MIAMI – The only thing that keeps LeBron James up worrying at night is basketball, which simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense.
On one hand, he’s the game’s best player.
On the other, he’s rarely impressed with himself.
Even after a year like 2013 – when a spectacular wedding, a second NBA championship and a fourth MVP award were among the many highlights enjoyed by the Miami Heat star – he still is, as he puts it, striving for greatness. Or, technically, more greatness, since his enormous list of accomplishments just keeps growing.
James was announced Thursday as the Associated Press’ 2013 Male Athlete of the Year, becoming the third basketball player to capture the award that has been annually awarded since 1931. James received 31 of 96 votes cast in a poll of news organizations, beating Peyton Manning (20) and Jimmie Johnson (7).
“I’m chasing something and it’s bigger than me as a basketball player,” James told the AP. “I believe my calling is much higher than being a basketball player. I can inspire people. Youth is huge to me. If I can get kids to look at me as a role model, as a leader, a superhero … those things mean so much, and that’s what I think I was built for. I was put here for this lovely game of basketball, but I don’t think this is the biggest role that I’m going to have.”
Past winners include Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis, Joe Montana, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps. Serena Williams was the AP Female Athlete of the Year, announced Wednesday.
James joins Michael Jordan and Larry Bird as NBA players to win the award.
“I don’t think I’ve changed much this year,” James said. “I’ve just improved and continued to improve on being more than just as a basketball player. I’ve matured as a leader, as a father, as a husband, as a friend.”
So far in 2013, with a maximum of three games left to play, James has appeared in 98. The Heat have won 78 of them.
None of those was bigger than the four Miami got in the NBA Finals against San Antonio. In Game 7, James was at his best, scoring 37 points, including the jump shot with 27.9 seconds left that essentially was the clincher.
“He always rises to the occasion when it matters the most,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Business-wise, James is booming. Some estimate his annual income around $60 million, less than one-third of that being made on the court.
His wife has opened a juice bar in Miami, and David Beckham wants James to be part of the Major League Soccer team he plans on bringing to South Florida in the next couple years.
Countless people want to align with James. Few make him listen. Beckham did.
“You want to be a part of it, but it has to feel real to you,” James said. “You don’t want to do something that doesn’t feel much to you, that you’re just doing for the money. We all have money. For me, my time is more than money at this point in my life.”
James has another “decision” to make in 2014. He can become a free agent again this summer, though still smarting from the circus atmosphere that followed him during his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago, James is staying largely silent on what might happen.
He insists he has no idea.
“I’m so zoned in on what my task is here this year that it’s hard to think about anything else,” James said. “A guy the other day asked me what I’m going to do for New Year’s, and I haven’t even thought about that.”
When asked if there’s anything he doesn’t like about Miami, James offered few complaints, other than the often-clogged street – Biscayne Boulevard, or U.S. 1 – that leads to the arena the Heat call home.
“What is there not to like about Miami?” James said. “It is a home. My family is very happy; I’m very comfortable. But U.S. 1? I wish that was a highway.”
Bear in mind, he’s not always unhappy when that street is gridlocked.
The last two years, he’s been largely responsible for hundreds of thousands of people lining that road for Heat championship parades.
And if he gets his way, they’ll be back next June.