BARCELONA — The building pictured to your left is the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, which sits atop one of the highest hills in this Spanish coastal city. To get there from the plaza below, they have a series of outdoor all-weather escalators. You can use those, or you can climb about 500 steps.
Behind the museum is the Palau Sant Jordi, the modern arena where Team USA will play Argentina on Sunday night and Spain on Tuesday night. From the plaza outside the arena, you can gaze 360 degrees around the city, the beach in one direction and the mountains in the other.
It was in that arena atop that hill Saturday that the topic of conversation, as far as I was concerned, was LeBron James, NBA champion.
It has taken years and years for the words LeBron James and NBA champion to be used together in the same sentence without a pejorative disclaimer, and I wanted to get a reading from James one month after the NBA Finals concluded as to how that fulfillment has changed him.
We already know he is proud of himself, which he has let everyone know through tweets such as this one. Anyone who watched him closely on the night of Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder can attest to the unabashed joy and sense of fulfillment he was feeling as the final minutes of that blowout victory ticked away.
And now, an ocean away and a month removed, the simplest of questions needed to be asked: How ya’ feeling, champ?
“It hasn’t changed me at all. I was able to accomplish a goal of mine, I’m very excited about that, but it hasn’t changed my personality or anything like that,” James told SheridanHoops.com.
Moments earlier, a member of the USA Basketball staff had told me exactly the opposite – that James was carrying himself with the pride of a champion, and the other players on the team were treating him with a new level of respect – the type of props earned among your peers only when you have a ring (or have one coming, to be pequito mas accurate).
But James was having none of it.
“I don’t know, not really. I don’t really seek out how people look at me or view me or treat me differently. I just be myself, and it doesn’t matter to me,” James said. “It’s always great when you can set out a goal and you can achieve it through hard work, and the best thing about it is you cut no corners, you don’t take every day off, and you just try to make your best effort. There’s always a fulfillment for that. You feel good about it.”
Modesty aside, James is a different man.
His teammates and coaches say so.
He has been leading with his actions and his words. He has been far and away the best and most productive player for Team USA in their three exhibition games to date. And you have to believe he is relishing the opportunity to go after Andres Nocioni when the Americans play Argentina on Sunday night – tipoff is 9 p.m. local time, which will be early compared to Tuesday night’s 10:30 p.m. tip against Spain (which easily defeated Argentina easily in Friday night’s tuneup in a small Spanish city near the border of Portugal).
James scored 30 points in front of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in D.C. in the Americans’ 11-point victory over Brazil; he scored 16 on 7-for-10 shooting in Wednesday night’s 40-point victory over Great Britain; and there is no doubt he will bring his A game Sunday night against Argentina, a team that defeated James and the Americans in the Olympic semifinals in Athens, Greece in 2004 – sparking James’ distaste for all things Nocioni.
But that was practically a lifetime ago, and James rarely played for that version of Team USA as coach Larry Brown used Richard Jefferson as the starter and Shawn Marion as the first backup at the 3.
James was a kid then. He had more hair and less of a forehead. He was brash and bold, not worldly and demure.
He was a follower, not a leader.
But things have certainly changed.
James is one of four players on this roster born in 1984, with the only others who pre-date him in that department being Kobe Bryant (1978) and Tyson Chandler (1982). But when it comes to Team USA experience, he is the elder statesman, having been around the world with the team since before coach Mike Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo took over way back in 2005.
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His passport has been stamped in Germany, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau and China during his travels with the national team. He hasn’t seen it all, but he has certainly seen a ton – everything from the lowlight of an 18-point loss to Puerto Rico in the opener of the 2004 Games to the highlight of Team USA’s 118-107 point party in the gold medal match against Spain four years ago with the Redeem Team.
What is fueling him now?
“This is a team that not only wants to get better, but win gold again,” James said. “A lot of people think we can’t do it, challenging our size and saying we don’t have enough on our team. But we do, therefore it’s a challenge. I’m motivated, I’m very motivated. I can’t wait to get the games under way.”
Krzyzewski said James’ growing maturity has manifested itself on the court, in the locker room and in team meetings.
Remember, this is a player who was so green and full of himself when he went to Japan with Team USA in 2006 that Bruce Bowen (who ended up getting cut in Korea) actually turned to him on the team plane as James was barking out demands and told him, “Have you ever heard of the words ‘Please’ and “Thank You’?”
James needed that type of guidance then.
Now, he is providing it.
“Well, in ’06 there’s really no comparison. He was still learning the game. He was 21 years old,” Krzyzewski said. “In 2008, at 23, he was outstanding, and today he’s great. There’s not an aspect of the game that he can’t do or understand, and his leadership is off the charts, and I don’t think people realize just how smart he is about the game.
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“I saw his leadership starting on the court in 2008. You know, he has such a strong voice, a commanding voice. Because he was playing against bigger guys, he was playing where he could see the court and everything in front of him, and as a result he could orchestrate our defense. And he’s doing the same thing for us now. He has great things to say.
“Today, in the meeting, it was ‘How do you feel about how we’re thinking about defending Scola, do you feel comfortable with that?’ He gave a couple suggestions, and if they have that input then they have a better chance of owning it. And if they own it, they have a better chance of doing it. In ’08, we got it done, but we were still getting to know one another. Now we know each other, and no one is hesitant at all about sharing their ideas.”
Defending Scola will be one problem the Americans need to solve, but defending the Spanish front line of Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka two nights later will be a truer test of whether the Americans really are so small that they are truly vulnerable.
By then, they will have had five days in Barcelona.
For one of them, it will almost feel like home – or what has become home.
“It reminds me of Miami, honestly. A lot,” said James, who visited Barcelona for the first time last summer. “The food, the beaches, the people. I love it here.”
He will love it even more if he emerges from here with his doubters and his haters doubting and hating him a little less.
First, he must become King of the Hill at Palau Sant Jordi.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since 1996, covering them at the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, as well as the World Championships in Indianapolis, Japan and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.