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Sportsperson of the Year: LeBron – True king of 2020

DM168

DM168 Year in Review

Sportsperson of the Year: LeBron – True king of 2020

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 11: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on October 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
By Craig Ray
02 Jan 2021 0

These are the brightest sports stars of the year. Despite the limitations of lockdown, the delays and disappointments of Covid-related chaos – Olympic Games, anyone? – these four athletes not only upped their world-class performances to entertain and inspire us, but also became voices of hope in a world gone mad.  Yanga Sibembe tots up these heroes’ scorecards

First published by Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper

The Most Valuable Player is … LeBron James. The 36-year-old has heard that phrase before during his 17-year National Basketball Association (NBA) career.

And he heard it again in 2020 when, for the fourth time, he was named MVP in the finals of the NBA Championships. This, along with his 16 All-Star team appearances, four season MVP awards and four NBA titles – the latest coming with the Los Angeles Lakers in Covid-hit 2020.

Ending his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers in his illustrious career, James joined the Lakers in 2018, as a free agent.

The Los Angeles-based team had missed the playoffs on only five occasions in the first 65 years of their existence. In the 2017/18 season, they made it five years in a row by not reaching the post-regular-season spectacle.

When James joined the team following the end of yet another disappointing season with one of the most successful sides in NBA history, the Lakers expected the perennial winner to make them championship contenders again and steer them to their first final since 2010.

But that hope quickly evaporated as James was ravaged by injuries throughout the 2018/19 season.

The Lakers once again failed to make the playoffs, with their knight in shining armour missing a chunk of the season owing to his injury troubles.

“It’s not what we signed up for. Throughout the year, things happened. Suspensions, injuries, things of that nature. And just not being able to play sustainable basketball for 48 minutes,” said James after his side missed the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

“But you don’t even try to wrap your head around it, you just keep pushing. Just try to get better tonight, move on to tomorrow, and go from there,” he added.

“Playoffs are never promised. You’ve got to come out and work. For me, personally, you just continue to put the work in and see what you can do to help.”

Phoenix rising

Cometh the man, cometh the hour. Indeed, he continued pushing and putting in the work and, in the 2019/20 season, “King James” finally delivered.

He put the disappointments of the previous season aside and led the Lakers to their 17th overall championship crown, the joint highest in the NBA, alongside the Boston Celtics.

Granted, the Lakers were not overly reliant on James as they marched to the championship. Players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and, of course, Anthony Davis also starred along the way.

Still, James, at 35 years old, averaged 28 points and 10 rebounds a game during this championship run.

Additionally, he finished with the most assists in a season for the first time in his career. He ended the 2019/20 season with 684 assists from 67 games, at an average of 10 a game.

More importantly, his leadership qualities on and off the court shone throughout the season.

After suspending the season in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the NBA resumed play in a controlled environment in July. The rest of the season was played in Disney World, Florida.

The Milwaukee Bucks, the team which were the favourites for the crown in 2020 and the form team before the abrupt halting of play, found life difficult in the bio-secure environment or “bio-bubble”.

In contrast, the Lakers came into their own, with James the chief protagonist in galvanising his teammates in a situation that was less than ideal for playing basketball.

The Lakers have since rewarded the point guard, who will turn 36 at the end of December 2020, with a lucrative two-year contract extension, which will see him pocket $85-million (around R1,28-billion) over the two years.

“LeBron James is a transcendent basketball player, and human being,” said Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka on the deal.

“LeBron put his trust in the Lakers in 2018, and now this contract extension paves the way for LeBron to further solidify his legacy as an all-time Lakers great. We could not be more honoured by this commitment.”

Social justice warrior

Over and above his achievements on the court in 2020, he was also front and centre of the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement within the NBA.

The death of George Floyd might have put the BLM movement back in the news once more, but the shooting of James Blake by police was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Huge protests erupted across the United States.

James and the rest of the Lakers joined a Bucks-instigated strike in the 2020 playoffs following the shooting of Blake.

There were fears that the season would not be concluded, having already been hampered by Covid-19. But positive talks between the NBA and players convinced them to continue playing.

“A lot of people don’t have individual platforms. And when they go home, a lot of people get muted, unfortunately. When we’re here, on this stage, I think there is no way you can do that,” said James in the aftermath of the strike.

Moreover, he used his voice to convince young people, and communities at large, that were not happy with the America they were living in to go out and vote for change in the 2020 elections.

That is the power of one of the best athletes ever, and an athlete who undoubtedly was colossal on and off the court in 2020. DM168

And the Runners Up are:

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton just missed the top spot: he came into 2020 with winning momentum, as opposed to James and his underperforming Lakers.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN – NOVEMBER 29: Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on November 29, 2020 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The Briton had already won three Formula One World Championships on the trot, and his team were favourites to maintain that momentum. In 2020, he made it four consecutive titles, with Mercedes clinching their seventh in a row.

Hamilton is one of the best to ever step into a racing car. This year, he broke many long-standing records in F1, including one that seemed unattainable: he equalled Michael Schumacher’s haul of seven world titles.

He also holds the records for the most wins, pole positions, podium finishes, points finishes and overall career points.

Like James, Hamilton was at the forefront of the BLM movement this year, calling for transformation and more opportunities for black drivers in F1. “This year, I’ve been driven not just by my desire to win on the track, but by a desire to help push our sport and our world to become more diverse and inclusive. I promise you I am not going to stop fighting for change. We have a long way to go but I will continue to push for equality within our sport, and within the greater world we live in,” Hamilton said in a social media post.

Robert Lewandowski

Bayern Munich were a tour de force in 2019/20, bulldozing anything and everything in their way. They won a treble, clinching the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Uefa Champions League.

STUTTGART, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 28: Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between VfB Stuttgart and FC Bayern Muenchen at Mercedes-Benz Arena on November 28, 2020 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The focal point of that destructive form? Robert Lewandowski.

The Pole has steadily polished his finishing ability over the years, to become the best striker currently active and one of the best strikers in the history of football.

This year he was named Uefa Men’s Player of the Year, as well as Champions League Forward of the Season. This was after he finished as top scorer (15), as well as in the top three assist providers in the European competition. He also scored highly in the German league for the third time, with 34 goals in just 31 games. It was the most-ever scored by a non-German within a single Bundesliga campaign.

Sophia Popov

The 27-year-old, who was born in the US but was raised and still lives in Germany, became one of golf’s all-time Cinderella stories in 2020.

Popov, ranked number 304 in the world at the time, claimed her maiden major title at the women’s British Open in August. She finished two strokes clear of Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura, beating favourites such as Inbee Park to the title.

BELLEAIR, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 21: Sophia Popov of Germany hits her tee shot on the third hole during round 3 of the Pelican Women’s Championship at Pelican Golf Club on November 21, 2020 in Belleair, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

With that victory, which earned her a cool $4.5-million (about R67.6-million), Popov more than quintupled her career earnings. In the process, she also became Germany’s first female major winner.

“There has been a lot of struggle over the last six years and I was just glad I was able to overcome it,” Popov said after her victory, adding that she almost quit in 2019. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick ‘n Pay Smartshoppers at these Pick ‘n Pay stores.

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