James won a leading three individual trophies, including male athlete of the year, and shared in another at the 20th annual show celebrating the year's best athletes and moments in sports.
He wasn't on hand to accept because he was in Las Vegas with the rest of the U.S. national team preparing for the upcoming London Olympics.
James outpolled tennis player Novak Djokovic, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in fan voting for male athlete honors. He also won in the championship performance and NBA player categories, while sharing in the best team award, with Juwan Howard and Mike Miller accepting for the Heat.
"He's had a magnifying glass on him since he was 17 years old and I think he's handled himself really, really well," Miller said of James backstage. "Unbelievable teammate, unbelievable father, so those are the most important things. He's just a likeable guy. He's a great basketball player to boot."
Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner won two trophies, including female athlete of the year in which she beat out French Open champion Maria Sharapova, skier Lindsay Vonn and soccer player Abby Wambach.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, who like Griner starred at Baylor, won male college athlete honors. Griner took female college athlete honors for leading the Lady Bears to a 40-0 record and the NCAA championship.
"Just excited. I wouldn't be here without Title IX," Griner said backstage. "Everything is just coming together, and it feels good to be here."
Los Angeles was well represented, with Kings goalie Jonathan Quick winning best NHL player after helping the franchise win its first Stanley Cup title, and Galaxy star David Beckham earning best MLS player honors. The Kings won for best upset after their run to the NHL championship as an eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton won as best MLB player, while Rodgers earned best NFL player honors.
Mario Gutierrez, who rode I'll Have Another to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, won as best jockey.
Skateboarder and snowboarder Shaun White won his fifth consecutive ESPY for male action sports athlete.
Host Rob Riggle of "The Daily Show" and "The Hangover" fame zinged some of the famous faces in his opening monologue.
He touched on the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal in singling out quarterback Drew Brees, who won for record-breaking performance after shattering Dan Marino's single-season passing mark. Brees and the Saints are haggling over his contract with a Monday deadline looming.
"If only the Saints had some sort of fund that they could pull extra cash from to reward people for doing things on the field," Riggle cracked as Brees looked down from his seat, and the crowd roared.
Riggle teased Anthony Davis of Kentucky, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft known for his connected eyebrows. Davis recently trademarked the phrases "Fear the Brow" and "Raise the Brow."
"It looks like two caterpillars just making sweet love on your forehead," Riggle told Davis. "Is that like one of those Mr. Potato Head eyebrows you just take on and off?"
Riggle skewered Jeremy Lin and the "Linsanity" he created playing for the New York Knicks, which won Lin the trophy for breakthrough athlete.
"What a heartwarming story," he said. "It's so refreshing to see a young Asian kid graduate from Harvard, move to New York and make a ton of money."
The Arthur Ashe Courage award went to former Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who revealed her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's last August. She retired in April after 38 years.
Summitt's son, Tyler, escorted her to the stage to accept the trophy from Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who went to college at Tennessee, while the Nokia Theatre crowd stood applauding.
"I am deeply touched," she told the crowd. "I'm going to keep on keepin' on I promise you that."
The Jimmy V Award for Perseverance was given to former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. He is recovering from a spinal cord injury that ended his playing career.
"My dream is to get back on my feet and walk again," he told the audience after a standing ovation. "You can best believe that I'll never give up."