As usual, LeBron James couldn’t keep those all-seeing eyes of his off his teammates.
Seated in the middle of a stage in the middle of AmericanAirlines Arena, James received his Most Valuable Player award on Sunday with a ceremony that included speeches from Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra. It was James’ second consecutive MVP and fourth in five years, but all that seemed unimportant to the man receiving the prize. While Heat play-by-play announcer Eric Reid held court as the event’s master of ceremonies, James kept shooting smiles and glances at his 14 teammates, who were seated away from him and stage right.
The Heat’s players had some inside jokes flying around, by the looks of it, and James wanted in on the laughs. He wanted to experience Sunday’s ceremony with his teammates in the same way he shares success with them on the court, through teamwork, camaraderie and a brotherhood that has elevated the Heat to the best team in the NBA.
Through all the speeches, congratulations and plaudits lobbed James’ way Sunday, one theme was repeated a dozen times over. James is the most valuable player in the league not only because of his prodigious gifts, but also because he values inclusion with teammates above individual success. It shows every night during games, and it carries over to the locker room, plane rides, hotel pranks, Harlem Shake videos and even when he’s accepting the most coveted individual award in his sport.
James thanked friends and family in his acceptance speech and praised the Heat’s executives and coaches for allowing him to be successful. Then, lastly, he turned to his teammates and wanted in on the joke.
“You guys saw me sitting in this chair and I kept looking over at them,” James said, standing behind a podium. “It’s because I’d rather be sitting there with them. I know this is an individual award, but I would much rather be sitting over there in shorts and a T-shirt, wondering what the hell they’re joking about, because I want to be a part of that joke and I hate being out on all the jokes.
“I want to know what’s happening. OK, guys? I would much rather be over there with my guys, because that’s what it’s all about.
“Without those guys, this trophy is not possible. The Larry O’Brien Trophy last year is not possible. Nothing that I receive individually is possible without those 14 guys because of what they sacrifice each and every day — sweat and blood and the time and everything.
“I always know that with team success comes individual prizes and accolades, but this really doesn’t mean that much to me. I’m humbled and I’m happy about it, but I wish there were 15 of these up here because I’m with a great group of guys who allow me to be the MVP each and every night. So, thank you.”
With James as its lead man, the Heat has won 41 of its past 43 games dating to early February. On Monday, the Heat begins its second-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls after sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks in four games more than a week ago. Before Game 1 against the Bulls, a representative of the NBA will present James with his MVP award at midcourt.
James was the only player in the league this season to lead his team in points (26.8), rebounds (8.0) and assists (7.3). After winning it all in 2012, he has only gotten better. When it seemed like he was at the top of his game in the 2011-12 season, he returned after winning a gold medal in the London Games and shot .406 from three-point range (103 of 254), a career high.
How good is James playing right now? In his congratulatory introductory speech, Riley tried to put it in perspective, saying James is the best player he has seen in a career that has spanned nearly five decades in the NBA. Riley played with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, coached Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal and coached against Michael Jordan.
“Over those 46 years, I’ve had the opportunity with my eyes to observe and to watch and to see players, great players,” Riley said, “great players that have won and won championships; they’ve been most valuable players; they’ve been winners; they’ve been leaders, and all the ones that I’ve observed and I’ve watched and I’ve seen, somewhere they’ve always gotten better.
“They’ve always gotten better as their career advanced and most importantly they’ve always made their teams and their teammates better. In my humble opinion, in those 46 years, not because I have a lot of experience, I think the man you’re looking at here is the best of all of them, and I just want to congratulate him on being a four-time Most Valuable Player.”