After tumultuous first year in Miami, LeBron returns a new man
LeBron James locked himself in his house after the Heat lost in the Finals
He rued disappointing his teammates, but after two weeks he got to work
He's honed his post game and is finishing one of the best seasons in history
This story appears in the April 30, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
LeBron James sinks into a restaurant booth on the first floor of the Westin in Jersey City, N.J., and orders a chamomile tea. The sun is setting on a Saturday in the middle of April, and through the windows he can see cars snaking toward the Holland Tunnel, beckoned by the lights of New York City. "For me," says James, "this is chillin' time." It is the travel day between two back-to-backs, four games in four cities, and he is swaddled in black sweats and a red Heat baseball cap with a flat black brim. His voice is hoarse but he says he doesn't have a sore throat. He prepares the tea as if it is a science project, lifting a small jar of honey and slowly pouring it into a teaspoon he holds over the mug, until the honey is about to overflow. He lowers the spoon and gently stirs, then squeezes three lemon wedges into the tea and sucks the rinds. It is suggested that lemons are bad for his teeth. "That's OK," James says, easing his massive shoulders against the back of the booth. "My teeth are already terrible." He smiles wide enough to reveal almost every one.
Tranquil moments are few in the chaotic life of LeBron James. He steals them when he can, sitting on his patio in Coconut Grove, Fla., and admiring the waves on Biscayne Bay, biking across Rickenbacker Causeway with friends to Key Biscayne, watching basketball on television and flipping the channel when the announcers utter his name. Forward Shane Battier, in his first year with Miami, sounds as if he could lead a seminar at Duke deconstructing the James phenomenon. "He is a global icon, a basket-ball monolith, the most prevalent and recognizable athlete of our generation," says Battier. "And he's one of a kind, because he's the first to rise to prominence in the Information Age, which is why he's such a fascinating sociological observation. He's accountable every single day for every single thing, from how he plays to what he tweets to what he says in the pre- and the postgame interviews. He has a camera and a microphone on him wherever he goes, and then when he [goes out to] dinner, there's a camera phone on him. This is what he signed up for. There is a price to pay. He understands that. But I don't think a lot of guys could handle it."
|SI senior writer Lee Jenkins discusses his cover story on LeBron James.|
James isn't just coping, he is completing one of the finest all-around seasons in the NBA's modern era. At week's end he was averaging 27.1 points with 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 53.1 percent. Larry Bird never shot 53.1 percent. His player efficiency rating of 30.6 leads the league by more than four points, and he is holding opposing small forwards to an anemic efficiency rating of 10.4, according to 82games.com. The 6-foot-8 James is the Heat's best ball handler, passer and post scorer, but he also covers everyone from point guards to centers, sometimes in the same game. "We are asking him to play at an MVP level," says coach Erik Spoelstra, "and at a Defensive Player of the Year level." James is attempting fewer three-pointers than ever while making them at a higher clip (36.2 percent). He is grabbing more rebounds in part because he is spending more time inside. His game log is a litany of near triple doubles. The NBA has not witnessed such a balanced and prolific individual assault since Michael Jordan in 1988--89, two years before his first title.
Of course, James did not move to Miami and incur a nation's wrath so he could enhance his efficiency rating. He went for rings, presumably fistfuls of them. "No, not a fistful," James says. "I don't need a fistful. But I need one. I need to get one first. I have short goals -- to get better every day, to help my teammates every day -- but my only ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship. It's all that matters. I dream about it. I dream about it all the time, how it would look, how it would feel. It would be so amazing." As the 27-year-old James leans forward in the booth, the playoffs are two weeks away and still he is logging 35 minutes a night, even though it's clear the Heat will likely be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and many of his peers are resting. "It's my choice," James says. "I'm looking for opportunities to get better, and if I sit out, I can't get better. This is a no-excuse season for me. I've put everything into this season."
On the night last June when the Mavericks beat the Heat in Miami for the NBA championship, James drove to his house in Coconut Grove and did not come out for two weeks. "I couldn't watch TV because every channel -- doesn't matter if it was the Cartoon Channel -- was talking about me and the Heat," James says. "On the Cooking Channel it was like, 'So we're going to make a turkey burger gourmet today, and LeBron James failed!'" He wanted to listen to music, but hip-hop didn't feel appropriate, so he queued up the old-school playlist on his iPod and set it in the dock in his bedroom. He wallowed to the strains of Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack. Every once in a while his mother, Gloria James, or his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, ducked in for a pep talk. "I didn't hear what they wanted to say," James says. "I didn't care what they were talking about."
James quietly reflected on his season in the crosshairs, which started with the television special at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., and will forever be remembered for the words Take my talents. He was not the first basketball player to use that line. In 1996, in suburban Philadelphia, a precocious 17-year-old sporting a suit and sunglasses said in a press conference that he would "take my talents to the NBA." His name was Kobe Bryant. But the rancor that followed James to South Beach was unique in sports history. "As long as you act in accordance with public perception, there are no problems," says Battier. "Like if Charles Barkley gets arrested for speeding, that's not cool, but everyone seems to understand because, Hey, that's Charles. People felt like they really knew LeBron, and when he did something that went against the grain, it shocked everybody, and the public didn't really know how to deal with that."