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LeBron James chases the ghost from Chicago and basketball immortality

Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are teaming up in Golden State, but LeBron James is motivated by something else: The ghost of Michael Jordan.

Five weeks after the parade, LeBron James watches the final minutes of the last game for the first time. He sits in a black swivel chair, on a basketball court inside an airport hangar, as 81 of America’s best amateur players study him from metal bleachers. They have come to Los Angeles for the annual Nike Skills Academy, three days of drills and scrimmages, plus a different kind of workout: film study with LeBron. The idea is for James to deconstruct clips of this year’s Finals against Golden State, allowing the next generation to see the floor through his eyes. James dutifully dissects pocket passes he threaded to Tristan Thompson and hesitation moves he put on Andre Iguodala, three-pointers he rushed over Festus Ezeli and box-outs he missed against Draymond Green. But as footage from the fourth quarter of Game 7 unspools across the portable big screen, his reactions grow more animated, his descriptions more detailed. He grips his armrests. He covers his face. He pumps his fist. “S---,” he mutters, when Steph Curry springs free. “Cash,” he coos, when Kyrie Irving lets fly. “Run this back,” he instructs Cavaliers assistant coach Phil Handy, in charge of the video, when he fails to pick up Klay Thompson in transition. “Run it back again.”

James pauses at a jump hook by Kevin Love on Klay Thompson with 10:35 remaining: “Kevin was struggling, but this is a mismatch. Our 6'10" power forward has a two guard on his back. That’s the only thing I see. I’m giving him the ball. Who knows, maybe this is part of the reason he shuffles his feet 35 times against Steph in the last minute.” He stops again at a three-pointer by Curry over Tristan Thompson from the top of the circle at 6:57: “Steph is probably the best shooter I’ve ever seen [off the dribble],” James says. “Do not let him go left or right crossover. He gets the ball so fast to his pocket in rhythm. Double T is shading him to his left. He has the right stance, good lift, but Steph was able to cross it over.” He halts once more at 6:18 on a jumper by Klay Thompson over Iman Shumpert: “I could have stayed high on Klay, but I didn’t. It’s my fault. I’m seeing it happen, but my antenna is not as far up as it should be.”

At the two-minute mark Handy lets the tape run. “Game flow,” the Cavs call this, when they sit back and watch without interruption. James throws up his hands when he leaves a jump hook short. It’s 89–89. It’s been 89–89 for more than three minutes. “We’ve held the greatest scoring team to 89 points on their home floor,” James says. “If we can get a bucket, we can get a stop.” The blue-chippers are fully aware of what’s coming. They are more curious about the anxiety on James’s face. Doesn’t he realize he’s going to win? “You ever watch a movie that you’ve already seen, so you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still like, What is going to happen?” James explains. “I just watched the O.J. special on FX, and the judge is reading the verdict—Orenthal James Simpson—and I’m on the edge of my seat. I knew what was going to happen, of course, but I felt like I didn’t. This is the same thing. I know we win. But I don’t really know what happened.”

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Irving dribbles around a J.R. Smith screen and Curry switches onto him, the matchup Cleveland wanted. From his chair James raises three fingers in the air and thrusts them triumphantly by his side as Irving’s three-pointer drops. The campers crack up. When the film ends, he turns and faces them. He feels as if he is peering into a time machine, gazing upon his 17-year-old self, back at the Nike All-American Camp in 2002. He is comfortable in front of this crowd. A prospect in the second row asks what motivates him, now that he has delivered Cleveland’s elusive championship, the defining accomplishment for the era’s defining player. James fiddles with the rubber band on his wrist. The old one, which he wore in Game 7, read I PROMISE. The new one, a gift from Michele Campbell, who runs his foundation, reads PROMISE KEPT.

There are so many directions James could go with that question. He rambles for a second about maximizing talent and supporting family. A photo of Kevin Durant, pointing to the heavens, hangs on a banner behind the bleachers. That’s probably what the kids expect, a riff about Durant and the Warriors, ganging up. He looks beyond the banner.

For the past decade, dramatic story lines have followed him, some of his own making, others contrived and distracting. Can he make the big shot? Can he win the big game? Can he win the big game in Cleveland? All that has melted away, into a puddle of Moët on the Oracle Arena hardwood, and finally he is left alone with the only subplot that ever really interested him. He has pondered it forever, but could not voice it, not with one title or even two. But now he has three, and the weight of this latest trophy tips scales the others did not. The guy in the second row waits for an honest answer.

“My motivation,” James says, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

James finishes a full-court run with the high schoolers, his first time on the floor since the Finals, and lies on a training table to stretch his legs. “Why do I feel like I’m about to go into therapy?” he asks. Because you started talking about ghosts, he is told. “My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” he says. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.” 

Of course, Jordan owns six championships, a long way from three. But even Jordan never produced a Finals quite like the opus James just completed: snapping a 52-year drought, erasing a 3–1 deficit, leading both teams in all five major categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals), and doing it against an opponent with the best record the league has ever seen. “This was bigger for me than the first and the second,” James says, “because of everything it represents.”

On June 20, around 3 a.m. at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas, the Cavaliers lost track of him. While they toasted their title poolside at XS Nightclub—where Smith sprayed $23,000 worth of champagne, according to credible estimates—James slipped out the door. He wound up at Allegro, an Italian restaurant on the casino floor, sitting silently over a Margherita pizza. 

• The Promise Keeper: LeBron realizes his dream with NBA title for Cleveland

Growing up in Akron, James bounced with his mother from apartment to apartment and school to school, working to make new friends wherever he went. Then they’d move again, and he’d start over. Eventually, James stopped trying, stopped talking. When he was ranked the No. 1 sophomore in the nation at St. Vincent–St. Mary High, coach Keith Dambrot told him, “Best sophomore in the country, my ass. You don’t open your mouth. You don’t open your mouth, we won’t be any good.”

After the Cavaliers drafted James with the first pick in 2003, coaches watched video with him, and he barely spoke. “I got about five words,” says former assistant Melvin Hunt, who arrived in ’05 with coach Mike Brown and defensive guru Michael Malone. “Yes, maybe, I don’t know.” He just wanted to play, and if there wasn’t a game at Quicken Loans Arena, he’d throw together a pickup run at North High in Akron. The Cavs still made James their captain in 2006, and by the time he left for Miami in the summer of ’10, he understood what the position entailed. “He’s standing up at shootaround, telling guys what he’s seeing, imploring them to focus,” Hunt recalls. “What a transformation.”

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