James becoming leader for Team USA

LONDON — — Go ahead, admit it. You like this LeBron James.

You like our country's best basketball ambassador at the Olympics, the greatest all-around player in the world already proving it at these Games.


You like how James defers to elder statesman Kobe Bryant out of respect and connects with Coach K well enough to talk to Mike Krzyzewski about everything from leadership styles to tattoo designs.

You like how James facilitates Team USA's offense to involve everybody on a team full of stars, as he did selflessly in Sunday's 98-71 rout of France in an Olympic opener.


You like the newfound maturity James showed afterward when remembering this trip across the Atlantic offered more than an opportunity to sell shoes and expand his brand globally.

"You're representing more than just your state or your city. You're representing all of America, and you've got to understand that every time you touch the floor," James said. "We try to do that and show respect for why we're here."

Over the next two weeks, if these become the Olympics of Lochte and LeBron, you will like James so much that America will face the decision: Is it time to love sports' most vilified man again?

Sure, if the U.S. somehow finds a way to blow it, I expect James to get blamed and to start hearing LeBron jokes that haven't been funny since before the Heat won the NBA title in June. What time does LeBron James go to sleep? A quarter after 3.

But if he adds a gold medal to an NBA ring this summer, these Games could be as good for King James' image as they are for Queen Elizabeth's. Even in Ohio, where James is practically an honorary Modell, Gov. John Kasich softened. Kasich tweeted: "24 Ohioans are in the Olympics. Best of luck to them all. Even LeBron."

Even LeBron, who did little in the opener but provide glimpses that reminded everybody why Krzyzewski refers to him as "our best player." Kevin Durant led the U.S. in scoring with 22 points in nearly 28 minutes, but it was James whose versatile effort made the deepest first impression.

It started immediately. On Team USA's first defensive possession, James made a steal. On his first offensive touch, he lobbed an alley-oop dunk to Tyson Chandler. But the most memorable of James' team-high eight assists came in transition when he threw a 60-foot bounce pass to Durant, who punctuated the play with a dunk on the way to being fouled.

"I threw it because I felt like I could get it there," James said.


When asked to play center defensively, as James will do throughout the Olympics on an undersized team, he felt just as confident in his ability to guard. James showed why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra nicknamed him "One Through Five" when he grabbed a rebound as the defensive center and dribbled all the way downcourt before dishing to Kevin Love for a 3-pointer. In case anybody wondered, James later showed he still could score on demand with a patented turnaround baseline jumper for two of his nine points.

The French team's defense didn't pass through customs. Without injured Bulls center Joakim Noah, France surrendered inside presence and offered little resistance to waves of American dribblers. Not that James sounded satisfied with a 27-point rout.

"We didn't play a perfect game," James said.

That was Coach K talking as much as his team leader. But — and as a critic of LeBron's antics since he joined the Heat, I come to this conclusion grudgingly — the more James speaks, the more sense he makes.

Like so many, I doubted the 6-foot-8-inch basketball Adonis blessed with all the physical gifts imaginable possessed any leadership qualities. Perhaps finally winning the elusive NBA title relieved the pressure enough that those traits surfaced naturally — because clearly they exist.

Take the way James reached out to Durant, his NBA Finals rival, after the Thunder star struggled to find a niche during Team USA exhibitions.


"I just told KD to be himself," James said. "KD's one of the best players the world has. We don't want the KD that defers. We want the KD we see in Oklahoma City."

I want the new, improved LeBron James to make the return trip to the States.

To show his playful side still exists, James toyed with a final question about NBA Commissioner David Stern's bad idea of limiting the Olympics to players 23 or younger.

"I don't agree with it," James said.


"I'm 27," he said before walking away with an impish grin.


Like it or not, James isn't just getting older. He's getting better.

But go ahead, admit it. You like it.

Twitter @DavidHaugh