LONDON – Before they ever finalized a roster to chase a gold medal in Beijing, USA Basketball officials delivered an unmistakable ultimatum to LeBron James: Unless you grow up, treat people with respect, and commit to taking this seriously, we'll leave you home for the 2008 Olympic Games. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski wanted a culture of commitment and had come to believe that James' momentous talent couldn't overcome his impulses to instigate and infuriate everyone.
Perhaps Nike would've never let it happen, but James wisely decided against testing the limits of people's patience after his intolerable act in the 2004 Olympic and '06 world championships. Ultimately, James heeded the warnings, became a better teammate, blossomed into a fully dominant force and played marvelously in the 2008 Olympics. When the gold-medal game grew tightest in Beijing, James still showed a measure of reluctance, leaving Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to deliver the biggest plays in the final minutes.
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And finally, full bloom for LeBron James on Sunday. Finally, the full realization of his prodigious talent and intelligence, the manifestation of the superstar completely controlling a collection of superstars, reaching higher and higher to his global apex.
"LeBron James is a different player and a different person than he was in '06," Colangelo said in a private moment after the United States' 107-100 gold medal victory. "And I say that with exclamation marks. He's matured incredibly as a person, player and leader."
So here comes LeBron James with his gold-medal moment within these Olympics – within a basketball year that belong to James, the way it hasn't belonged to a player since Michael Jordan in 1992 – leaving the bench with four fouls in the fourth quarter, with Spain closed within six points. James grabbed the ball at the top of the circle, pushed past Spain's defenders, past the free-throw line and leaped into the air, holding that ball and the sport higher and higher until it was just James and a thunderous dunk to redeclare the gulf between him and everyone else.
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Soon, James was isolated again, bringing poor, perplexed Marc Gasol all the way back out to the 3-point line and delivering a swish over the 7-footer. Soon, James had pushed the United States out of harm's way, out of jeopardy with his 19 points and seven rebounds and four assists. It felt inevitable, because it probably was inevitable. James controlled these Olympics on a yo-yo, delivering the first triple-double by an American in the history of the Olympics.
Kevin Durant broke the American Olympic scoring record with 156 points, but James could've decided that he wanted the record and gotten it for himself. He controlled these Olympic Games the way he controlled the NBA Finals: always the proper blend of pass and score, defend and rebound. He's forever dominant now.
"He's matured incredibly ... ," Colangelo told Yahoo! Sports. "He never had someone to emulate in his life, and Coach K fit into a great role. He did the rest himself. He's grown so much. So much."
Only James knows how much of a mentoring role Krzyzewski played, because there are plenty of people – from Pat Riley to Erik Spoelstra to Dwyane Wade – who nurtured growth within him. In the end, James deserves the credit. James was on his own journey, and there's no seminal figure deserving of delivering some great epiphany to James. He lived with the consequences and repercussions of his immaturity as perhaps no athlete before him. The jagged edges of a hellacious two years in the post-Decision era probably had the greatest influence of all.
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Of Krzyzewski, James said, "We've had ups and downs, but thankfully there's been more ups."
James is on a tear for the ages, and the challenges get bigger for him. Next season sets up perfectly for him. The bar gets raised again, the challenge higher. James has surpassed Bryant, the way that Durant will surpass James when he digs deeper into his 30s. Nevertheless, Bryant has Dwight Howard and Steve Nash marching into his blessed Lakers life, and a belief that his sixth championship to catch Jordan can come in the sweetest way of all: at James' expense. Bryant and James embraced on the United States' bench at game's end, but it wouldn't be long until Bryant walked all the way to the Spain bench, gave Pau Gasol a long, long hug, and told him to get his rest now. Together, they had been refortified for the championship fight, and they were going to come for LeBron James and the Miami Heat now. The Lakers had a bigger, better crew, and the final buzzer of these Games made them teammates again.
Los Angeles has to get through Oklahoma City – and still, no one ought dare to dismiss San Antonio. This is a devastating lineup of talent with the Lakers, but the Heat still have a cohesion, a chemistry. Remember, too, about the Heat: Wade and Chris Bosh have had a summer of rest. This is a spectacular mix in Los Angeles, but combustible on a lot of levels – from Howard's back rehabilitation to Mike Brown's fitness to coach this roster to issues of blend and balance and chemistry.
Nevertheless, the gold-medal game had ended, and all around James – from Durant to Bryant, Russell Westbrook to Gasol – there was a floor of stars on the United States and Spain starting to plot his championship demise. James deserved the right to celebrate the moment, the gold medal. He wanted no part of analyzing an NBA season that is coming too fast for a weary body and mind. "It's all about the three letters on the chest," James said.
Before long, it will be all about the four letters on his chest. Everyone's coming for him now. Just understand something: All of them come through him for a championship now because the sport's come to revolve around his greatness. He's demanded it in his peerless performance, an MVP, NBA championship and Olympic gold medal, and LeBron James keeps climbing and climbing now. He's a fully blossomed, fully functional championship spirit now, and this gold-medal moment let everyone see it so sure and shiny on Sunday.
LeBron James' game, LeBron James' Games.
All these superteam formations, all these plots, and the Olympics still served to remind everyone: The whole basketball world goes through James now. Come and get him.
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