AKRON, Ohio – Unstoppable at both ends of the floor this season, LeBron James claimed the league MVP on Monday, receiving the award in the high school gym where he first emerged on the national scene. "This is a place where all my dreams started and where I thought they could become real," James said in accepting the award at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. "There's really not a better place."
The Cleveland Cavaliers star won what some expected to be a close vote in a slam dunk. He received 109 of a possible 121 first-place votes to easily outdistance Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. James totaled 1,172 points in balloting by media members in the U.S. and Canada.
Bryant, last year's winner, got two first-place votes and finished with 698 points. Miami guard Dwyane Wade was third with 680 points and was named first on seven ballots. Orlando center Dwight Howard (328) was fourth followed by New Orleans guard Chris Paul (192).
James is the first Cavaliers player to win the award. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists this season, his sixth as a pro. He also finished second in voting for defensive player of the year, making him perhaps the league's most dominant two-way player since Michael Jordan.
"You look at the guys who have won this award — Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J, Oscar Robertson," James said. "All these guys laid down the path for guys like myself and Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade to name a few."
James credited his teammates, who along with coach Mike Brown were present to see him accept the award, for raising their games in the Cavaliers' best season ever.
"Individual accolades come when team success happens," James said. "You look at those 14 guys over there, I got the award because of them. They put in the work."
At 24 years, 106 days on the final day of the regular season, James is the youngest player to win the award since Moses Malone (24 years, 16 days) in 1978-79. Wes Unseld was 23 when he won it in 1968-69.
"I'm 24 years old. To be up here and win this MVP award, I never thought it would happen this fast. I always dreamed about celebrating championships with teammates," James said.
"It takes a lot of sweat," said Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry. "I'm sure he did a lot of sweating right here. I've been fortunate enough to watch him sweat the past four years when no one else was around. I just want to acknowledge that and give it a round of applause."
James vied all season for MVP honors with Bryant and Wade. The three played on the U.S. gold medalist Olympic team last summer and seemed to upstage each other nightly.
"He deserved it," Wade said. "I said all year, I thought LeBron was the MVP of this league. He's a guy who every year is going to be in that conversation. ... He showed it all year, especially with his team's success."
Focused right from the start, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James sharpened his already formidable skills this season.
He started a career-high 81 games and set personal bests in field-goal (49) and free-throw (79) percentages as well as blocks (93). James became the second player to post five straight seasons of at least 27 points, six rebounds and six assists. The other is Robertson, whose game is the one to which James' is most often compared.
James nearly averaged a triple-double — 32 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists — as the top-seeded Cavaliers breezed through the first round of the playoffs, sweeping the Detroit Pistons in four games. Cleveland will host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 on Tuesday.
James received the award at the school where he won three state basketball championships and became a Sports Illustrated cover subject at 17 years old. He announced plans to skip college in the Fighting Irish's quaint gym and recently filmed a "60 Minutes" interview there, where his retired No. 23 jersey hangs on a wall.
A few days after the Cavaliers were eliminated from last year's playoffs by Boston, James got back in the gym.
Despite scoring 45 points in the finale, James didn't feel he had done enough. So he went to work. He spent hours at the Cavaliers' training facility working on his jump shot. He practiced finishing at the rim with his left hand, making him nearly impossible to stop inside.
James also began lifting weights like never before, adding muscle to his considerable frame. Then, once he began working out with the Olympic team, James aimed to refine his defensive game and became an elite stopper, often guarding the other team's best player — regardless of position.
"His leaping ability with his strength and explosion, he's by himself," said Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent, who spent most of last summer working with James. "We don't have anyone in the league like him. Baseline to baseline he has to be the fastest or one of the fastest guys ever, and he can do it with the ball.
"And then once he gets there, his jumping is up there — maybe by himself. That combination along with his mental attitude and aggressiveness make him unguardable."