By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - LeBron James finally captured an elusive National Basketball Association title to cap a year where he silenced his critics and shared the spotlight with some unlikely players.
"Linsanity" became one of the new buzzwords in the NBA while a collegiate player took a sledgehammer to the record books and the Los Angeles Lakers made a blockbuster trade that rekindled memories of the team's "Showtime" era.
James, long considered the NBA's heir apparent to Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, finally delivered a performance worthy of that status with a championship in his ninth season, followed by a gold medal with the United States at the London Olympics.
A dominant force on the court, James had already earned the NBA's scoring title, Most Valuable Player honors and All-Star nods, but it took an elusive title, MVP honors for the regular season and NBA Finals to prove his detractors wrong.
The self proclaimed 'King James' became a player many NBA fans love to hate after going on national television in 2010 to announce his much-publicized move to Miami, but there is no denying his status as one of the game's greatest players.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a basketball player," James said after winning the NBA title in June, beating Oklahoma City in the finals. "You just put a lot of hard work into it and you hope that one day it will pay off for you."
Basketball's marquee names were forced to share the limelight with undrafted Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin, who went from an unknown to an overnight sensation after being thrust into the New York Knicks' starting lineup in February.
Lin burst onto the public consciousness after a masterful series of dynamic displays, scoring at least 20 points in nine of 10 games during a season-high seven-game win streak for the Knicks that sparked the "Linsanity" craze around the globe.
Crowds at New York's Madison Square Garden held an array of pun signs declaring "To Lin-finity and Beyond," "The Sky's the LINit" and "LINCREDIBLE," while a mid-February game in Toronto had one spectator holding a "By my VaLINtine" sign.
Lin's incredible run was undone by a late-season injury but that did not stop Time Magazine from naming him as one of the world's 100 most influential people. He was the only basketball player on a list that included President Barack Obama and billionaire investor Warren Buffet.
At the London Games, a star-studded American team led by James were one of the hottest favorites but were tested by an inspired Spain team before prevailing 107-100 in the gold-medal game to retain their Olympic title.
The victory capped a remarkable run for James, who was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, an award whose previous winners include boxer Muhammad Ali, golfer Jack Nicklaus and swimmer Michael Phelps.
It also put the finishing touches on an American sweep of basketball gold as the U.S. women collected their fifth consecutive Olympic gold, solidifying the country's dominance in a sport that has become much more competitive since active NBA players first participated in the Olympics in 1992.
The Lakers were the biggest story during the NBA's offseason after landing Dwight Howard in a 12-player trade that rekindled memories of the team's "Showtime" era from 1979-1989 with Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Howard, a three-time defensive player of the year, joined a Lakers team that was already bursting with talent in the form of Kobe Bryant and Spain's Pau Gasol and still revelling in the acquisition of two-time league MVP Steve Nash a month earlier.
The massive trade immediately bolstered the Lakers championship credentials, a welcome development for a franchise that has suffered two straight early playoff exits since winning a 16th NBA title in 2010.
But despite the formidable Lakers lineup, the team stumbled out of the gate and their head coach was fired after a 1-4 start to the 2012-13 NBA as players were unable to grasp his new offensive system.
Some of the year's top stories even came from outside the professional ranks as Jack Taylor, a sophomore guard at Iowa's Grinnell College, shattered the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) scoring record with a 138-point performance in a Division III game.
The 22-year-old guard from Iowa's Grinnell College, drew national attention for his performance, which shattered the previous record of 113 points set in 1954.
"That's crazy," said five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, "I don't care what level you're at, you score 138 points, it's pretty insane."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Julian Linden)