LeBron James still has plenty of haters out there, but if those haters love America, even they should be saddened by the news that the NBA's two-time reigning MVP likely won't don a Team USA jersey ever again in international competition.
James is far and away the best player on the planet, and his departure from Team USA means the squad will be a bit worse when the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics roll around. Sure, even without James, Team USA will likely enter those Olympics as the favorite behind the leadership of Kevin Durant. But not having James around will make things a smidge harder against increasingly stiff competition from the rest of the world.
If James truly is finished as a member of Team USA, he goes down as the current all-time leading scorer in U.S. men's basketball history. James also became the first American to deliver a triple-double in Olympic play in 2012.
However, things weren't always dandy when it came to James and the Olympics. 2004 was a debacle and James' poor behavior in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics almost kept him off the team. Luckily for Team USA, he got his act together.
So let's take a look back at James' best and worst moments of his decorated Olympic career.
2004 Athens Olympics
While James had only been in the NBA one season at this point, he still had never known anything but being the star player on the team. In Athens, James was not the star, and head coach Larry Brown said that the youngster was not 100 percent receptive to reduced minutes.
James spent much of those Olympics on the bench, averaging just 5.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game. Team USA failed to win gold in Athens, becoming the first American team to do that since they began using professionals.
James certainly wasn't happy with his lack of playing time, and this was just the beginning of some of the negative feelings harbored by some toward James.
2008 Beijing Olympics
While there was a happy ending, James' behavior in the 2004 Olympics and several years after almost cost him a spot on the 2008 team. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski had the details:
From Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski to managing director Jerry Colangelo to NBA elders, the issue of James' immaturity and downright disrespectfulness had become a consuming topic on the march to the Olympics. The course of history could've changed dramatically, because there was a real risk that James wouldn't be brought to Beijing based on fears his monumental talents weren't worth the daily grind of dealing with him.
Woj had much more on James' transgressions, and while some of it may seem over the top, it's clear that James was a pain in the rear end.
Of course, James began to grow up, which would prove to be a boon for Team USA. James averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists as the U.S. went undefeated on their way to a gold medal. In the gold-medal clincher against Spain, he had 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists while shooting 6-of-9 from the field.
Along the way, James racked up his fair share of typical breathtaking highlights. Here, James puts poor Chris Kaman on a poster:
James is also known for his vicious blocks, and he had several of those in Beijing:
This was only the beginning of James' Olympic dominance, and it also helped set the stage for "The Decision" in the summer of 2010.
2012 London Olympics
James followed up his brilliant 2008 Olympics with more greatness in 2012, helping Team USA to another gold medal and capping off a year that saw him win an NBA MVP, the NBA championship and a gold medal. The only other player to achieve such a feat? Michael Jordan.
James averaged 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in London, and he took over games when Team USA needed him most. In a tight win over Lithuania, it was James who made the big plays down the stretch. In the quarterfinals against Australia, James notched a triple-double of 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. And in the gold-medal game against Spain, James had 19 points and several clutch baskets in the final minutes.
We've seen him soar over international defenders:
Track down NBA talent to erase fast break opportunities:
And thread incredible passes through dense defensive alignments:
After the 107-100 win over Spain to clinch the gold medal for Team USA, LeBron relished the difficulty of the squad's Olympic journey. For a superstar that often makes things look easy in the face of consistently outrageous expectations, it's instructive to remember that the struggle is part of what has helped to push LeBron to get better throughout his career (quotes via SI.com):
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We didn't want it easy," James said. "A lot of teams have won gold easy. We didn't want it that way. We're a competitive team and we love when it gets tight. That's when our will and determination kind of shows. It was the same way in '08."
If this is truly the end of LeBron's tenure with Team USA, basketball fans should take comfort in fact that he offered up his summers during his prime years to make his mark on the international level. For all of his individual NBA accomplishments, James' time with Team USA provided us all with the golden opportunity to see him take a team loaded with superstars and assume his natural role as a brilliant facilitator and play maker.
For all of the usual angst and outrage over the relative strength of his supporting cast in the NBA, the Olympic experience washed those issues away and helped the world focus on the supreme talent of a truly unique superstar. Team USA has always been the perfect context in which to fully appreciate the talent of LeBron James. But at age 28, he may finally need to step back and save his body during the summer months to give him the best chance at adding more NBA titles to his resume. Even in the wake of the recent reports, let's not forget that if the relationship has truly ended, it happened on a high note: