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LeBron and the Heat get the last laugh

By Joseph Goodman, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — You might not know it based on the past two years, but LeBron James has a sense of humor 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 favorite — James has the loudest laugh in the theater. Between playoff games in Indianapolis during the Heat’s championship run, James 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 theater.

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.

James 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 Ameri canAirlines Arena for the summer, James said he actually liked a lot of those wisecracks. James’ 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,” James said.

His critics will have to come up 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 Defense: James collected every award. By every measure, 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 was a great-but-flawed team. It trailed in each of its last three series. It wasn’t the favorite 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’ averages in the postseason will stand as one of the best two-month stretches in the history of postseason 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.”

“The Chosen One” is tattooed across James’ back. It’s not there to remind him of his greatness. Far from it. It’s a challenge. It’s there to remind him daily of how great he must always strive to be.

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 of 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,” James said. “I’ve thought about what I’m going to do personally to improve my game. I always love the offseason. I’ll have an opportunity to come back with something new. There is more to add.”

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