Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NBA's MVP can yuck it up

Off the court, LeBron enjoys life's funny side

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MIAMI -- You might not know it based on the past two years, but LeBron James has a sense of humour as big as his basketball game.

He's a jokester at heart and caring to a fault. He wants everyone around him involved in the gag and in the game. It's a side of his personality that made NBA executives swoon over James when he was a teenager and what made Heat coach Erik Spoelstra like him "instantly."

"I haven't been around a player like him before," Spoelstra said. "You root for him, and you want him to do well. And everything he embodies is everything you want a professional athlete to have.

"He's giving. He's a great teammate. He doesn't get in trouble. He does the right things off the court."

At movies -- comedies are his favourite -- James has the loudest laugh in the theatre. Between playoff games in Indianapolis during the Heat's championship run, he and a few of his friends attended a matinee showing of a comedy. James' booming howls of infectious laughter echoed from the back of the theatre.

During the film, James got a big kick out of a scene that included footage of a basketball player flying through the air for a dunk. Now, finally, James can step back, exhale and laugh at himself a little bit.

He heard all the jokes after the Heat's collapse in the 2011 Finals. On Monday, after the Heat's parade was over and he was getting ready to leave AmericanAirlines Arena for the summer, he said he actually liked a lot of those wisecracks. His favorite: Don't ask LeBron James for a dollar because he will only give you three quarters.

Funny? Yes. Still applicable? That question is a joke in itself.

"Guess you can't use those jokes anymore," he said.

His critics will have to come up with new material. It will be difficult.

James' performance throughout the season and the playoffs was nothing short of brilliant. Regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, First-Team All NBA, NBA First-Team All Defensive -- James collected every award. It was one of the best individual efforts a player has ever offered the game.

That James accomplished so much considering the intense pressure he lived with made this season truly one of the greatest achievements in sports in a generation.

For much of the playoffs, the Heat were a great but flawed team. It trailed in each of its last three series. It wasn't the favourite to win the Finals. James' will to succeed overcame a short bench, Chris Bosh's injury and Dwyane Wade's ailing left knee.

Remember this stat line: 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists. James's averages in the post-season will stand as one of the best two-month stretches in the history of post-season basketball.

"He's a transformational basketball player, a once-in-a-generation basketball player," Spoelstra said. "He's a basketball maestro.

"The things he does on the basketball court you can't teach. There's brilliance to his game. And then you add the work ethic and his thirst to always get better and to push himself beyond his comfortable limits."

In winning the NBA championship, the Heat's players, coaching staff and executives not only celebrated a title they knew had to be delivered, they also celebrated in knowing a huge weight had been lifted off their star's shoulders. Almost instantly upon winning the title, Dwyane Wade noticed how James was more relaxed.

"It takes a burden off of you," Wade said. "Like they say, the monkey is off your back. It didn't get off by him riding a coattail; it came off by him going to get it. Losing last year humbled him so much and made him grow up."

Now the fun begins. And James might just have the ability to turn the rest of the league into a running joke.

"I have thought about what it will take to compete and match this year's run that we had," he said. "I've thought about what I'm going to do personally to improve my game. I always love the off-season. I'll have an opportunity to come back with something new. There is more to add."

-- Miami Herald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2012 C13

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