MIAMI — Pat Riley has a theory why LeBron James’ journey to basketball’s mountaintop took so long.
Growth, he said, takes time.
“I always use the analogy of the Chinese bamboo tree,” said the Miami Heat president. “You plant the seed in the ground and it just sits there and 10 years later it grows 100 feet in one year. Over the 10 years, there’s a root structure and a taproot that is growing deeper and deeper and deeper and is embedded in the ground. And when that thing starts growing, it ain’t going anywhere but up.”
That is, much like James has done in 2012.
It is practically a year beyond compare. James got his first NBA championship, was the league’s MVP for the third time, a unanimous choice as MVP of the NBA Finals, and collected a second Olympic gold medal. And in perhaps the last marquee moment of his year, James and the Heat play Oklahoma City today, a Finals rematch on Christmas.
No longer uncomfortable with the fallout for the way he exercised his right in 2010 to choose his own future, James has enjoyed a year loaded with triumphs. He allowed himself to be in the public eye more, heard booing in most road arenas return to normal levels and insists he’s as content as ever.
“I’m driven,” James said, “by something greater.”
He has money. He would figure to contend for several more championships if he remains healthy. He has enormous fame. He is on top of his game and in his prime. The 27-year-old James is averaging 25.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists and the Heat are leading the Eastern Conference with an 18-6 record.
What’s left is legacy, him attempting to ensure he truly becomes one of the greatest.
“You look at some of the greatest companies,” James said. “As great as McDonald’s is, they don’t stop. As great as Nike is, they don’t stop. They keep trying to be innovative and make new, great things for consumers. They don’t stop. They could. They’ve got enough. I look at that as well, as motivation. I want to keep getting better. I want to put myself in position to maximize every little thing that I have.”
That starts with putting himself out there more now.
A few weeks ago, James decided to join some friends for an evening bike ride.
That night, without any trepidation, James was part of a group of 3,000 people who strapped on helmets and rode through Miami in an effort to promote safety and awareness for bicyclists.
“Two years ago,” James said, “I don’t know if I would have been ready for that.”
There’s no way he would have been ready for that. Not after The Decision and the criticism and all that came with it, part of what he now calls his transformation from the person he was to the person he is.
Turns out, they’re nearly the same, although today’s version may have just wrapped up one of the best years by any athlete.
“He’s still hungry and thirsty for more,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And I think that’s what separates the great ones and the ultimate competitors. He came off of a historic year, able to win the MVP and crown it with the ultimate team goal. ... He wants to continue to reinvent himself, get better and drive this team, push this team for a bigger legacy than just a one-title team.”
James recently starred in a commercial for Samsung, one of many companies that pay him for endorsements. This particular spot, though, was more like a snapshot of James’ life, in that it was as genuine as any ad he’s ever done.
There’s no actors in the primary roles – his fiancee, his friends, his children, his barber, his teammates, even the kids from the LeBron James Family Foundation, they’re all playing themselves in the spot. Two years ago, James never would have asked any of them to be part of an ad campaign, simply to spare them from potential scorn.
That’s no longer a problem.
“I wanted to be real,” James said. “I wanted to go out and say, ‘This is who I am’ and I wanted to do it in commercial form. It’s a commercial, but it’s also actuality. There’s nothing fake about it. I was blessed that we were able to put it together the right way, the way we actually envisioned it.”
Funny how those words now apply to what the Heat did in 2010.
They signed James and Chris Bosh, kept Dwyane Wade, added pieces around them and – albeit a year later than they planned – became NBA champions. When that moment came, when James knew his wait to become a champion was at last about to end, the first thing he did was bury his head in Bosh’s chest, trying not to cry.
James often says he is “humbled” by awards or praise. Never did he feel more humble in 2012.
His first act of the year – moments after midnight on Jan. 1 – was proposing to girlfriend Savannah Brinson. The way James sees it, that move on bended knee set the tone for everything else to fall into place.
“Can you propose twice?” James asked. “Can I do that again to get another year like this?”
He can’t. But he would.