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