It's still up for debate whether LeBron James and Co. are better than Michael Jordan's 1992 Dream Team, but the U.S. basketball team is steamrolling its Olympic competition, racking up a record 156 points in its latest victory against Nigeria. And James has been the engine: Whether leading the entire team to hug First Lady Michelle Obama, or firing ridiculous cross-court bounce passes, he seems a different player from the expedient villain NBA fans have trashed since he took his talents to the Miami Heat. James hasn't been controversy-free at the Olympics: The newly engaged father of two raised eyebrows by inviting gold-medal-winning swimmer Lauren Perdue out for dinner (she reportedly turned him down). Still, James seems to be winning back basketball fans who've been so blindly invested in seeing him fail that they lost sight of his talents. Have the Olympics redeemed him?
Yes. The tide has turned in his favor: "This feels like the summer of LeBron James... when perception changed, the jokes dwindled, and the self-proclaimed King assumed his rightful throne as the best basketball payer on the planet," says Greg Bishop at The New York Times. James has emerged as "the single most important member" of the American team, and has done it not by scoring, but by distributing the ball and filling defensive gaps. Seemingly more comfortable in his own skin, James doesn't mind playing a supporting role. "This summer is when LeBron James grew up."
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He's proving himself as a leader: "For all the bashing he's endured... for receding in major moments, it has to be said that" James has welcomed the responsibility of leadership on the Olympic stage, says Marc Stein at ESPN.com. His teammates have repeatedly praised the tone he sets, and appreciate the fact that he is "happy to pass off the spotlight to Olympic debutants" like Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. His easy leadership style is a welcome change from the high-strung player he had once been.
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However reflexive your hatred for James is, it's hard to root against the national team: "Not even the most diabolical James hater" would want to see him lose at the expense of the country, says Tyler Conway at Bleacher Report. That's why James, once considered a symbol of "everything wrong with today's player," is "in the midst of a reputation resurrection that few thought possible." Fans are "allowed to enjoy watching James play basketball again," and he can complete his redemption by leading Team USA to gold.
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