This story appears in the Dec. 10, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated
Pat Riley stood in the mouth of the tunnel at Boston's TD Garden, between the court and the locker room, and waited for the Boat. That's what he calls LeBron James -- "You know," Riley explains, "best of all time" -- an acronym he conjured to remind the planet's preeminent basketball player of frontiers still to be conquered. "Hey, Boat," Riley will say. "How is the Boat doing today?" James will reflexively laugh and shake his head because he is not the Boat, at least not yet. But on that sweaty night at the Garden, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, facing yet another summer cast as the villain foiled, he delivered one of the Boat performances in NBA history. The image of James throughout the game, bent at the waist, staring skyward with pupils pushed to his eyelids, recalled predators of different breeds. "He was primal," Riley says. "He was a cobra, a leopard, a tiger hunched over his kill."
After James had unleashed 45 points, snatched 15 rebounds and sucked all the juice from an expectant crowd, he marched toward Riley, the Heat president who lured him to South Beach two years ago with his six sparkling rings. He was just a few steps from Riley when a 20-something man perched above the tunnel poured what remained of his beer through a net canopy, dousing James's head and jersey. While a national television audience recoiled, Riley was transported back to the 1980s, when he coached the Lakers and rabble-rousers at the old Garden rocked their buses, spit in their faces and once shoved his mother-in-law over a railing.
"I'm a Catholic, and I was an altar boy, so I say my prayers at night and I believe someone up there is taking care of us," Riley begins. "From where I was standing, there was a backlight on LeBron from the arena, and as the [beer] pellets sprayed up in the air, they looked like they were forming a halo over him. This is what I saw: The good Lord was saying, 'LeBron, I'm going to help you through this night because you're a nice person, and I'm going to give you 45 and 15. But as you walk off, I'm going to humble the heck out of you.' And, you know what, that's the best thing that could have happened."
It was the story of his life. James could log 47 flawless minutes, or win 60 regular-season games, or spend seven years as a one-man stimulus package for a hard-bitten Rust Belt city and still end up with a beer in the face. We forgive our favorite athletes many imperfections and foibles, but James was held to a higher standard. He was too strong, too fast, too blessed to stumble, especially in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. "I'm in a different place than other people," he says. "That's O.K. I understand. I was chosen for this. It's my gift. It's my responsibility."
When James was nine, he played running back for a Pop Warner team in his hometown of Akron called the East Dragons, and he scored 18 touchdowns in six games. "That's when I first knew I had talent," he says. When he was a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary High, a basketball coach confided in friends that the best player of all time was on his roster. When he was a sophomore, a local newspaper dubbed him King James, and never again did he play in front of a gym that wasn't jammed.
James is a sucker for underdogs -- "I love Arian Foster, from the Houston Texans," he says, "because he didn't get drafted, he played on the practice squad, and now he's probably the best running back in the NFL" -- knowing full well he will never be one himself. He will never win in an upset, never know what it feels like to overachieve. He assumes the most unsustainable position in sports, the eternal front-runner, and he kept coming up short at the finish. But after each colossal disappointment, while the talking heads returned their attention to Tim Tebow or whatever topic du jour gooses the ratings, James wiped the beer from his chin and resumed his discovery. "In every adversity there is a seed of equivalent benefit," Riley says, and the Boat finds it. When James lost in the Finals in 2007, with the Cavaliers, he remade his jump shot. When he fell again in 2011, with the Heat, he built a post game. James was born with supernatural ability, but he lets none of it lie dormant. He extracts every ounce, through a distillation process created and refined by failure.
"The game is a house, and some players only have one or two windows in their house because they can't absorb any more light," says Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Team USA. "When I met LeBron, he only had a few windows, but then he learned how beautiful the game can be, so he put more windows in. Now he sees the damn game so well, it's like he lives in a glass building. He has entered a state of mastery. There's nothing he can't do. God gave him a lot but he is using everything. He's one of the unique sports figures of all time, really, and he's right in that area where it's all come together." A voracious mind has caught up with a supreme body. The marriage is a marvel.
"It gets no better for a basketball player," says Heat guard Dwyane Wade of the year James just completed: NBA champion, NBA MVP, Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, hardwood revolutionary. Call him the best point guard in the league, or the best power forward, or both, or neither. "He has no position," says an NBA scout. "His position is to do whatever he wants. There's never been anything like it. You just give him the ball and you win the game." Defend James with bigger players and he pulls them out to the three-point line so he can breeze past them. Try smaller, more nimble players and he backs them all the way into the basket stanchion. The formula sounds simple, for a Mack truck with a Ferrari engine, but only now has it come into focus.
And so, less than 29 months after he sat on a stage at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., and incurred a nation's wrath, LeBron James is the Sportsman of the Year. He is not the Sportsman of 2010, when he announced his decision to leave Cleveland in a misguided television special, or 2011, when he paid dearly for his lapse in judgment. He is the Sportsman of 2012. "Did I think an award like this was possible two years ago?" James says. "No, I did not. I thought I would be helping a lot of kids and raise $3 million by going on TV and saying, 'Hey, I want to play for the Miami Heat.' But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am."
He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch. "He got rid of the bulls---," says one of his former coaches, and he quietly hoped the public would notice. When James strides into an opposing arena, he takes in the crowd, gazes up at the expressions on the faces. "I can tell the difference between 2010 and 2012," he says. Anger has turned to appreciation, perhaps grudging, but appreciation nonetheless. James has become an entry on a bucket list, a spectacle you have to see at least once, whether you crave the violence of sports or the grace, the force or the finesse. He attracts the casual fan with his ferocious dunks and the junkie with his sublime pocket passes. He is a Hollywood blockbuster with art-house appeal.
In this, the 28th and best year of his life, James came to peace with his power. He still considers himself the spindly guard bounding into the gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary for his first practice -- "a 6-foot, 170-pound skinny-ass kid who played like a wizard," remembers his friend, business manager and former high school teammate, Maverick Carter -- which is hard to believe when sitting next to him. James fills every room, even a 20,000-seat palace, not only with his size but also his presence. Like a classic heavyweight, his might makes him seem larger than his 6'8", 250-pound frame.
"People tell me how big I am, but I don't see it," James insists. "I just remember that little freshman, taking the ball off the backboard and running. I'm a perimeter guy." Moving into the paint represented more than a new role. It demanded a new identity. "Imagine you have studied your whole life to be something, and you wake up one day and say, 'I have to change,'" James says. "You never forget what you studied. It's embedded in you. But now it's time to study something else. It's like reading two books at the same time."
He has morphed from the most imposing small forward in the league to the most dynamic all-around threat in the history of the league. The switch is both psychological and strategic, and he did not make it alone. The day after the Heat lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, coach Erik Spoelstra gathered his assistants at American Airlines Arena and told them, "We have to open our minds and develop a system where LeBron James is the best player in the world every single night."
Dating back almost to the inception of the franchise, Miami constructed its offense around a dominant big man because Riley had always seemed to have one: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers, Patrick Ewing with the Knicks, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal with the Heat. When the club signed James, coaches treated him as a premier wing within a traditional offense. "We tried to put an unconventional player in a conventional system," Spoelstra says. He scolds himself for it.
But in the summer of 2011, Spoelstra and his staff designed an attack as unique as the megastar it features. "Whether LeBron is inside or outside, everything revolves around him," says Heat assistant coach David Fizdale. "He can be the power big or the power guard. It doesn't matter. He's positionless." James is the sun, with sharpshooters spread around him like planets, providing space to post up or drive and dish. Spoelstra rarely has to call a play. In close games James brings the ball up the floor, hands it off, races to the block and gets it right back, simultaneously the point guard and the power forward. He could probably score 50 points a night, but he still can't bring himself to shoot over double teams, so he feeds whoever has been left alone.
Fizdale sighs as he discusses the 2011 Finals, when the Heat clogged the paint with two traditional big men, forcing James to the perimeter. "All those jumpers he missed were as much our fault as his," Fizdale says. "He had to be great in spite of what we were doing. Now he has an avenue to be great because of what we're doing."
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
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, over-think things," he says. "It can get in my way." He slips on his headphones, turns up the hip-hop and finds his attack mode.
Harris Elementary School, the three-story brick building in North Hill where James used to play basketball with custodians before class, has been shuttered. SWAT teams use the halls for practice, and bullet casings litter the hardwood floors. James went to third grade at Harris and stayed for fourth, but he missed 80 days that year because he and his mother kept moving. Akron is filled with children growing up just as James did. Eighty-four percent of the city's public elementary school students live in poverty. James tried to help with his annual Bikeathon. Once a summer, for five years, he passed out AK-Rowdy bikes to 300 underprivileged kids and then rode with them through the streets. He even established a bike kitchen downtown where the kids could go for free repairs. "But that was it," says Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation. "It was one and done."
As a spokesman for State Farm's 26 Second Initiative, James learned that a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds, and he asked Campbell what they could do. Studies show that children come to the first major fork in their educational road around third grade. "There is a lot of research that tells us where kids are at third grade in terms of reading level [indicates] where they will be at 30," says David James, superintendent of Akron public schools. In April 2011, LeBron introduced Wheels for Education, and his foundation contacted every incoming third-grader in the Akron public school system deemed at-risk. They all received an invitation from "Mr. LeBron" to join his new program. "I was the same as them," James says. "I could have gone either way."
Last year 300 third-graders across 30 elementary schools signed up. This year 216 followed. To become Wheels for Education members, the students must complete a two-week "fall camp," and at the end James returns to Akron and gives each of them an AK-Rowdy bike. He also makes them recite "The Promise," which they shout in high-pitched voices as if it were the Pledge of Allegiance. "I promise: To go to school. To do all of my homework. To listen to my teachers because they will help me learn. To ask questions and find answers. To never give up, no matter what. To always try my best. To be helpful and respectful to others. To live a healthy life by eating right and being active. To make good choices for myself. To have fun. And above all else, to finish school!" In return James promises to be a positive role model and help where he can.
Every student in the Akron public schools is required to wear a collared shirt. James's students wear shirts emblazoned with a crown over the words the lebron james family foundation. "i promise." They wear socks with a crown logo. If they stay home for a few days, they may wake up to this voice-mail message: "Hi, it's LeBron. Your teachers and friends are missing you at school. As soon as you feel better, get back in school and get back in the game." If they ace a few assignments, they may hear this: "Hey, it's LeBron. I heard you were a superstar at school this week. You are keeping our promise, and I am so proud of you. Keep up the great work at school."
In addition to the six recorded messages, James posts weekly on a Wheels for Education website and sends letters to the kids every month or so. "I read a lot of books this summer," he wrote in August. "I love to read. Reading is important because it helps us learn new things. Even though I am not in school anymore, I still read books." He shares book recommendations from his fiancée, Savannah, and their sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce. Last spring James flew six standouts from Rankin Elementary School to Miami for the presentation of his MVP Award.
James's students attend their regular schools during the day and are then encouraged to participate in Akron After School, which runs from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at their respective campuses and -includes one hour of reading or math instruction with a second hour of an elective: Theater, ballet, poetry, ceramics and journalism are a few of the options. Desiree Bolden, who runs Akron After School, recalls the first time she met with Campbell about Wheels for Education. "She asked if I had a wish list," Bolden says, "and I've never been asked that before." Bolden lamented the lack of technology in her classrooms. Three months later James donated 1,000 Hewlett-Packard laptops.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, 14 of James's students were sitting on the floor in the library at Mason Community Learning Center, reading with Austin -Qualls. A senior at Akron's Firestone High, -- Qualls plans to enlist in the Navy next summer, but first he is serving as one of 19 Wheels for Education ambassadors. "I'm not doing this because LeBron is a basketball player," -- Qualls says. "I don't even watch a lot of basketball. I recognize him more for his fatherly side."
Of the 14 Wheels for Education students at Mason, only a handful come from homes with both biological parents, according to the school principal, Stephanie Churn. "These are children who are not used to having anyone in their corner," Churn says. "A lot of them have nothing to look forward to. Some of them come here for food. But they know they're LeBron's kids. That colors every single day of their lives. I realize he's a basketball hero to a lot of people, but to them he's a guardian angel. They understand what he expects of them, and they're not about to let him down." As Mason third-grader Amyah Hodoh puts it: "LeBron wants us to get to college someday, so that's what we're trying to do."
The preliminary report of Kent State researchers, who are tracking the group's progress, found that James's students averaged 14.7 absences last year, compared with 18.9 for their peers in the district. Even after the Wheels for Education kids pass third grade, they remain in the program. They will be monitored by James and his staff until they graduate from high school. The first commencement ceremony will be in 2021.
James spends his free time like a typical 27-year-old American male. He watches League Pass and Sunday Ticket, mid-major basketball games and small-college football games, all on the big-screen TV in his den in Miami or the 30 big-screen TVs that are fused together in his basement in Akron. He grins when SportsCenter comes on and he is part of the championship montage that precedes the show.
If James is impressed by a player, no matter the level, he fires off a tweet. "The next thing you know," says Mims, "we'll go into the city where the kid lives, and he'll be there. LeBron just took care of it." James never had an NBA mentor, so he is counseling a generation. He holds annual basketball camps, and four years ago at the LeBron James King's Academy in Akron, he was struck by a fourth-grader with a wicked crossover named Amelia Motz. "I think it's because I was a pretty good white girl," Motz says, "and I didn't ask him for anything." She kept returning to the camp, and two summers ago James told her to keep in touch. She texted him when she received her first college letter, from Pitt, and he showed up last season to one of her games at Canton's Jackson Middle School.
At the time, Motz was deciding whether to stay at Jackson for high school or go to St. Vincent-St. Mary, LeBron's alma mater, and James shot with her the next day. "People were pulling me in a thousand directions, and he just told me to do what felt best for me," Motz says. "It's not about who he is but what he has to offer as a friend. He's like a big brother." When she turned 14 in July, James took her and her mother to Red Lobster for dinner. Motz is now a freshman guard at St. Vincent-St. Mary, 5'9" with a long brown ponytail, and feeling guilty because she recently won a starting spot after the regular point guard tore her ACL. "Last week I talked to LeBron about it," Motz says. "I want to earn everything I get, and I was worried I didn't deserve it. He told me someone had to step in, and I put myself in position to do that."
James is a natural leader, but it is one area in which he can still grow. He provides support and encouragement, but the greats push lesser teammates to higher places, without ever losing faith in them when they fall short. "If you want to be the Boat, you have to continue to win, and to do that you have to bring other players with you," Riley says. "He's a leader vocally and by example, but I see his frustration when we lose to good competition. Sometimes the players who helped win a championship one year aren't the same the next year. He has to make sure those guys are in it mentally all the time. He has to be the leader they trust and whatever he says goes."
James listens to linebacker Ray Lewis exhort the Ravens before games. He ignores the fire and brimstone, focusing on the message. "There's always a message," James says. "He's never just yelling." Miami has appeared disengaged defensively so far this season, ranking 20th in points allowed after finishing fourth in the same category last year. During a game against the Clippers in November, James stood on the right wing between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. As they passed the ball back and forth, James shuffled from Griffin to Paul and back again, arms flailing by his sides. He chirped, "Ball! Ball! Ball!" the way coaches ask players to do in practice. He was demonstrating the energy and activity needed from his teammates. When Griffin finally made a move to the basket, James rushed over and blocked his shot with both hands.
Everyone told him he would feel unchained this season, the championship burden lifted, but he is still waiting for that sensation to take hold. "I know there is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot," James says. "And I know where he is too. He's in Oklahoma. He's my inspiration because I see the direction he's headed, and it's the same direction I'm headed. I know his mind-set, and he knows mine. It's a collision course. We're driving one another." He is referring, of course, to Kevin Durant. They talk on the phone every week, friends and enemies, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for a new era. "What's important to LeBron is what happens when he is facing KD again, or whoever it is in the Finals," Riley says. "[LeBron] needs that player to look back at him and think, This son of a bitch is too big, too strong, and his will is too great."
On the ninth day of a 10-day pre-Thanksgiving road trip, James sat by the pool on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, feeling ill. The Heat had arrived at the hotel that morning at three, and on the flight from Denver, James and Wade killed time watching a video from their rookie season, called Dunks! Vol. 2. They marveled at how young they looked nine years ago and how high they jumped. "It seemed like a whole life ago," Wade says. "LeBron was more athletic then, but he's a way better player now. He's another person."
As veterans age, they find it more difficult to recover from travel. James was queasy. He didn't know if he could play the next night against the Suns. As he sipped chamomile tea, he was asked what drives him in the middle of November, at the end of a long trip, against a forgotten team in a faraway city. The Finals, and a potential rematch with Durant, were more than six months away.
James tugged on his Heat cap. In 28 hours he would take the court with a nasty flu. Up by four in the final minute, he would grab a rebound, push the ball down the right wing and dribble once between his legs and again behind his back. Using a screen from Bosh, he would drive to his left and spin back to his right before feathering a layup just over the outstretched hand of 6'11" center Marcin Gortat. The Heat would win, and James would score 20 points or more for the 32nd consecutive game. Even some Suns fans would applaud.
But at the pool he craved a day off. "I've been fortunate to have packed houses every night I go on the floor," James said. "I understand they're coming to watch the Suns tomorrow, but they're also coming to watch us and watch me, and I want people to appreciate how I play. I don't want them to leave disappointed. No matter if you've got a Suns jersey or a Heat jersey, I feel like you're here to see me. So once the lights turn on and the fans come in and the popcorn starts popping, I'll be ready to go. However much I have, I'll use it. I just think about that one guy, coming to one game, who called the radio station, and he was the fifth caller and they said, 'Number 5 caller, you've won two tickets to see the Miami Heat! Go crazy!'
"I'll be damned if I'm going to let him down."