Meet the rejuvenated, revitalized LeBron (cont.)
"I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person," James says. "I got caught up in everything that was going on around me, and I felt like I had to prove something to people, and I don't know why. Everything was tight, stressed." In Cleveland, where he played seven seasons, James had the loudest laugh in the locker room. He used to bellow "Waffles!" from the back of the bus when he was hungry. He amused himself by simply transposing someone's initials. He was JeBron Lames. But in Miami, he adopted what he calls "the villain mind-set," stacking his anger on top of everyone else's. He skulked across the court, stone-faced, a glower replacing the familiar grin. Former Cavaliers coaches watched him on TV and flashed back to Game 1 of the 2007 NBA Finals in San Antonio, when they saw him seething during introductions. "That's not good," they told one another. The Spurs swept, and James sputtered for much of the series. Jubilance has always been a staple of his game.
There was only one person who could talk James out of the house. "This is what you love to do and you've been doing it at a high level for a long time, and you don't really need to change anything," James told himself. "Just get back to what you do and how you play, smiling all the time and trying to dominate at the highest level. Do it with joy and do it with fun and remember that not too long ago this was a dream for you. Playing in the NBA was the dream. Don't forget that again. Just go out and improve."
The first thing he did was get a haircut. "You think my beard is long now, it was up to here," says James, pointing to the top of his cheekbones. "I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway." He flew home to Ohio -- yes, his home is still in Ohio -- where he biked on his favorite off-road trail, as many as 70 miles through the hills between his house in Bath and Cleveland. He trained with his first coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High, Keith Dambrot, who had barely worked with him since he was a rookie. "A lot of people are intimidated by LeBron, but he wants the truth," says Dambrot, now the coach at Akron. "He's not too big to take criticism. I told him, 'You have to do more things you don't want to do. You have to do more offensive and defensive rebounding, moving without the ball, all the basics that made you great going back to the beginning.'"
After the Heat acquired Cleveland State point guard Norris Cole on draft night, James invited him to Bath to work out. On a table in James's living room was a book about leadership called "The Ant and the Elephant," a gift from a friend. James is not much of a reader, but he opted for the book over TV. "It's about an ant who is trying to find his way to this great place, this oasis, but the only way to get there is to train an elephant who wants to get there too," James says. "At one point the ant is on the elephant's back and they are walking through the sand and there is a pack of lions, and the elephant scares the lions off. The ant is like, I have the toughest friend in the world. But later that day the elephant sees a mouse, and he gets scared and runs away. The ant can't understand how this big creature could be so dominant over a pack of lions but so scared of a mouse. The ant has to train the elephant to let him know, You are the biggest, baddest thing out here." James pauses for a moment. As a member of a supposed juggernaut, he can relate to the ant. And as a 250-pound force of nature, he can relate to the elephant. "I took a lot from that," he says.
James finally summoned the courage to watch the Finals and studied every game except the first one, his best. He was a wallflower in the fourth quarter of Games 4 and 5, scoring two points combined. "I make impact plays," James says. "I make game-changing plays. I'm not saying I didn't make any in that series, but I didn't make nearly enough. I'm used to making double-digit impact plays per game, and there were a few games I had single-digit impact plays. It was time for me to get back to the fundamentals."
For years coaches have harped on James to move off the perimeter and into the post, where he can pass out of double teams or bulldoze to the hoop. Dallas provided the motivation. "I didn't do it because people told me I needed to do it," James says. "I was looking at myself thinking, How can I get better and ultimately make our team better? The post game was something I needed to work on." He flew to Houston and spent three days with former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, videotaping the workouts. Olajuwon showed James variations of the Dream Shake to use against bigger defenders, smaller defenders and when the shot clock is winding down. James uploaded the video onto his computer and took it everywhere he traveled -- England, Spain and China -- repeating the footwork in individual sessions with his private trainer.
James also believed his ball handling was deficient, so he went to Kentucky to work with Brandon Weems, a high school teammate and Wildcats assistant director of basketball operations. James practiced with two basketballs at a time while Weems shadowed him as he dribbled, leaning against him and smacking his wrists and hands.
"The greats always stay uncomfortable," says Spoelstra. "LeBron is no different. He came back looking like a new player in terms of his offensive skill set." James traditionally shot three-pointers with the guards after practice. Suddenly, he was bodying up with the centers. "If I'm going to work more in the post, I have to give up something," James says. "I had to decide, Is it the mid-range? Is it the fadeaway? To be more efficient, it had to be the three, because I'm more effective in the paint." James hung around AmericanAirlines Arena for hours with assistant David Fizdale, honing two basic power moves on either block: one to the middle and one to the baseline. When a second defender arrives, he sidearms the ball to the open man, quick as a shortstop turning a double play. "Everything we did was about being good at less, great at more," Fizdale says. They even tinkered with James's shot, noticing too many instances when he fell away from the basket. He repeated hundreds of open and pull-up jumpers with his chest squarely over his feet.
In Milwaukee in February, against a defense that typically dares him to let fly from outside, James made 16 of 21 shots and only one from more than 15 feet. The next day, in Indiana, the Heat played its third road game in three nights, and James took a taxi to the arena four hours before tip-off. He was in uniform and on the court when the first team bus arrived, and he went for 23 points in a Miami win. But ask James to recount his finest performance of the season, and he refers to a clunker at home against the Magic in March in which he scored 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting. "I shot horrible," James says. "But it didn't stop me from doing other things." A glance at the box score reveals that he racked up 12 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and a 91--81 win over a team that has caused the Heat trouble. To see the look on his face as he talks about that game -- pure satisfaction despite only 14 points -- is to peek inside his basketball soul.
SI Now: Will Ford 'Team Leader' Aaron Rodgers' return for a playoff push?
SI Now: Have the Bears already decided how much to offer Jay Cutler?