Seen here in this Jan. 7, 2020, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was announced Dec. 26, as the winner of The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year award for a record-tying fourth time. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
By Tim Reynolds
AP Basketball Writer
LeBron James told the world in 2020 that Black Lives Matter. He helped convince many who had never voted to finally head to the polls. He found more ways to continue elevating the lives of people in his hometown.
If that weren’t enough, he won another NBA championship.
James’ on-court performance this year was spectacular again. A fourth NBA title and fourth NBA Finals MVP trophy were his, as he lifted the Los Angeles Lakers back atop the basketball world. And after a year where he was brilliant, on the court and off, James was announced Dec. 26 as the winner of The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year award for a record-tying fourth time.
“I still know what I do on the floor and obviously, I give everything to the game,” James told AP. “But I can make a greater impact off the floor right now, more than I can on the floor. And I want to continue to inspire people with the way I play the game of basketball. But there’s so many more things that I can do off the floor to help cultivate people, inspire people, bring people together, empower them.”
The AP award was first given out in 1931. James’ fourth win matched Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods for the most by men. Three women have won the AP award at least four times; Babe Didrikson was a six-time winner, Serena Williams has won five and Chris Evert four.
No NBA player scored more points or had more assists in 2020 than James. The only other player in his lifetime to lead the league in points and assists in the same calendar year? Himself, in 2018.
James also became the first player to be NBA Finals MVP for three franchises. He moved past Kobe Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list, doing so one day before Bryant died last January in a helicopter crash; the last tweet Bryant sent was a congratulatory message to James.
“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James in October. “And if you think you know, you don’t know until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. You think you know. You don’t know.”
James finished with 78 points in voting by a panel of 35 AP customers and editors. Kansas City quarterback and reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes was a narrow second with 71 points. Formula One seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was a distant third with 14 points.
James — also the AP’s male athlete of this past decade — also won the yearly AP award in 2013, 2016 and 2018. Michael Jordan, a three-time winner, is the only other basketball player to win the AP award more than once.
“He’s one of the greatest leaders in sports,” Lakers guard Kyle Kuzma said of James.
That applies on and off the court.
James’ More Than A Vote organization drew more than 42,000 volunteers to work at polling stations for the November election, helped some earn back their voting rights and pushed for turnout among Black and young voters.
Black voters made up 11% of the national electorate, and 9 in 10 of them supported President-elect Joe Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide. When compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden drew more voters in critical areas with large Black populations — such as NBA cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta. That proved massive.
“The tragic death of George Floyd, everyone getting a chance to see that, and also hearing the story of Breonna Taylor, her tragic story, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia … my people have had enough and I have had enough,” James said. “That’s why I called for action and with my platform, I believed I could get people to join me.”
He also focused, as always, on his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The I PROMISE School he opened in 2018 now has over 450 students in third through sixth grades. When the pandemic shut down the school, James and his team ensured students got hot meals delivered to their homes — even complete Thanksgiving meals. An affordable housing project for 50 families broke ground this year. And this month, plans for House Three Thirty (a nod to Akron’s area code) were announced, detailing how James is going to offer things like accessible family financial health programming, job training and a community gathering space.
“The pandemic has been rough on all of us,” James said. “No matter your situation, no matter where you are in life, it’s been rough. And the first thing I thought about, besides the stoppage of the season, when the pandemic hit was ‘What am I going to do for my kids back in my school?’”
He is already eyeing 2021. The Lakers expect to be contenders again. His remake of “Space Jam” is expected to be released this summer. And James, who turns 36 Dec. 30, hasn’t ruled out playing again for USA Basketball in the Tokyo Olympics on the team that will be coached by Gregg Popovich.
“It’s still possible,” James said. “It’s not a 0% percent chance, I will say that. I love Coach Pop.”
But, as 2020 wound down, James allowed himself a moment to reflect on a year like none other.
“It’s a tribute to the people that I work with, to the people at my foundation, to the sponsors that continue to support us and what we do and what we strive for,” James said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t sit here and say that at the time we stopped in March that I thought all this would happen and we would be at this point in December.”
Yet here he is, again.