This story appears in the Dec. 7 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
LeBron James lay in bed at 2 a.m., listening to his wife and one-year-old daughter sleep. He had just returned home from Detroit, where the Cavaliers lost to the Pistons and he surpassed Jerry West for 19th on the all-time scoring list. James reveres West—he devoured the Logo’s autobiography four years ago and related to his Finals torment—so James’s wife, Savannah, called with congratulations after the game. “We lost,” he said.
“You’ll get the next one,” she replied.
James grumbled. “I’ll be better when I get back. I won’t bring this negative energy into the house.”
But three hours later he remained restless and turned on the television in his bedroom, muting the sound. He needed a show to help him wind down, maybe a program on his beloved Food Network, where he knows all the top chefs even though his lone specialty is a grilled cheese sandwich. Chopped, The Kitchen or Good Eats would have done the trick, but he queued up an unsettling alternative, recorded earlier that night: Warriors-Raptors. He might as well have mainlined Red Bull.
After Golden State clinched the championship in Cleveland last June, the Cavaliers quickly cleared out of their locker room. James stayed. For 45 minutes he sat alone at his corner stall, still in an undershirt and shorts, towel draped over his shoulders. He stared silently into the mouth of the locker, into the teeth of the summer. The training, the practicing, the lifting, the early mornings, the healthy meals, the work, the treatment, James thought. For what? When he finally left Quicken Loans Arena, he trudged down a hallway polluted by champagne fumes, past a room where the Warriors danced with the trophy.
James has fallen in the Finals four times, but each defeat feels different, and so do the ensuing stages of grief. “It was painful,” he says. “But then some days go by, and you refocus, and you start to think, Maybe I can get there again.” Over the summer he rewatched the series and learned that he was the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists. “Kind of cool,” he told himself, though he took no gratification in the one-man act as it unfolded. He then saw Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert pony up to retain key free agents and add a couple. He recalled how the team hummed through the second half of the season before power forward Kevin Love was injured early in the playoffs and point guard Kyrie Irving in the Finals. “I don’t think we were outcoached or outplayed,” James concluded. “I think we were outmatched.”
Besides, it was only his first season back in Cleveland, and he was not the best version of himself. He reported to the Cavaliers out of shape, by his Ironman standards, partly because the fanfare surrounding his return disrupted his routine. Left knee and back trouble sapped his speed and explosiveness. Newfound leadership duties required extra attention. He averaged the most turnovers of his career and the fewest points, 25.3, since he was a rookie. He shot less than 50% for the first time in six years and suffered uncharacteristic defensive lapses. He was spectacular down the stretch and unstoppable in the Finals, but he could have been more efficient, which is why he rented a house in Miami and blocked off September for a punishing pre-training camp.
James worked on ballhandling and post skills every morning from 8:30 to 10 at Key Biscayne Community Center with Cavaliers assistant Phil Handy; built strength from 11 to 1 at DBC Fitness with trainer Mike Mancias; shot from 7 to 9 at Immaculata–La Salle High or the University of Miami with business partner Randy Mims. Anybody who visited James expecting a South Beach bash left disappointed. “I think he went out to dinner four times,” Mims says. “That was it.”
While Mims watched his childhood friend churn through three-a-days, he flashed back to the summer of 2011, after James’s first season with the Heat. He had just lost to the Mavericks in the Finals, prompting a period of introspection and reinvention, which yielded titles in each of the next two years. The changes are not as radical this time around, but James is also reminded of ’11, specifically the disposition that he and his teammates carried into the following season. “We had a rage,” he recalls. “We weren’t always perfect, but we played with rage and we practiced with rage.”
As he spoke, the Cavaliers were 8–3, admirable given that neither member of their starting backcourt had appeared yet. Irving (left knee) and defensive stopper Iman Shumpert (right wrist) are expected to heal by mid-month, but in the meantime James is powerlifting the Cavs. He has already dunked more times in half-court sets than he did all last season, according to in-house stats, and he leads the league in scoring in clutch situations. He has been the best player—and his Cavs the best squad—east of Oakland. “All things considered, our record is pretty good, isn’t it?” James asks. “Well, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”
He barks at center Timofey Mozgov for trying to turn a post feed into an alley-oop instead of bringing the ball down first. He points at his temple when power forward Tristan Thompson commits an offensive foul. He rails against the Cavaliers’ effort after a double-overtime loss on the second night of a back-to-back in Milwaukee. He chides teammates at a players-only meeting after a three-game winning streak is snapped in Toronto. When third-string point guard Jared Cunningham makes an errant pass against the Hawks, James stalks to the bench, never mind that the Cavs are leading by 26 and the play is ongoing. It is hard to tell which of these outbursts are caused by rage run rampant—“Competitive emotions,” he calls them, “that I’m still working on”—and which are caused by his compulsion to inject that rage into others.
James turns 31 on Dec. 30 and has already logged more minutes in his career than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, but instead of pacing he is pushing: telling reporters he plans to play all 82 games, skipping regular fourth-quarter respites, taking late-night jaunts to the St. Vincent–St. Mary High gym for free throws. (His alma mater gave him the key.) “The most important thing in his life is winning a championship here, and he feels incredible pressure to deliver,” says general manager David Griffin. “He is consumed by it.” Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, masters of the NBA marathon, might question the sprinter’s rationale. Maybe James is racing because he doesn’t know how many title shots he has left. Maybe it’s because he wants to set an example for young teammates who can someday carry him when he can no longer carry them. Or maybe it’s because of that team on his TV.
The Warriors do not play with rage. They play with unhinged joy, which spills off the screen in the James house past 3 a.m., as they unleash rainbows on the Raptors and improve to 12–0. James sees urgency in the Warriors. He yearns to see it in the Cavs. He lied to Savannah. He seethes himself to sleep.
LeBron James gathered close friends in a suite on the 58th floor of the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas on July 10, 2014. “I want to put on a coat again,” he told them. “I want to grind again.” To James, the Heat was a Fortune 500 company, the Cavaliers a sentimental startup with talent and resources. “Coming back has been everything I thought,” he says, 16 months later, “only a lot harder. I can’t tell you it’s been comfortable. But that’s O.K. I don’t really like to be comfortable.”
Failure is a poison, and when James reentered the Cavs’ headquarters last fall, he found an organization infected. “Great young players but part-time pros,” says swingman James Jones, who followed James from the Heat. “They’d be locked in for an hour before practice, an hour after practice, but the discipline and commitment weren’t there.” Players rolled in late for treatment sessions, bagged extra shooting, left plates of food sitting around the cafeteria. “Leniency,” James says, “which was very different from the structure I’d grown accustomed to.”
There was no individual to blame. The coaching staff was new. The front office was revamped. When James bolted in 2010, the Cavaliers wisely shifted their priority from contention to player development, and the moment he returned they had to reverse course again. James fumed every time he saw a one-on-one dribbling exhibition, a contested jumper, a smile in a losing locker room. “He was kind of sizing everybody up,” Thompson says. “You could tell he was frustrated.”
James, in his first turn as a sole leader, searched for the most effective approach. “First, I tried to be patient and kind of measure them,” he says. “But you experiment with different styles. ‘This doesn’t work. S---. Well, maybe that will work.’ Sometimes you think it does, and then the next day you realize that it doesn’t.”
On Nov. 4 at Portland, James stood in the corner, letting Irving lose a senseless individual duel with the Blazers’ Damian Lillard. The following night, in Utah, Irving scored 34 points without an assist, and James warned him that he could never finish a game without an assist again. He deployed multiple methods to teach the same lesson, hoping one would resonate. On Nov. 17, James missed a shootaround before a game against the Nuggets because he was sick, and the Cavaliers acted as if their teacher ditched school. They tossed dirty gear onto the locker room floor, ignoring the hamper in the middle of the room. Equipment manager Mark Cashman took a picture of the slop and after practice the next day showed it to the group. “I’ve worked here 15 years,” Cashman says, “and that was the maddest I’ve ever been.”
After Cashman tore into the team, James provided a graphic exclamation point. Cashman was transported to 2003, when James was a rookie and Cleveland played the second night of a preseason back-to-back in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Cavs landed in St. John’s at 5 a.m. and were scheduled to face the Raptors in front of a sellout crowd that night. But shortly before tip-off at an arena that housed a minor league hockey team, officials noticed condensation from the ice on the court. The game was canceled, the Cavs were sent to their bus, and irritated players flung jerseys and shorts in Cashman’s direction. James handed him a neatly folded uniform. “I didn’t have a lot growing up,” he explained to Cashman then. “I have to take care of it.”
Fast-forward to 2014, when James became the custodian of the franchise. He took postpractice ice baths alongside Jones and swingman Mike Miller, another running mate from Miami, and discussed what elements of Heat culture could migrate north. But Jones and Miller were role players. James had to be the conduit. “Leading takes energy, and you can’t get tired of it,” Jones implored. “You can’t do your work at home. You have to do it here. You have to show them what it looks like.” James tried to demonstrate how he trains and recovers, but his knee and back wouldn’t let him. “That was the toughest thing,” he says. “I was teaching and preaching—telling them how hard I’m going to work, how I’m going to bust my ass—but I couldn’t really do it because I was hurting.” He fretted for the team but also for himself. “Why can’t I get to that spot anymore?” he asked Mancias, his longtime trainer. “I used to get to that spot.”
James heard observers talk about him as if he were Tim Duncan, his prime suddenly past. “What is your prime, anyway?” James wonders. “Seriously, when is it? I have no idea. Is it 27 to 30? 27 to 31? Who set the number on that?” Injury, James acknowledges, is a symptom of age. But health did not explain why he ran so much isolation and took so many difficult shots. In Miami, James and Dwyane Wade played a game within the game. If one of them shot over 50%, he was the winner. If one shot under, he was the loser. The Heat could win by 30 points, but if James went 7 for 15, he berated himself for one ill-advised fadeaway. In Cleveland, nobody played that game.
“For three years my team was on the same page, the same wavelength,” James says. “We just had to look at each other. It’s hard to trust people when you’ve never been in the bunker with them. At times you do feel a little alone.” He was adjusting to a new roster while the Cavaliers were acclimating to a new world, where every sentence is a sound bite and every sound bite is a story. James is comfortable in that construct. It’s all he knows. But in becoming the metaphor for an entire region, he added even more to his load. When James seemed scattered early last season and a former coach was asked why, he did not point to the back or the knee. He pointed to the head.
“I think about a lot of s---,” James agrees. “Sometimes too much. But then I try to remember what I learned from the great Pat Riley: What is the main thing? Because the main thing has to be the main thing.”
James returned to the Cavaliers on Jan. 13 in Phoenix after a two-week mental and physical sabbatical that included recovery from an anti-inflammatory injection in his back. The Cavs lost their sixth straight game that night, but James was rejuvenated, and afterward comedian Frank Caliendo visited the locker room. Caliendo performed an ice-breaking impersonation of actor Morgan Freeman reading James’s “I’m Coming Home” essay for SI. Then he mimicked Charles Barkley ripping newly acquired gunner J.R. Smith.
Caliendo took credit for the Cavaliers’ turnaround—they went 34–9 for the rest of the season—but the true catalysts arrived a week earlier. James knew the Cavs were trying to pry Mozgov from the Nuggets, but he was skeptical that they could. Likewise, he understood they were attempting to land Shumpert and Smith from the Knicks, but that sounded like another long shot. The twin trades, consummated less than 48 hours apart, did more than fortify the rotation. They validated James’s faith. “It reassured me,” he says, “that Griff was in it just as well as I was.”
There is nuance in the relationship between stars and GMs, stars and coaches, stars and other stars. With James there is even more nuance, because no other franchise is as synonymous with one player. Of course, Griffin queries James about potential moves, and of course James contacts free-agent targets. “[But] people have this vision of him making all these demands of us and he’s never done that once,” Griffin says. “It’s a narrative everybody wants to believe because he’s LeBron and because he can. And sure, if he goes to Dan Gilbert and says, ‘F--- Dave Griffin, he’s got to go away or I’m not re-signing,’ then I’ll go away. But that’s not what he does. That’s not who he is. It’s not what he wants to do. He wants to be the best player on the planet and the best leader he can, and that’s what he invests all his time in.” Thompson’s free-agent negotiations this summer could have been awkward, given that he is represented by James’s friend and agent, Rich Paul. But they were not, at least as far as James was concerned, because he essentially recused himself from the process.
James doesn’t like to reference power—“People confuse that word way too often,” he says—choosing opportunity instead. According to James, coach David Blatt gives him the opportunity to change plays based on what he sees from the defense, and he takes advantage when he thinks an edge can be gained. “Coach is the captain,” James says. “I’m one of his generals.” Specific military rank notwithstanding, some executives outside the Cavs’ walls chuckle at depictions of James calling more audibles than Peyton Manning. “All we want is for our star to take ownership, to be invested in our success,” says another GM. “Being too invested, which I understand is the knock on him, seems like an O.K. problem.”
In the past two months James has extended public olive branches to Blatt (“As great as any coach” in the league) and Love (“The focal point” of the offense), a reversal from subtle tweaks of last season. “Some guys you have to get on, and some guys you have to put your arm around and slap on the ass,” Love says. “You have to understand people and how to deal with them. LeBron is incredibly smart. He knows how to get the best out of us.” Marginalized on the perimeter for stretches of his first campaign in Cleveland, Love met with James at an L.A. hotel pool in June. Love had already decided to re-sign with the Cavaliers, but he still wanted to chat. “One of the first things I told him was, ‘Over the next five years we are going to get to know each other better, and that’s going to make for a better relationship and a better product on the floor,’ ” Love says. They discussed how to accelerate the process. “Anything you need from me, let me know,” James said. “If you need to tell me what to do, tell me.”
When James declares he is riding Love’s coattails, he may be overstating matters, but the praise is not hollow. Despite spending the summer rehabbing from left shoulder surgery, Love was averaging 19.8 points and 11.8 rebounds at week’s end, his performance and his positioning more in line with how he played in Minnesota. “There are still games I find myself shooting 10 threes and thinking, What is that?” Love says. “But I’m in the paint more and rebounding more.” Love is a hoops savant and it takes a while to appreciate every element of his expertise: the outlet passes, hockey assists, ability to exploit space. “There were times he got down on himself, and things I wish I understood,” James says. “He keeps a little more to himself than some other guys, but now I feel like I can go to him and have a real conversation about what needs to be done, and he can do the same with me. I want him to believe in himself and understand how important he is to this movement.”
James craves camaraderie. It is no coincidence, he suggests, that his first season in the NBA, his first season in Miami and his first season back in Cleveland were his most challenging. In Year Two, the Cavaliers say, he is more likely to fling an arm around Blatt at practice and parrot his postgame message to the press. “It’s refreshing to come every day and know you’re about the same things with your best guy,” Blatt says.
Recently, James walked past the Cavs’ training room, spotting Irving and Shumpert inside. “We can’t be ready until you are!” he shouted. James is an affable teammate, playing cards on the plane, arranging group dinners and ordering everybody’s sides. “Guys like him,” Griffin says. “He’s one of them in almost every way. But when he’s in the heat of competition, there’s no one like him. He is a very intense human being. He’s unrelenting. It’s not acceptable to blow an assignment. He’ll let you know. And then he’ll be playing cards with you again on the plane.”
Growing up, James hung a Kobe Bryant poster on his bedroom wall, and this season he is monitoring every Lakers game for fear it will be Bryant’s last. James and Bryant are nothing alike. James loves to share, while Bryant prefers to shine. Bryant is a loner, and James needs a group. But their iron fists overlap. “The little guy with the hammer,” James calls himself. He has edited his leadership style once again, turning more vocal, which the Cavaliers prefer to last year’s occasional silent treatments. “I think he made guys feel like he was doing this for them,” Griffin says. “Now he’s making them feel like he’s doing it with them. He’s empowering them. He’s brought a sense of togetherness to it.”
In a meeting to start training camp James told the Cavaliers, “The organization gave us everything we need. There are no more excuses.” He has since suspended the team’s high-fiving pregame introduction routine, as the Heat once did, so players can’t claim they’re not ready for the tip. “I’ve cut the patience in half,” James says, a testament to the team’s progress.
“What he’s done has worked,” Jones adds. “The atmosphere here is a little tougher, a little more disciplined, a lot more focused, a lot more committed. These are full-time pros now. They come in for multiple film sessions, multiple treatment sessions, shoot by themselves. They’ve watched him.”
An era is ending. Bryant will retire after this season, and Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki will follow soon. Then James, the eternal prodigy, will be the godfather. He wonders if players will stop him for advice. “I don’t think my face is very approachable,” he says. Actually, as global icons go, he is rather accessible, which the Cavaliers have discovered. Teammates pepper him with starry-eyed questions. Can you go to the mall? Yes. Do you drive yourself? Sometimes. Do restaurants close when you go there? No.
James has become a bit of a foodie—sashimi and tuna tartare replacing steaks and burgers—and he marvels at new eateries in the Flats and in the suburbs. He reserves a private room at a spot like Dante, an upscale Mediterranean set in a former bank building in Tremont, and stays for hours with friends and family. He drinks cabernet, usually Mayacamas or Silver Oak, while Mims plays music on a Beats Pill portable speaker. DJ Montage, as James calls Mims, spun for the Cavs in their San Francisco hotel ballroom during the Finals.
James still hits up St. V games and watches his 11-year-old son, LeBron Jr., dissect AAU defenses. Junior is already receiving attention from college recruiters and scouting services, a source of pride and dismay for his dad. “He doesn’t want people to know who he is,” James says. “He hates when they ask him for pictures and autographs. He won’t even wear my number.” Junior chose 0, same as Love.
James hopes the bubble of Northeast Ohio will insulate his daughter and two sons just as it insulated him. “There is a comfort and a shadow and a protection here,” James says. “This city protects me and my family. I can’t explain it, but when I was a kid and I’d walk the streets or be out late or play on outdoor courts, I felt like people were watching me and thinking, Let’s protect him. I could feel that. I still feel it.”
His life is rich but complicated. He is a business owner, an actor and a philanthropist. This summer The New Yorker called him “the funniest person” in Trainwreck, a movie filled with comic luminaries. The University of Akron partnered with his foundation to fund full scholarships for all the at-risk students he sponsors in the city’s public schools who qualify for college, a number that could reach into the thousands. He is the rare American athlete regularly asked about current events.
He treasures his many roles, but they bring him back to Riley’s main thing. “The homes I live in, the cars I drive, the schools my kids attend, the movies, the shows, the businesses, it’s all because of basketball,” James says. “That’s the main thing. It always has to be the main thing.”
When James was in high school and players were ranked by magazines, he was forever No. 1. He would scan the names below his and imagine those faceless kids, where they were and what they were doing to eclipse him. In the NBA he can more easily track his pursuers. Derrick Rose was on his heels in 2011, Kevin Durant in ’12, Paul George in ’13. None caught up. Calling James the greatest player in the world was so obvious, it became a cliché.
But here comes Steph Curry, for the second year in a row, putting the NBA in his personal incinerator. “I hear the chatter about who is the best player in the league,” James says. “I see the guys who are barreling down. That locks me in even more.” So he logs 39 minutes against the Knicks and 45 the next night against the Bucks. He plays the whole fourth quarter against the Raptors. He undergoes daily back therapy to make this possible. He talks longingly of 70 wins. “If I’m able to link up with Pop in the afterlife, we can sit down and drink some wine and I can ask him how to pace,” he says. “The Spurs know how to pace perfection. I haven’t figured that out yet.” He ticks off personal shortcomings. “Don’t box out sometimes, allow guys to get offensive rebounds, allow guys to backdoor cut on me....”
James wants to harness his “competitive emotions”—the fits of anger that often produce those errors—but the truth is he’d rather keep them than lose them altogether. “Once I stop having those moments,” James says, “I will be like, Oh, man, I might need to figure out if this is it for me.” He is a long way from that conversation. Fourteen hours earlier he poured in 27 points with nine rebounds and six assists against Milwaukee. The Cavaliers won, and James shot 69.2%, so Wade would say he won twice. Afterward James dressed at his corner locker, the stall adorned by a blue paper crown with glitter given to him by a terminally ill girl he met in Indiana. “That will stay up there forever,” James said.
His eyes wandered to a TV in the corner, showing the Warriors-Clippers game. Golden State would rally from 23 down to reach 13–0, raising the bar, rousing the King. A week later the reigning champs would break the record for the best start in league history, 16–0. (Through Sunday the Warriors were 18–0, the Cavs 13–4.) Much can happen between December and June, but Golden State and Cleveland appear to be on a six-month collision course, with Curry and James behind their respective wheels.
For the first time in nearly a decade, James’s transcendence is being matched by another’s. “I’m great,” he says, a crack that recalls his press conference after Game 5 of the Finals. “I’m the best player in the world,” he said then. He is asked if he ever needs to remind himself. “No,” he replies. “I don’t need to be reminded.” He flashes a broad smile, eyebrows incredulously raised.