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Greatest of the Great

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You can make a case for sports itself as the 2016 Sportsperson of the Year. How many tweets, Instagram posts, GIFs and Vines (RIP!) throughout the year began and ended with that single word?

Kris Jenkins for the win!

Sports.

Leicester City has pulled off the impossible.

Sports.

Cleveland's long championship nightmare is over!

Sports.

The Cubs' long championship nightmare is over!

Every month, it seemed, unlocked a watershed moment, bigger and more dramatic than the previous one, a sort of Russian nesting doll in reverse. Who, last January, would have been so bold as to predict that the Cubs, a team from Cleveland and a 5,000-to-1 long shot in England would win titles? Other, less shocking events—the Olympic excellence of Bolt, Phelps, Ledecky and Biles; a record-tying seventh NASCAR title for Jimmie Johnson—bolstered the argument for this being the Greatest Year in Sports.

In the end we chose just one Sportsperson of the Year, LeBron James. He was not the only athlete to help end a famous title drought. He wasn't even the only one to lead a comeback from a 3--1 deficit to end a famous title drought. He is, however, the only one who did those things to gain more than a ring. In putting the Cavaliers on his back in the NBA Finals, he fulfilled a promise to an entire region, following through on that heartfelt-but-risky vow he made when he returned home after four successful years in Miami.

LeBron certainly did not save Cleveland or Northeast Ohio, but he lifted the area in unmistakable ways. In his cover story, Lee Jenkins dives deep into the transformation of a city's image and the power that sports has to shape how an entire swath of the country views itself. (Aside from Cleveland: City of Champions, is there a more unlikely phrase than J.R. Smith: Clevelander for Life?) This award celebrates Northeast Ohio as much as its favorite son. In a very crowded year of Sportsperson candidates, the connection between an athlete and his community can be fairly described as the tiebreaking vote.

But James lent more to the 2016 sports story than his game. He lent his voice, too—fitting, because this Sportsperson honor, his second, also represents the impact an athlete can have beyond winning rings. SI's Jenkins points this out: When James meets with media, he is willing to weigh in on more than the NBA. It could be something as mundane as the NFL's falling television ratings; increasingly, it's weightier topics, such as Black Lives Matter or the presidential election. James has recognized, and embraced, the platform sports gives him to be as powerful off the court as on it.

Sportsperson is not a political honor. But if 2016 was among the greatest sports years ever, it was also a year to remind us that sports can be about more than, well, sports. Think of the courage of Colin Kaepernick. Think of the proud feminism of Serena Williams. And think of the passing of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest for reasons that only began with his title belts. LeBron James is not Ali—no one is. But like Ali, and in his own way, he wears the mantle of the athlete in full.

That is also the mantle of a Sportsperson.

In a very crowded year of Sportsperson candidates, the connection between athlete and his community can be fairly described as the tiebreaking vote.