Sportsman: LeBron James (cont.)
And so, less than 29 months after he sat on a stage at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., and incurred a nation's wrath, LeBron James is the Sportsman of the Year. He is not the Sportsman of 2010, when he announced his decision to leave Cleveland in a misguided television special, or 2011, when he paid dearly for his lapse in judgment. He is the Sportsman of 2012. "Did I think an award like this was possible two years ago?" James says. "No, I did not. I thought I would be helping a lot of kids and raise $3 million by going on TV and saying, 'Hey, I want to play for the Miami Heat.' But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am."
He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch. "He got rid of the bulls---," says one of his former coaches, and he quietly hoped the public would notice. When James strides into an opposing arena, he takes in the crowd, gazes up at the expressions on the faces. "I can tell the difference between 2010 and 2012," he says. Anger has turned to appreciation, perhaps grudging, but appreciation nonetheless. James has become an entry on a bucket list, a spectacle you have to see at least once, whether you crave the violence of sports or the grace, the force or the finesse. He attracts the casual fan with his ferocious dunks and the junkie with his sublime pocket passes. He is a Hollywood blockbuster with art-house appeal.
In this, the 28th and best year of his life, James came to peace with his power. He still considers himself the spindly guard bounding into the gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary for his first practice -- "a 6-foot, 170-pound skinny-ass kid who played like a wizard," remembers his friend, business manager and former high school teammate, Maverick Carter -- which is hard to believe when sitting next to him. James fills every room, even a 20,000-seat palace, not only with his size but also his presence. Like a classic heavyweight, his might makes him seem larger than his 6'8", 250-pound frame.
"People tell me how big I am, but I don't see it," James insists. "I just remember that little freshman, taking the ball off the backboard and running. I'm a perimeter guy." Moving into the paint represented more than a new role. It demanded a new identity. "Imagine you have studied your whole life to be something, and you wake up one day and say, 'I have to change,'" James says. "You never forget what you studied. It's embedded in you. But now it's time to study something else. It's like reading two books at the same time."
He has morphed from the most imposing small forward in the league to the most dynamic all-around threat in the history of the league. The switch is both psychological and strategic, and he did not make it alone. The day after the Heat lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, coach Erik Spoelstra gathered his assistants at American Airlines Arena and told them, "We have to open our minds and develop a system where LeBron James is the best player in the world every single night."
Dating back almost to the inception of the franchise, Miami constructed its offense around a dominant big man because Riley had always seemed to have one: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers, Patrick Ewing with the Knicks, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal with the Heat. When the club signed James, coaches treated him as a premier wing within a traditional offense. "We tried to put an unconventional player in a conventional system," Spoelstra says. He scolds himself for it.
But in the summer of 2011, Spoelstra and his staff designed an attack as unique as the megastar it features. "Whether LeBron is inside or outside, everything revolves around him," says Heat assistant coach David Fizdale. "He can be the power big or the power guard. It doesn't matter. He's positionless." James is the sun, with sharpshooters spread around him like planets, providing space to post up or drive and dish. Spoelstra rarely has to call a play. In close games James brings the ball up the floor, hands it off, races to the block and gets it right back, simultaneously the point guard and the power forward. He could probably score 50 points a night, but he still can't bring himself to shoot over double teams, so he feeds whoever has been left alone.
Fizdale sighs as he discusses the 2011 Finals, when the Heat clogged the paint with two traditional big men, forcing James to the perimeter. "All those jumpers he missed were as much our fault as his," Fizdale says. "He had to be great in spite of what we were doing. Now he has an avenue to be great because of what we're doing."
Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
May 20, 2012
GAME 4, EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
DAVID FIZDALE: Chris Bosh was injured, and before we landed in Indiana, we had a meeting because we needed to figure out what to do. Spo said, "We've got to go small." That was totally about LeBron. He'd been playing inside the whole year, but without Chris, we had to go all in with it. He was going to have to play that role full time. We still lost Game 3, and we were down 2-1, and Dwyane and Spo had their little tiff on the sideline that everybody was making a big fuss about. But we stuck with the plan. We had a walk-through in the hotel the morning of the game, and Spo said, "I guarantee you we will win today." He said it five times.
PAT RILEY: Dwyane was coming off a horrible game, and there was a lot of drama about him going to see his college coach, Tom Crean, at Indiana. LeBron knew we could not go down 3-1. He knew it was the game of the series. The most definable thing for any player is when you come to that absolute moment of truth, and he came to it in the fourth game against Indiana. It was no longer about being a team player. He had to carry us.
CHRIS JENT, Ohio State assistant coach and former Cavaliers assistant: I sent him a long e-mail before that game, and I talked a lot about my brother, who is a retired Marine. He tells his guys that the mental side is 1,000-to-1 more important than the physical. Your mind will allow your body to get where it needs to go.
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