- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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He's watched some of Magic Johnson's, Larry Bird's and Kareem Adbul-Jabbar's greatest games on ESPN Classic, he's studied Wilt Chamberlain's and Moses Malone's statistics, and he was awestruck the first time he met and had a conversation with Bill Russell.
It has given him a sense of history of the game that shapes his viewpoint and his aspirations. Right now, one of them is to join that group of Hall of Fame players.
In the final week of his ninth regular season, James has emerged as a strong contender to win his third Most Valuable Player Award. If he wins, he would be just the eighth player in history to win it three times. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to win three at a younger age than James, who turned 27 in December.
James is fully aware of this historical context.
"It would mean a lot, honestly, it would mean a lot," James said. "If I'm able to win it this year it would be very humbling knowing the caliber of guys who have won it three times."
"I remember me being a little, scrawny guy from Akron, Ohio, and watching so many greats either watching live or watching games, knowing and loving the history of the game and seeing the guys who have paved the way for myself. I've always respected that. I've always respected the talent that came before me."
The difference between those players and James, of course, is that all of them had won championships by the time their careers were over. Chamberlain and Malone both won their third MVP in the year they got their first championship.
But that lack of a title to this point may not affect how the voters who select the MVP view James. In a sampling of veteran NBA journalists and broadcasters who vote, none said historical context would play a role on how they would vote on the award this year.
James' case is reasonably strong. He's averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He's also posting career highs in shooting, 3-point shooting and rebounding. The Heat are performing at a slightly higher pace than they did last year in terms of winning percentage. And the team is 11-1 when James plays and Dwyane Wade does not.
"LeBron, to me, is the (MVP) favorite every year," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said last week. "If he doesn't win it, it's because people are tired of voting for him."
James' chief competition appears to be the Thunder's Kevin Durant, who is averaging 27.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists and who had his team leading the West until a recent surge by the Spurs.
Though it is generally recognized as the highest individual honor in the sport, and winning it virtually guarantees a spot in the Hall of Fame, the MVP is a regular-season award. Kobe Bryant has won it only once, but with his five titles will be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. Shaquille O'Neal retired with just one MVP, yet won four titles.
Usually, winning the MVP comes along with championships. In fact only three MVPs have retired without winning a title: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Allen Iverson. Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and James are on the clock.
The title pressure on James, however, does not change whether he is a two-time MVP, a three-time MVP or if he eventually becomes a four-time MVP (only Jordan, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain have done that).
For now, James said, winning the award this year would be significant because of what happened in the 2010-11 season -- not just because of the scrutiny he battled after signing with the Heat but also because he felt he got away from his personality.
At the start of this season James made it a goal to return to playing with more enjoyment instead of the anger and resentment he felt had replaced it during his first season with the Heat. Winning the MVP, James said, would be an indication that he was back to being himself.
"It would be gratifying to know that just one year removed from what I came from," James said.
"I'm just back to playing the way I play the game, with a lot of fun and a lot of joy and just not proving anything to anyone. Last year I felt I had to prove something to people. I have no idea why. But I got to that point and it took me away from why I love the game so much and I why I love the NBA. I got away from that.
"This year I got back to my seven years in Cleveland, my four years in high school and when I first picked up a basketball at age 9. That's why I'm more excited about where I'm at today."
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