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.”