BEIJING (AP) Barely used in the 2004 Olympics, LeBron James has emerged four years later as the leader of one of the great teams in U.S. Olympic history.
"More than any player here, his growth as a person on and off the floor, in my opinion, is No. 1," USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said before the Americans practiced on Saturday at Beijing Normal University. "He's proclaimed himself the leader of this team, and that says a lot about who he is."
In Athens four years ago, James, then 19 years old, did not start for a team that lost three games - more than the U.S. had lost in the previous 14 Olympics combined. James averaged 5.4 points per game and spent much of the tournament watching his underachieving teammates from the bench.
James has played a much bigger role in Beijing: he's been perhaps the Americans' best player as they have rolled to seven lopsided victories on their way to Sunday's gold medal game against Spain.
James' 15.7 points and 24.3 minutes per game lead the team. He also has 27 assists - one fewer than team leader Chris Paul, a point guard.
James is also dominating on the defensive end, where the U.S. has been dismantling its opponents. His seven blocks are the most on the team and 16 steals are tied for the lead. On the down side, his 14 turnovers lead the team.
Asked to describe the difference in his game between 2004 and now, James replied, "I'm just a better basketball player - mentally, physically, emotionally. Every game I go out there may be my last. I approach it that way."
James also said he's been enjoying the Olympic experience more than he did in Athens, when the U.S. was jeered. This time, James and his teammates have been the darlings of the crowds at the basketball venue.
"It's been head and shoulders better than 2004, just the whole experience," James said. "I think just being here in Beijing and the fans accepting us, and then us really coming together and knowing what it takes to be an Olympian, knowing what it means to represent our country. It's made it that much more special."
In Athens, the U.S. was sequestered on a cruise ship, but the Americans often seemed rudderless.
"We didn't have a leader," James said. "We just weren't a good team, honestly. We got to the semifinals just because of our individual abilities. It's a totally different feel now."
Perhaps that's because James has become the leader - a role he didn't expect to fill when he answered Colangelo's call to make a three-year commitment to the national program.
"When I signed for the three-year commitment, I signed to be a part of something that was going to be special," James said. "But I didn't know I was going to be a leader of a team of this caliber. So I've accepted that."
On a celebrity-laden roster, James is the unifying voice. Before every game, James speaks to his teammates before they take the floor. He said he doesn't pick a theme or write down his thoughts before he speaks.
"It just comes straight off the top of my head," James said. "Honestly, it's just trying to get guys ready, and seize the moment that we're in and understand that this is bigger than just us as individuals.
"I never set on what I'm going to say," James said. "It just kind of happens."
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has watched James mature since the 2006 world championship, when he was so versatile that he essentially became the U.S. point guard as the tourney progressed.
"I thought he was a great young player," Krzyzewski said. "Now he's a great player. You didn't know he was going to be the leader. He's a terrific leader. He's one of the best leaders I've been around."
Now James is one game away from leading the U.S. back to the top of the medal platform. The Americans merely need to beat Spain - a team they annihilated 119-82 in pool play - to bring home their first gold medal since 2000.
"Being a part of the game on Sunday is the biggest thing for me, ever," James said after the U.S. whipped Argentina 101-81 in the semifinals on Friday night. "When I got to the (NBA) finals and I thought that was big, but winning an NBA championship would never compare to winning a gold medal for my country."