It was, by any measure, a fantastic year for LeBron James.
James made it to the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive year. He changed addresses again, leaving Cleveland for the second time to join the Los Angeles Lakers in the biggest move of free agency over the summer. He remained arguably the dominant player in the basketball, adding even more glitz to a legacy that reached epic status long ago.
And even without a title, it may have been his most significant year.
For the third time, James has been selected as The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year — after 2018 saw him continue to excel on the court, open the “I Promise” school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and further use his voice as an activist who bristled at being told to “shut up and dribble.”
“I would describe it as a success because I was able to inspire so many people throughout the year,” James said. “I got to go back to China, to Paris, to Berlin, I opened up a school. And all these kids I was able to see, all over the world and in my hometown, I was able to inspire, to make them think they can be so much more than what they think they’re capable of being. That was my outlook for 2018.”
James received 78 points in balloting by U.S. editors and news directors announced Thursday, while Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts was second with 46. Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals was third, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was fourth and Triple Crown winner Justify was fifth.
James remained dominant on the court. He averaged 28.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 2018 between his time with the Cavaliers and Lakers, playing in 102 games through Thursday.
“In addition to being on everyone’s short list as one of the league’s all-time greatest players, LeBron is among the hardest-working players and is a thoughtful and impactful leader,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “He serves on the executive committee of the Players Association even as he builds an impressive media company of his own. And what’s most inspiring, and no surprise given his talent and focus, is how he’s done all of this while embracing his unique opportunity to positively impact communities in need.”
James becomes the third man to win the award at least three times, joining Lance Armstrong (a four-time winner from 2002 through 2005), Tiger Woods (1997, 1999, 2000 and 2006) and Michael Jordan (1991, 1992 and 1993).
Armstrong won the Tour de France in each of his years as the AP recipient — though he was later stripped of the titles as a result of a doping scandal. Woods won at least one major and was the PGA’s Player of the Year in all four of his AP-winning years. Jordan’s three awards coincided with his first three NBA championships in Chicago. And James’ first two times receiving the award came in 2013 and 2016, years in which he led teams to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
James’ closest rivals in the AP balloting this year — Betts and Ovechkin — both won titles in 2018.
James’ year included no championship, no scoring title, no MVP award. But some of the people closest to James still considered 2018 to be his finest year yet.
“I like to talk about generations,” said Miami guard Dwyane Wade, one of James’ best friends. “There will never be another Michael Jordan because he was the first to be a global superstar, the first to take the NBA to another level. There will never be another LeBron James, and a lot of it is from what he’s done away from the game. Him understanding his voice has been so refreshing and so important to the culture and his friends.”
The “I Promise” school is perhaps James’ most prized accomplishment yet. It opened in July for 240 third- and fourth-graders. The public school in Akron is perhaps like none other. Families — not just the kids — receive support there, whether it’s by helping put food on the table or providing adult education or even legal assistance.
And this is just the start. James and his LeBron James Family Foundation have enormous plans for the school in the years ahead.
“It is already such a success,” James said. “And it’s something that I never thought was possible until we made it happen. So yes, it’s been a pretty good year.”
A busy year, too.
He had a documentary series called “Shut Up and Dribble,” which discusses athletes’ role in the current political and cultural climate. His show “The Shop,” featuring James and friends talking about life in the backdrop of a barbershop, has been enormously popular. James has faced criticism in recent days for posting rap lyrics that included the phrase “Jewish money,” for which he apologized, and even rival coaches have spoken out about how he’s used his fame for good.
“To this day, he hasn’t missed a step,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said earlier this year. “He hasn’t fallen off the ledge and he’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity who haven’t had the same advantages as others.”
On the court, he was already an icon.
He’s looking to be one off the court as well in the years ahead.
“The next star is out there,” James said. “And I’m not just talking sports. Doctor, nurse, pilots, they’re out there. The one thing they need is knowing that people care about them and care about their lives. I believe it’s part of my job, and I take it very seriously, to try to tap into that.”