader in the Akron public school system into an educational cocoon conceived and funded by James -- stand in overwhelming contrast to the requisite charity golf tournaments and bowling outings staged by other athletes. Everybody who's made an All Star team seems to have a foundation and they invariably donate a scoreboard here, a goal post there. James used to be like them, passing out bikes. Now he is tangibly enriching the lives of a city's most vulnerable citizens.
Add it all up and you've got the best version of James we've seen thus far, and a very worthy winner of the AP's grand honor. I'd say that it's hard to imagine LeBron improving on his overall performance the last two years when the calendar turns to 2014, but at this point, I think I've learned to stop questioning whether James can hit a new level.
Hat-tip to Matt Pineda of Hot Hot Hoops.
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