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LEBRON JAMES SINKS INTO A RESTAURANT BOOTH ON the first floor of the Westin in Jersey City and orders a chamomile tea. The sun is setting on a Saturday in the middle of April. "For me," says James, "This is chillin' time." His voice is hoarse, but he says he doesn't have a sore throat. He squeezes three lemon wedges into the tea and sucks the rinds. It is suggested that lemons are bad for his teeth. "That's O.K.," 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. "He is a global icon, a basketball monolith, the most prevalent and recognizable athlete of our generation," says Miami forward Shane 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 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. There is a price to pay. He understands that. But I don't think a lot of guys could handle it."
James isn't just coping—he just completed one of the finest all-around seasons in the NBA's modern era. His player efficiency rating of 31.7 led the league by more than three points, and he held opposing small forwards to an anemic efficiency rating of 10.6, according to 82games.com. The 6' 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. James is attempting fewer three-pointers than ever while making them at a higher clip (36.2%). 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. "But I need one. I dream about it all the time, how it would look, how it would feel." 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 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 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 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, 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, the public didn't really know how to deal with that."
"I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person," James says. "I felt like I had to prove something to people. Everything was tight, stressed." In Cleveland, where he played seven seasons, James had the loudest laugh in the locker room. But in Miami, he adopted what he calls "the villain mind-set." He skulked across the court, 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," James told himself. "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."