It was the first time I've ever seen him absolutely exhausted. He doesn't get exhausted. He took a breath and then went back in, and he closed them out.
Shortly after James completed that first Pop Warner football season with the East Dragons, when he scored those 18 touchdowns, he went to the library at Harris Elementary School in Akron and started checking out books on famous athletes. "How amazing would it be if I made it into one of these?" he told himself. He watched ESPN Classic and grew mesmerized by Oscar Robertson, who saw the floor as if it were in another dimension. By the time James reached St. Vincent--St. Mary, he was uncorking no-look passes and sensing plays before they happened.
Peers often describe James as "a beast," and even though they mean to flatter him, the label dismisses the depths to which he comprehends the game. He can deconstruct the top eight players on every NBA team and many college teams. He can run every set in the Heat playbook from all five positions. In film sessions he sometimes completes Spoelstra's sentences, and at the Olympics, many of Team USA's defensive strategies were suggestions from James in practice. "He's not smart," says Krzyzewski. "He's brilliant. And I don't like to use that word."
In Cleveland, James would crack jokes during meetings because he already knew what the coaches were trying to teach. "It was like the kid in school who can doodle and throw spitballs but still get A's," Jent says. Because James was the Cavaliers' best player, others followed his example, though they did not grasp the material as easily. James couldn't understand, when games began, why they kept blowing assignments. "I expect everyone to be on the same wavelength, and that's a problem I'm still working on," he says. "If I see something and it doesn't happen the way I envision, I can get frustrated."
When James is grabbing a rare rest on the Heat bench, he usually sits next to second-year guard Terrel Harris, narrating the action so a young player can see the game through his eyes. During a mid-November game in Denver, Ray Allen was dribbling upcourt and Rashard Lewis was streaking down the left side. James inched forward in his seat and started yelling, "Rashard, it's coming to you! Get ready to shoot!" Allen raced around a pick-and-roll with Bosh and threw the ball to the corner, where an expectant Lewis caught it and drilled the three-pointer. "How did you know that was going to happen?" Harris asked.
The standard scouting report given to Heat players before games is two pages. The one James receives is four, filled with the kind of advanced stats reserved for coaches, bloggers and Shane Battier. "I want to know that this guy drives left 70% of the time, or pulls up when he drives right, or likes to cross over after two dribbles," James says. Even when he is with friends, he'll geek out in the middle of casual conversation: "Remember when I drove and kicked to Ray at the four-minute mark in the second quarter. If he'd have drifted into the corner, we'd have had a better shot." Then, after a pause: "So what are you guys getting into tonight?"
"He'll be talking about a player and tell you, 'If you post up on the left side and drive middle, he'll foul you every time,'" Carter says. "Everybody sees the dunks and the 35 points, but it's no accident. Carmelo Anthony is the same size. J.R. Smith can jump just as high. Dwight Howard is as good an athlete. It's his thought process that separates him."
The Heat stages intricate shooting games after practice, with as many as eight participants, and James keeps all the scores in his head. One of the games is a free throw contest called 21, in which a player receives one point for a make, gets two for a swish and subtracts one for a miss. When James wins, which is rare, he rejoices before the others have even calculated the outcome. "It's a little like A Beautiful Mind," says Battier, a Miami forward. "He has a quasiphotographic memory that allows him to process data very quickly. Usually, the überathletic guys who are so much more physically gifted than everybody else don't give much credence to the mental side of the game. Dwyane, for instance, has no time for this. He couldn't care less about numbers. He goes out, imposes his will, and that's great. It's made him a Hall of Famer. But LeBron is looking for every edge."
James grew up on Galley Boy burgers at Swensons Drive In, an Akron staple, but he no longer eats red meat or pork. He naps for two hours on game days. He arrives at the arena early, just after Allen, and takes the court with Fizdale. He has to make five three-pointers from the right corner, the right wing, the top of the circle, the left wing and the left corner. Then he must sink 10 long jumpers from the same spots inside the arc, and six more off the dribble, three going right and three left. Afterward, James heads into the post, and Fizdale feeds him until he has drained 10 face-up jumpers and 10 baby hooks or fadeaways. Finally, Fizdale positions himself as a defender, and James lets loose his entire repertoire.
Only then does he retreat to his meticulously organized locker and clear his mind of the details running through it. Many players function at the same speed all the time. James, constantly searching for mismatches, shifts back and forth from reading to reacting. His brain can bog him down. "Sometimes I overanalyze things, overthink things," he says. "It can get in my way." He slips on his headphones, turns up the hip-hop and finds his attack mode.