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."
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."
"I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person," James says. "I got caught up in everything that was going on around me, and I felt like I had to prove something to people, and I don't know why. Everything was tight, stressed." In Cleveland, where he played seven seasons, James had the loudest laugh in the locker room. He used to bellow "Waffles!" from the back of the bus when he was hungry. He amused himself by simply transposing someone's initials. He was JeBron Lames. But in Miami, he adopted what he calls "the villain mind-set," stacking his anger on top of everyone else's. He skulked across the court, stone-faced, 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, and you don't really need to change anything," James told himself. "Just get back to what you do and how you play, smiling all the time and trying to dominate at the highest level. 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. Just go out and improve."
The first thing he did was get a haircut. "You think my beard is long now, it was up to here," says James, pointing to the top of his cheekbones. "I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway." He flew home to Ohio -- yes, his home is still in Ohio -- where he biked on his favorite off-road trail, as many as 70 miles through the hills between his house in Bath and Cleveland. He trained with his first coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High, Keith Dambrot, who had barely worked with him since he was a rookie. "A lot of people are intimidated by LeBron, but he wants the truth," says Dambrot, now the coach at Akron. "He's not too big to take criticism. I told him, 'You have to do more things you don't want to do. You have to do more offensive and defensive rebounding, moving without the ball, all the basics that made you great going back to the beginning.'"
After the Heat acquired Cleveland State point guard Norris Cole on draft night, James invited him to Bath to work out. On a table in James's living room was a book about leadership called "The Ant and the Elephant," a gift from a friend. James is not much of a reader, but he opted for the book over TV. "It's about an ant who is trying to find his way to this great place, this oasis, but the only way to get there is to train an elephant who wants to get there too," James says. "At one point the ant is on the elephant's back and they are walking through the sand and there is a pack of lions, and the elephant scares the lions off. The ant is like, I have the toughest friend in the world. But later that day the elephant sees a mouse, and he gets scared and runs away. The ant can't understand how this big creature could be so dominant over a pack of lions but so scared of a mouse. The ant has to train the elephant to let him know, You are the biggest, baddest thing out here." James pauses for a moment. As a member of a supposed juggernaut, he can relate to the ant. And as a 250-pound force of nature, he can relate to the elephant. "I took a lot from that," he says.
James finally summoned the courage to watch the Finals and studied every game except the first one, his best. He was a wallflower in the fourth quarter of Games 4 and 5, scoring two points combined. "I make impact plays," James says. "I make game-changing plays. I'm not saying I didn't make any in that series, but I didn't make nearly enough. I'm used to making double-digit impact plays per game, and there were a few games I had single-digit impact plays. It was time for me to get back to the fundamentals."
For years coaches have harped on James to move off the perimeter and into the post, where he can pass out of double teams or bulldoze to the hoop. Dallas provided the motivation. "I didn't do it because people told me I needed to do it," James says. "I was looking at myself thinking, How can I get better and ultimately make our team better? The post game was something I needed to work on." He flew to Houston and spent three days with former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, videotaping the workouts. Olajuwon showed James variations of the Dream Shake to use against bigger defenders, smaller defenders and when the shot clock is winding down. James uploaded the video onto his computer and took it everywhere he traveled -- England, Spain and China -- repeating the footwork in individual sessions with his private trainer.
James also believed his ball handling was deficient, so he went to Kentucky to work with Brandon Weems, a high school teammate and Wildcats assistant director of basketball operations. James practiced with two basketballs at a time while Weems shadowed him as he dribbled, leaning against him and smacking his wrists and hands.
"The greats always stay uncomfortable," says Spoelstra. "LeBron is no different. He came back looking like a new player in terms of his offensive skill set." James traditionally shot three-pointers with the guards after practice. Suddenly, he was bodying up with the centers. "If I'm going to work more in the post, I have to give up something," James says. "I had to decide, Is it the mid-range? Is it the fadeaway? To be more efficient, it had to be the three, because I'm more effective in the paint." James hung around AmericanAirlines Arena for hours with assistant David Fizdale, honing two basic power moves on either block: one to the middle and one to the baseline. When a second defender arrives, he sidearms the ball to the open man, quick as a shortstop turning a double play. "Everything we did was about being good at less, great at more," Fizdale says. They even tinkered with James's shot, noticing too many instances when he fell away from the basket. He repeated hundreds of open and pull-up jumpers with his chest squarely over his feet.
In Milwaukee in February, against a defense that typically dares him to let fly from outside, James made 16 of 21 shots and only one from more than 15 feet. The next day, in Indiana, the Heat played its third road game in three nights, and James took a taxi to the arena four hours before tip-off. He was in uniform and on the court when the first team bus arrived, and he went for 23 points in a Miami win. But ask James to recount his finest performance of the season, and he refers to a clunker at home against the Magic in March in which he scored 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting. "I shot horrible," James says. "But it didn't stop me from doing other things." A glance at the box score reveals that he racked up 12 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and a 91--81 win over a team that has caused the Heat trouble. To see the look on his face as he talks about that game -- pure satisfaction despite only 14 points -- is to peek inside his basketball soul.
James started playing in an Akron rec league when he was eight years old and there were only five games on the schedule. He was taller than everybody, so he wanted to rebound, and faster than everybody, so he also wanted to push the ball. When defenses keyed on him, he passed, and he relished that too. His team inevitably went 5-0, and at the postseason banquet, coach Frankie Walker would give an MVP trophy to every-body on the roster. "I didn't understand it," James says. Clearly, he was the MVP. "You're going to be in the limelight a lot," Walker told him. "You have to remember to bring your teammates with you."
An only child raised by a single mother, James yearned for family, and he called his teammates brothers. He still does. In 2009 he wrote a 256-page book, Shooting Stars, about his teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Being a good teammate -- a good brother -- means finding the one with the best shot. "If two guys are on you, a teammate is open," James says. "It's four against three, easy math." When he was a junior, his team lost the state championship after he dished to an open man in the final seconds, but his arithmetic has never changed. In Cleveland, coaches tried to explain that four is not always superior to three, because a bad shot from him is better than a good shot from almost anyone else. He couldn't agree. "He has to make the right play every time," says Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt, who used to be with the Cavs. James recoils when he sees a player rise up for a long jumper over three defenders. He beams when his 7-year-old son, LeBron Jr., dishes to a forgotten kid.
In Miami, teammates have taken on even greater significance for James. "In the crazy world he lives in, this is really the only bastion of normalcy he gets," says Battier of the Heat locker room. "In here we bust his balls and talk about his beard and his chin and all that stuff. But we say it out of love while everyone else says it out of spite. He knows how much he means to us, and he takes that responsibility very seriously -- maybe too seriously." In Utah in March, James scored 35 points with 10 rebounds and six assists, but instead of launching the game-winner, he passed to an open Udonis Haslem, who missed. In the All-Star Game he scored 36 points, but when Bryant challenged him to take a potential game-winning shot, he tried to dish to an open Dwyane Wade; the pass was stolen.
Jordan would not have six championships if he didn't kick out to John Paxson and Steve Kerr, but crunch time is the one period where James has faltered this season. Stars generally misfire more often at the end of games, but according to 82games.com, James's shooting percentage had fallen to 38.6 percent in clutch situations. "It's not the pressure of not wanting to fail," James says. "It's the pressure of not wanting to let your teammates down. I hate letting my teammates down. I know I'm not going to make every shot. Sometimes I try to make the right play, and if it results in a loss, I feel awful. I don't feel awful because I have to answer questions about it. I feel awful in that locker room because I could have done something more to help my teammates win." Heat players and coaches have repeatedly told James not to worry so much about disappointing them.
Like Peyton Manning, James can remember minuscule details of plays he made years ago and details of the defense against him. This season he has spent more time scanning his vast mental catalog for fourth-quarter flourishes: the 25 straight points he scored in Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals; the buzzer-beating three he sank against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals; the duel he won with Wade in the '06 regular season when they seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E. "Everyone needs a place they go when things aren't going well," James says. "Maybe it's something great you did in school, or a moment when you were with your family on vacation. I go back to those games and think, This is you."
Last New Year's Eve, James was truly nervous. "I was sweating so much," he says. He had called several of his old coaches, quizzing them for advice, asking them if he was ready. In the middle of a party at a Miami restaurant, surrounded by friends and family, he dropped to one knee and proposed to Brinson, his girlfriend and the mother of his two sons. (Bryce Maximus is four.) "Just like how I needed to take that next step as a player, I also needed to take that next step as a man," James says. "It wasn't like a weight off my shoulders, but it felt like a fresh start."
James is the most popular current American athlete on Twitter, with more than 4 million followers (just ahead of the Dalai Lama), and he tells them when Brinson thinks he is a "poopoo head" for not going to the movies, when he wakes from a "dream my hairline was back!" and when he "fell short again!" in a loss. He writes the tweets himself, and reads the replies, even the ones that sting. "Twitter can be an angry place," James says. "But I don't think people mean no harm. Look, I wish it wasn't just us in this restaurant. I wish I could be here with all my fans and we could all sit down together and have a nice dinner tonight. Twitter is a way to try to do that."
James is emerging from the funnel cloud that trapped him for much of the past two years. He already admitted that he regrets the television show announcing his departure from Cleveland ("I would change that," he said) and speculated about an eventual return. He made a rare political statement after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, organizing a picture with his teammates in the lobby of a Detroit hotel, all of them draped in hooded sweatshirts. And he made an impromptu statement in the middle of the night at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, when several servicemen approached for a picture with the Heat, and the team's security detail shooed them away. "Hey, hey," James said, according to The Oklahoman. "Any of these military guys can take a picture with us." He ordered his teammates, some of whom were half asleep, to hit their feet. "I'm not perfect," James says. "I know that. I'm just trying to go in the right direction."
There seems to be only one way for a modern athlete to earn redemption from his sins -- even if the biggest sin was an unfortunate bit of marketing -- and it includes tears and trophies and confetti. James does have a new marketing company, Fenway Sports Group, but he is no more assured of a championship than he was a year ago. Miami still has no depth, no center and a tendency to play hot potato at the end of games. Wade and James are closers often cast as setup men. "At times it's difficult because we're both used to being in that position, and now it's split," Wade says. "But it's something that we want to work." The Heat is 14-1 without Wade this season.
As much as James craves a championship, he is still only 27, and he knows Jordan did not win his first until he was 28. Oscar Robertson was 32. Jerry West was 33. James believes deeply in karma, that the Heat lost last year for a reason, and whatever happens this spring will be for a reason also. He views his whole life that way. "My father wasn't around when I was a kid," James says, "and I used to always say, 'Why me? Why don't I have a father? Why isn't he around? Why did he leave my mother?' But as I got older I looked deeper and thought, 'I don't know what my father was going through, but if he was around all the time, would I be who I am today?' It made me grow up fast. It helped me be more responsible. Maybe I wouldn't be sitting here right now."
James says he has no relationship with his father and no NBA mentor, either. He leans on a rapper, Jay-Z, to provide the perspective he sometimes loses. "He grew up in the inner city, in [Brooklyn's] Marcy projects, hearing, 'You'll be a statistic, you'll never make it out,'" James says. "Now we're sitting here in New Jersey, and he owns part of the [Nets]. He tells me, 'Remember where you came from, what got you here and why you love this game so much.'"
He can watch the waves or ride the bike, but in the end his sanctuary remains the same. "Tomorrow, one o'clock, basketball court," James says. "That's my peace. That's my home away from home. That's what I know I can do. For that moment in time I don't have to answer any questions. I'm just there with my teammates and my coaches, playing for the people. That's where I can let everything else go."
The next day, at Madison Square Garden, James sings along to the hip-hop in the locker room. He dances as he stretches. At 1 p.m., he is booed during the national anthem, and again during introductions. He is booed when he turns his ankle in the third quarter, crumpling to the court after stepping on a fan's foot, and booed when he is helped up.
The following night, at the Prudential Center in Newark, he is booed more. But with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Heat trailing by five, a force of nature appears. James is doing that thing he does, dribbling at the three-point line and then taking a few steps back as if to collect steam. "When he does that," says Nets forward DeShawn Stevenson, "it's like standing in front of a train." He attacks, one unstoppable surge after another, until he has scored 17 consecutive points, no field goals coming from more than five feet from the basket. The fans in Jersey are standing and cheering, snapping pictures with their camera phones, chanting M-V-P! as loudly as the fans in Miami.
When the Heat has won 101--98, James finds Jay-Z's nephew in the courtside seats and slips his headband around the boy's neck. He removes his Nikes and hands those over as well. He tells the Heat's TV announcers he never thought he would hear MVP chants in an opposing arena again. Still, he will receive a text from Dambrot saying he needs to grab more rebounds.
After the interview, James strolls over, the conversation from Jersey City on his mind. "Does this work?" he asks. He is trying to stifle a smile, but he is showing teeth again. This works. This is you. He walks off in his socks.