MIAMI - You could have said LeBron James chokes. You could have called him arrogant. You could have dubbed him immature. You could even have said he's going bald.
None of that would have mattered to James. But there was one thing he didn't want to hear anybody say. James revealed what it was when on the podium Thursday night receiving the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award.
"That I was selfish," the Miami Heat star said when asked what written or said about him since last year's devastating Finals loss to Dallas had hurt the most. "That's the only thing that bothered me, that a lot people said I was a selfish person, a selfish basketball player. I strive on being a team player, doing what it takes to help this team win. But, at the same time, maybe I used it for motivation."
Yes, James was called selfish off the court for the "The Decision," the ESPN-aired show in which he told Cleveland adios. And it's hard to disagree with that criticism.
But selfish on the court? Who ever said that?
If there's anything James hasn't received in his career, it's criticism for being a selfish player. Much of the time he's been ripped, it's been for passing, rather than taking a shot, when the game is on the line.
After Thursday's 121-106 win over Oklahoma City, which wrapped up the Finals 4-1 for the Heat, James was asked to elaborate more on having been called selfish.
"I heard it a lot," said James, who bolted his home state Cavaliers as a free agent for the Heat in the summer of 2010 and began to be sharply criticized for the first time in his life. "Last year, I let it affect me That got to me a lot because I know this is a team game. I know the coaches that I had when I was younger always preached about team. There's no 'I' in team, and to win a championship no matter on which level, you have to do it as a team. A lot of people were saying I was a selfish person and a selfish player, it got to me."
James said it didn't get to him this season because he stopped paying attention to what was being said about him.
OK, maybe one person did once say his play on the court was selfish, and James used it for motivation. That sounds very Michael Jordan-like. He would come up with the smallest things, true or untrue, to fuel him.
As for this season, James was criticized the most when he was passing, not shooting. He got hammered for not looking to shoot or drive with the game on the line late in the All-Star Game. He got drilled for passing to Udonis Haslem, rather than taking it himself, in the waning seconds of a 99-98 loss at Utah on March 2.
Certainly, nobody was saying anything was selfish about the career-high 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists James put up in an MVP campaign to along with 27.1 points. In the playoffs, with more rebounding needed to make up for big man Chris Bosh missing nine games due to injury, James upped his average to 9.7.
To find out why James is so sensitive to the S word, perhaps one must go back to those coaches who first told him there is no "I" in team. He's maintained the same beliefs even if there are two "I's" in Miami.
"I remember when he was 10 years old, we had one conversation," said Dru Joyce, who began coaching James at that age in his native Akron, Ohio, on an AAU team. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I was just trying to reinforce that if you share the ball, people will want to play with you no matter how good you are. And from that point on, he was sharing the basketball. He started to get as much joy out of passing as he did scoring a bucket."
Joyce later became James' coach for his final two seasons at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. His coach for his first two seasons was Keith Dambrot, now coach at the University of Akron.
"Every day in practice, he would throw the ball to guys who weren't in his caliber to try to make the team better," Dambrot remembers. "I thought that he was going to lead the NBA in assists one day. I never thought he would lead in scoring (which James did in 2007-08). I thought he would become more of a player like Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan but he became kind of cross between the two because he had to score a lot when he got to Cleveland."
Wouldn't it figure, though, that on the biggest night of his basketball life, he went back to being more like Magic. And Johnson, an ABC analyst, was sitting in a corner of the arena watching.
In recording his first triple-double of the season, James on Thursday had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. He passed all night to Mike Miller, who shot 7-of-8 from three-point range.
That brought back some memories for Dambrot, who coached James to his first championship as a St. Vincent-St. Mary freshman in 1999-2000.
"He knew Miller had it rolling and he kept getting him the ball," Dambrot said. "That reminded me of the state title game, when he kept passing the ball to Dru Joyce (son of Joyce the coach). He was 5-foot-2, 92 pounds. He made seven three-pointers (in seven attempts), and we won the title his freshman year. If he's making all those plays to a guy who's 5-2, 92 pounds, that shows his unselfishness."
In another big game for James, he passed off regularly to another small guy who hit a bunch of threes. OK, so 6-2, 200-pound Cavaliers guard David Gibson isn't that tiny. Gibson sure came up big by shooting 5-of-5 for 31 points in Cleveland's 2007 Eastern Conference finals-clinching win over Detroit that sent James to his first NBA Finals.
Nobody was criticizing James too much back then, and they certainly weren't calling him selfish. Even last season, when James was sports villain No. 1, it's unclear who was calling his play on the court selfish.
But whatever works for motivation, that's fine. James was busy hoisting the Finals MVP trophy following an unselfish Finals-clinching performance that made Magic proud.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson