LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — He went to Miami and became a champion.
He went back to Cleveland and won another title.
He went to Los Angeles and now the Lakers are back atop the basketball world.
LeBron James, love him or hate him, is in his own category now. He has led three franchises to NBA titles, something nobody has ever done. His legacy was complete long before Sunday night, when the Los Angeles Lakers became NBA champions for the 17th time by beating the Miami Heat and winning the title to cap a season like none other, in a bubble like none other.
But that legacy is just a bit shinier now.
“I guess, as Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way,” James said earlier in these playoffs.
That’s not up for debate.
He’s got four titles. He’s a four-time NBA Finals MVP, the second to win that many. He’s done it all with the NBA’s biggest target on his back, with every action and every word scrutinized and often criticized.
James has become the epitome of the independent superstar athlete, something many try to be but few even have a chance of pulling off. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants and makes it work. Bill Russell will forever have more rings and Michael Jordan will forever be the choice of many as the NBA’s greatest player. And that’s OK with James, who has forged his own path.
“The game of basketball will pass me by,” James said as the title loomed. “There will be a new group of young kids and vets and rookies throughout the course of this game. So, I can’t worry about that as far as on the floor. How I move, how I walk, what I preach, what I talk about, how I inspire the next generation is what matters to me the most.”
He’s never forgotten that he was once a broke kid from Akron, Ohio. If he’s not a billionaire yet, he’s trending that way. He’s on a Wheaties box now, saying its unveiling last week was “one of the best moments of my life.” He founded a school and stays involved with matters there. He’s actively trying to get more people, particularly Black people, to vote than ever before.
“I just hope I make my guys proud and that's all that mattered to me," James said. “I make my guys proud, make the fan base proud, my family back home, I can't wait to get back home to them. Akron, Ohio, we did it again — and that's what it's all about."
Oh, if that wasn’t enough, he delivered a championship to a Lakers franchise that went 10 years without one and did so in a year when they needed it most, letting them cry tears of joy after all the tears of anguish that followed the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in January.
“I think it’s remarkable what LeBron is still doing at his age,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of James. “The minutes he’s playing, how effective he is on both ends of the floor, and the impact he has on both ends of the floor, his will to win is just incredible.”
The 35-year-old James finished this post-season with 580 points; no one at his age had ever done that. He had 184 assists; no one at his age had ever done that. If he’s slowing down, he’s not showing it; he had 32 points in his first playoff game 14 years ago, he exceeded that six times in this post-season run.
“He’s shown why he is the player that he is, why he’s had the career and the legacy that he’s continually building,” Miami’s Jimmy Butler said.
James is 4,148 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the regular-season scoring lead, meaning he’ll have to play at least two more full seasons to reach that mark. Sunday was his 260th career playoff appearance, passing Derek Fisher for the all-time record. He was All-NBA for the 16th time this season, a record. He started his 16th consecutive All-Star Game this season, yet another record. More fans picked him as MVP this season than Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the award.
There’s nothing left to prove on the basketball court.
Then again, there’s been nothing left to prove for a while now.
“I think the story will be told how it’s supposed to be told and be written how it’s supposed to be written,” James said. “But I don’t live my life thinking about legacy. What I do off the floor is what means more to me than what I do on the floor.”
What he’s done, on and off the floor, is how legends are defined.
“I just think it is a true testament to his greatness to be able to sustain this type of success year in, year out,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Different uniforms. New players and new teams going after him. It’s a real testament to that commitment. He’s seen everything. At this point in his career, it’s just about winning.”
Others have won more. But nobody in the NBA has won the way James has.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press