This month we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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No athlete in 2012 hogged the honors quite like LeBron James did: MVP, champion, Finals MVP, gold medalist, Most Improved Person. In a curious twist of fate, he found himself being applauded for being greedy and selfish.
He went from reviled to revered almost as fast as his hairline faded. Really, did anyone in any other sport pull this off this year, or in recent history? It forces you to think hard, doesn't it? Usually when athletes Go Bad, they're rarely given the chance to Go Good, and even then the disconnection isn't as great for others as it was for LeBron. In a span of two years, which were exhaustively chronicled in the age of social media, he went from one extreme to the other, or to put it in political terms in this election year, from Limbaugh to Obama.
In the process, he delivered some of the most amazing tip-to-buzzer basketball we haven't seen by one person since Jordan, and if the Kobe lovers are firing off nasty emails as they read this, please don't embarrass yourself by disagreeing. Kobe never played defense like this and definitely never passed the ball like this. LeBron's all-around game in '12, in the NBA and the Olympics, was historic.
Yes, it was sheer dominance by a player bent on redemption, a player who did everything he could to will his way back into your cold heart. That meant swallowing his ego and arrogance, no easy task there, and above all else, winning. Because winning really does wipe the memory bank clean and make folks develop amnesia. Even Cleveland doesn't boo anymore. Well, not as profanely.
The defining moment of a defining season was not the night he won his first championship, or the day he kissed Olympic gold. Those were the events that history will promote, and history will be wrong. The night that made all others possible was June 7, a game-changer for LeBron. He and the Heat were 48 minutes from playoff elimination and almost certain ridicule, much of it ready to be dumped on LeBron with glee. The labels were being affixed -- choker, loser, artificial superstar -- all ready to be regurgitated.
The place was Boston and the setting the Eastern Conference finals, and how's that for a neat coincidence? Just two years earlier, against these same Celtics in the postseason, that's when the steep fall began for him. He was with the Cavaliers then, and maybe his mind was somewhere else. It certainly wasn't in that playoff series. He shot three-for-14 and looked disinterested doing so in Game 5. The Cavs, winners of 61 games during the season and LeBron the MVP, eventually went out meekly, like their star. Then he was unapologetic about it and seemed to think it was no big deal.
Well, it was a very big deal, he later discovered horrifically, once he left Cleveland and his good standing behind, the second-most despised escape out of town since the Colts snuck out of Baltimore. Or was it the Browns leaving poor old Cleveland? Whatever, LeBron found himself in an uncomfortable mess, pushed in that muck initially by a playoff disappearance against the Celtics.
He didn't do himself any favors his first season in Miami by turning to vapor in fourth quarters against the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, then torching his critics on his way toward a long, hot summer of reflection. And so a year later, wiser and humbler, he found himself facing the Celtics again in a big spot. The moment of truth.
The Heat trailed Boston three games to two in the best-of-seven series for a good reason. Chris Bosh was still on the mend from an abdominal strain that stole three weeks from him in the belly of the post-season. Only a handful of Miami's role players pulled their weight, and, for the most part, Miami was whittled down to LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Mostly LeBron, though, because Wade seemed to flicker in and out, never developing much consistency.
LeBron had no choice. He had to produce and he had to win. And he had to do it against Boston and kill the karma of 2010.
Well, it was a thrashing, done quickly, and thoroughly and dare we say, satisfyingly for a player who saw his reception change almost overnight.
"The shots he made," said Wade, "were unbelievable."
How big was LeBron in Game 6? Well, given the stakes, both personal and professional, I'd say only a handful of performances in NBA history can compare. This is evident if you ponder the potential damage had he come up small. A three-time MVP would be tarnished, perhaps for his entire career. The mental recovery period would likely be lengthy. The league would suffer somewhat, too, because LeBron was the NBA's biggest box office. Yes, defeat would've been catastrophic for one of the greatest players of our lifetime, causing far more potential long-term damage than, suppose, Jordan having that shot blocked by Craig Ehlo.
LeBron had 30 points by halftime. Not only that, he made shots every way possible, from all over the floor. Hit 12 of his first 14, through all sorts of degrees of difficulty. He was locked in from the opening tip, and this was against a top-three defensive team. Two Celtics, sometimes three, were tattooing themselves to LeBron, and it didn't matter. They all went down. He showed no mercy because none would've been shown him had he failed. The basketball world and beyond were poised and ready to snicker.
Plus, LeBron hounded Paul Pierce into missing 14 of 18 shots, and the Celtics had no answer once Pierce was silenced. All told, LeBron scored 45 points with 15 rebounds and five assists and put Pierce on lockdown. From start to finish, from one end of the floor to the other, this was epic, given the circumstances.
"I hope you guys can stop talking about LeBron and how he doesn't play in the big games," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I mean, some of the stuff he's had to put up with on the outside has been unreal. He's a great player. Always has been."
In a game he had to win, almost by himself, LeBron pulled it off. Hard to imagine, but winning a Game 7 against Boston a few days later and then beating Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals, by comparison, was a breeze. LeBron grew up as a superstar, and that helped him grow as a man. Because he finally had peace of mind, finally found himself, finally knew what being the face of the NBA was all about.
Right around this time, public sentiment shifted, as you knew it would. LeBron helped this by avoiding any PR mistakes and showing a humble side in interviews and commercials, but the real reason for change? That's easy. We respect winners. When player captures the imagination of an entire sport, any resentment of him is overcome by awe.
And anyway, America was reminded right around this time that LeBron never committed a crime; he was only prosecuted like a criminal in the court of public opinion. Therefore, who was treated unfairly in a two-year span? A player who had maturity issues? Or those of us who, based on the outrage decibel levels, lumped him with athletes who had their mugshots taken?
LeBron James was 27 years old the night he went for 45 and 15 against the Celtics, still young by NBA standards, even for someone who was barely 18 as a rookie. That game aged him for the better, and to repeat what he said after winning the championship: It's about damn time.