Meet the rejuvenated, revitalized LeBron (cont.)
James started playing in an Akron rec league when he was eight years old and there were only five games on the schedule. He was taller than everybody, so he wanted to rebound, and faster than everybody, so he also wanted to push the ball. When defenses keyed on him, he passed, and he relished that too. His team inevitably went 5-0, and at the postseason banquet, coach Frankie Walker would give an MVP trophy to every-body on the roster. "I didn't understand it," James says. Clearly, he was the MVP. "You're going to be in the limelight a lot," Walker told him. "You have to remember to bring your teammates with you."
An only child raised by a single mother, James yearned for family, and he called his teammates brothers. He still does. In 2009 he wrote a 256-page book, Shooting Stars, about his teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Being a good teammate -- a good brother -- means finding the one with the best shot. "If two guys are on you, a teammate is open," James says. "It's four against three, easy math." When he was a junior, his team lost the state championship after he dished to an open man in the final seconds, but his arithmetic has never changed. In Cleveland, coaches tried to explain that four is not always superior to three, because a bad shot from him is better than a good shot from almost anyone else. He couldn't agree. "He has to make the right play every time," says Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt, who used to be with the Cavs. James recoils when he sees a player rise up for a long jumper over three defenders. He beams when his 7-year-old son, LeBron Jr., dishes to a forgotten kid.
In Miami, teammates have taken on even greater significance for James. "In the crazy world he lives in, this is really the only bastion of normalcy he gets," says Battier of the Heat locker room. "In here we bust his balls and talk about his beard and his chin and all that stuff. But we say it out of love while everyone else says it out of spite. He knows how much he means to us, and he takes that responsibility very seriously -- maybe too seriously." In Utah in March, James scored 35 points with 10 rebounds and six assists, but instead of launching the game-winner, he passed to an open Udonis Haslem, who missed. In the All-Star Game he scored 36 points, but when Bryant challenged him to take a potential game-winning shot, he tried to dish to an open Dwyane Wade; the pass was stolen.
Jordan would not have six championships if he didn't kick out to John Paxson and Steve Kerr, but crunch time is the one period where James has faltered this season. Stars generally misfire more often at the end of games, but according to 82games.com, James's shooting percentage had fallen to 38.6 percent in clutch situations. "It's not the pressure of not wanting to fail," James says. "It's the pressure of not wanting to let your teammates down. I hate letting my teammates down. I know I'm not going to make every shot. Sometimes I try to make the right play, and if it results in a loss, I feel awful. I don't feel awful because I have to answer questions about it. I feel awful in that locker room because I could have done something more to help my teammates win." Heat players and coaches have repeatedly told James not to worry so much about disappointing them.
Like Peyton Manning, James can remember minuscule details of plays he made years ago and details of the defense against him. This season he has spent more time scanning his vast mental catalog for fourth-quarter flourishes: the 25 straight points he scored in Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals; the buzzer-beating three he sank against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals; the duel he won with Wade in the '06 regular season when they seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E. "Everyone needs a place they go when things aren't going well," James says. "Maybe it's something great you did in school, or a moment when you were with your family on vacation. I go back to those games and think, This is you."
Last New Year's Eve, James was truly nervous. "I was sweating so much," he says. He had called several of his old coaches, quizzing them for advice, asking them if he was ready. In the middle of a party at a Miami restaurant, surrounded by friends and family, he dropped to one knee and proposed to Brinson, his girlfriend and the mother of his two sons. (Bryce Maximus is four.) "Just like how I needed to take that next step as a player, I also needed to take that next step as a man," James says. "It wasn't like a weight off my shoulders, but it felt like a fresh start."
James is the most popular current American athlete on Twitter, with more than 4 million followers (just ahead of the Dalai Lama), and he tells them when Brinson thinks he is a "poopoo head" for not going to the movies, when he wakes from a "dream my hairline was back!" and when he "fell short again!" in a loss. He writes the tweets himself, and reads the replies, even the ones that sting. "Twitter can be an angry place," James says. "But I don't think people mean no harm. Look, I wish it wasn't just us in this restaurant. I wish I could be here with all my fans and we could all sit down together and have a nice dinner tonight. Twitter is a way to try to do that."
James is emerging from the funnel cloud that trapped him for much of the past two years. He already admitted that he regrets the television show announcing his departure from Cleveland ("I would change that," he said) and speculated about an eventual return. He made a rare political statement after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, organizing a picture with his teammates in the lobby of a Detroit hotel, all of them draped in hooded sweatshirts. And he made an impromptu statement in the middle of the night at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, when several servicemen approached for a picture with the Heat, and the team's security detail shooed them away. "Hey, hey," James said, according to The Oklahoman. "Any of these military guys can take a picture with us." He ordered his teammates, some of whom were half asleep, to hit their feet. "I'm not perfect," James says. "I know that. I'm just trying to go in the right direction."
There seems to be only one way for a modern athlete to earn redemption from his sins -- even if the biggest sin was an unfortunate bit of marketing -- and it includes tears and trophies and confetti. James does have a new marketing company, Fenway Sports Group, but he is no more assured of a championship than he was a year ago. Miami still has no depth, no center and a tendency to play hot potato at the end of games. Wade and James are closers often cast as setup men. "At times it's difficult because we're both used to being in that position, and now it's split," Wade says. "But it's something that we want to work." The Heat is 14-1 without Wade this season.
As much as James craves a championship, he is still only 27, and he knows Jordan did not win his first until he was 28. Oscar Robertson was 32. Jerry West was 33. James believes deeply in karma, that the Heat lost last year for a reason, and whatever happens this spring will be for a reason also. He views his whole life that way. "My father wasn't around when I was a kid," James says, "and I used to always say, 'Why me? Why don't I have a father? Why isn't he around? Why did he leave my mother?' But as I got older I looked deeper and thought, 'I don't know what my father was going through, but if he was around all the time, would I be who I am today?' It made me grow up fast. It helped me be more responsible. Maybe I wouldn't be sitting here right now."
James says he has no relationship with his father and no NBA mentor, either. He leans on a rapper, Jay-Z, to provide the perspective he sometimes loses. "He grew up in the inner city, in [Brooklyn's] Marcy projects, hearing, 'You'll be a statistic, you'll never make it out,'" James says. "Now we're sitting here in New Jersey, and he owns part of the [Nets]. He tells me, 'Remember where you came from, what got you here and why you love this game so much.'"
He can watch the waves or ride the bike, but in the end his sanctuary remains the same. "Tomorrow, one o'clock, basketball court," James says. "That's my peace. That's my home away from home. That's what I know I can do. For that moment in time I don't have to answer any questions. I'm just there with my teammates and my coaches, playing for the people. That's where I can let everything else go."
The next day, at Madison Square Garden, James sings along to the hip-hop in the locker room. He dances as he stretches. At 1 p.m., he is booed during the national anthem, and again during introductions. He is booed when he turns his ankle in the third quarter, crumpling to the court after stepping on a fan's foot, and booed when he is helped up.
The following night, at the Prudential Center in Newark, he is booed more. But with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Heat trailing by five, a force of nature appears. James is doing that thing he does, dribbling at the three-point line and then taking a few steps back as if to collect steam. "When he does that," says Nets forward DeShawn Stevenson, "it's like standing in front of a train." He attacks, one unstoppable surge after another, until he has scored 17 consecutive points, no field goals coming from more than five feet from the basket. The fans in Jersey are standing and cheering, snapping pictures with their camera phones, chanting M-V-P! as loudly as the fans in Miami.
When the Heat has won 101--98, James finds Jay-Z's nephew in the courtside seats and slips his headband around the boy's neck. He removes his Nikes and hands those over as well. He tells the Heat's TV announcers he never thought he would hear MVP chants in an opposing arena again. Still, he will receive a text from Dambrot saying he needs to grab more rebounds.
After the interview, James strolls over, the conversation from Jersey City on his mind. "Does this work?" he asks. He is trying to stifle a smile, but he is showing teeth again. This works. This is you. He walks off in his socks.