"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach." —LeBron James
Who would have known that LeBron's famous quote that seemed to follow him everywhere he went, would one day be almost non-existent? Sure, it's a classic line that NBA fans all over the country will remember for the rest of their lives, but that quote no longer defines him.
It's now a passing memory in a legacy much bigger than that single moment. This is largely due to everything that James did in 2012.
Not to underappreciate everything that he has done since he entered the league in 2003, but that part of his career has to be looked at as a prequel. A prequel to one of the greatest years in the history of sports.
More importantly, a prequel to what could be one of the best careers of all time.
Lucky for all of us, he still has a lot of years left.
2012, on the other hand, is almost over; so for that, let's celebrate what he's accomplished and look at why this year has changed his legacy more than the rest of his career combined.
How It All Began to Change
Who was LeBron James before 2012? What kind of a person was he and what was he looking to accomplish?
Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins wrote the article on LeBron getting SI's 2012 Sportsman of the Year award. Jenkins interviewed James and found out why the quote from "The Decision" changed everything so much:
Did I think an award like this was possible two years ago? No, I did not. I thought I would be helping a lot of kids and raise $3 million by going on TV and saying, "Hey, I want to play for the Miami Heat." But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am.
Take a second and think about the people that might think less of you for some reason or another. Most of us can probably list off who those people are without giving it much thought. In the grand scheme of things, we have it easy, yet it probably feels like a pretty tough situation.
Then you think about LeBron.
His decision in 2010 to nationally televise his free-agency destination ended up costing him fan after fan. Some of the people that once supported him; now despised him.
He was faced with more adversity than he'd ever experienced, so he sought out a change.
Jenkins didn't believe that he was looking for a change in his game or how he played, but a change in who he was:
He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch. "He got rid of the bulls---," says one of his former coaches, and he quietly hoped the public would notice.
In some ways, 2012 was James' coming-out party.
Life in Cleveland
He began his career essentially in his home town and was the local kid who was going to bring Cleveland a championship that they had been missing for so long.
As he grew and began to improve, both the media and fans forgave his inconsistencies and difficulties with finishing games by saying that he was still growing up and learning the game.
Then the pressure began to build.
A failed NBA Finals appearance in 2007, followed by disappointing playoff runs left everyone wondering if he'd ever win a championship. He is arguably the most physically gifted player in the history of the NBA with a skill set that separates him from nearly everybody else, but would he go down as the greatest player to never win it all?
As his career in Cleveland began to get closer to the end, it seemed like he was even concerned about whether or not he could win a ring.
The pressure was really getting to him.
Then the man that people referred to as "King James" was given a choice. He was finally an unrestricted free agent and could stay home and continue to play for the Cavaliers or join another team.
It might sound like he had a bit of a tumultuous run while playing in Cleveland, but that wasn't really the case.
He won the NBA Rookie of the Year award, made six All-Star games, won the scoring title in 2008 and ended up winning the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in his last two seasons with the Cavaliers.
The accolades never stopped coming in.
The only one that didn't was the one that mattered.
Winning an NBA championship.
The Big Three
Deciding to play for the Miami Heat will be a topic of conversation for as long as we're all alive.
In some ways it felt like LeBron took the easy way out by deciding to play with his two friends in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Nobody of James' caliber had gone on to join another team with other superstars who were also young and in their prime.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for everyone involved and one that people needed to question.
ESPN.com even reported what Michael Jordan thought of LeBron's decision:
There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, "Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,"...But that's ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.
If the greatest of all time had these feelings, then maybe the rest of the world should too.
But before we start to criticize James, did he really just say that he was going to play with Bosh and Wade?
The excitement across the league was electric.
You would have had a better chance going into a mall and not finding any stores than picking up the sports section in the newspaper and not seeing something on "The Big Three." Miami was now the clear favorite to win the 2011 NBA championship, and everybody had to see how good these guys could be.
Before we knew it, the Heat were running into problems that nobody had seen before.
They didn't have a problem winning games, but they couldn't really understand how to play together night-in and night-out. These three guys had been the go-to guys on their team. There was never any question as to who was getting what shot and when they were getting it.
Miami had to find a way to put these men into a system that allowed each of them to play to their strengths.
Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy.
All three of the stars were too unselfish, which brought up the most important issue: Who was going to take the last shot?
Debate after debate ensued as the season went on, and Miami finally found itself in the NBA Finals.
Exactly where they thought they would be.
The Heat dominated the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1, making it seem like this would be the easy championship that everyone anticipated them getting at the beginning of the season. Instead, Miami went on to blow a 15-point lead with a little over seven minutes left in Game 2, and something began to change.
It almost felt like the Mavericks were meant to win that series.
Even when the Heat won Game 3 by two points, Dallas remained composed and eventually went on to win the next three games and an NBA championship.
A championship that everyone believed would be won by Miami and The Big Three.
That's when the questions about winning a title began to creep back into LeBron's life.
LeBron had a little secret for everyone, though.
2011 might have ended on a sour note, but 2012 was right around the corner, and boy, did James have something up his sleeve.
A Year for the History Books
The year got off to an unusual start after the NBA lockout forced the season to be cut to 66 games.
Teams now had to play these games in a condensed schedule that forced them to sometimes compete in back-to-back-to-back games. Three games in three nights.
It would have been easy for people to say that this year meant less than others, but once games began, people immediately knew that this would be a great season. One of the reasons for such optimism was because of what LeBron was accomplishing on the floor.
Look at the 2011 Heat vs. the 2012 Heat, and you'd see two different ball clubs.
There was a sense of continuity that was missing from the 2011 squad. Everybody knew their role and bought into what they were trying to do as a team.
The engine to the machine that was Miami happened to be their best player: LeBron James.
One of his biggest accomplishments of 2012 was winning his third MVP award in the past four years.
He would go on to average 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. People had criticized his efficiency as a shooter, so he found a way to keep them quiet by shooting 53 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range. Both of those were career highs.
James was now the leader of this team, and it was unquestioned. Everybody knew that he was the guy.
Playoff time rolled around and the Heat found themselves down 2-3 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. If there was ever a time for James to prove that he had matured into the guy that was going to lead Miami to the title then it was at that moment.
Facing elimination, LeBron went on to give one of the greatest playoff performances of all time, notching 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. He also shot 19-of-26 from the field.
There was simply nothing that Boston could have done to stop him, and it was the definitive moment of the 2012 playoffs.
Miami went on to beat a very good Oklahoma City Thunder team convincingly in a 4-1 series.
James nearly averaged a triple-double with 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists in the five finals games.
The ring that had eluded him for eight seasons was finally his.
Nobody could take that away from him.
And if you were wondering, yes, his playoff performance earned him the 2012 NBA Finals MVP.
Just when it seemed like the year couldn't get any better, the 2012 Summer Olympics were about to take place in London.
LeBron had already won a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics, but this year's team was different. People compared the London team to the 1992 Dream Team, so expectations were through the roof.
No moment ended up being too big for both James and Team USA.
The U.S. went on to go undefeated and win the gold medal, but LeBron's crowning moment was when he recorded the first triple-double in Olympic history.
His accomplishments on the court were unbelievable to say the least.
They were simply historic.
2012 Changed His Legacy Forever
James proved to be the player that everybody hoped for him to become when he began his career almost 10 years ago.
His first eight seasons had significantly more highs than lows, but were marred by one moment in time.
LeBron's decision to go to Miami could have stunted his growth as a player. It had the potential to change his career forever, and that's exactly what it did.
He no longer has to worry about finally winning his first championship.
James has done that.
Taking advantage of nearly every opportunity thrown his way has made LeBron James' 2012 season one of the greatest of all time. It'll go down in the history books and has made him into the person that he's wanted to become.
The transformation has been pretty incredible, and an unbelievable one to witness.