After midnight, when the kids are down and the streets are still, LeBron James asks his wife if she wants to go on a cruise. That’s the term he uses, and because Savannah has been with him since high school she knows he is not referring to a yacht in the Caribbean. They head to the garage, grateful somebody can watch the children, and select one of the more inconspicuous cars from their fleet—usually the pickup or an SUV. And as Northeast Ohio sleeps, they turn out of their gated mansion 20 miles south of Cleveland and continue another 20 miles down Interstate 77, through the darkness and into the past.
The cruise does not follow a defined route. It can start in West Akron or North Hill, Merriman Valley or Lane-Wooster, but it always traces the same stops on a boy’s urban odyssey. There’s no need to fire up the GPS. “I don’t know every address,” James says. “But I can find the places I’m looking for.”
Hickory Street, where Big Mama’s house used to sit high atop the hill, before the city tore it down. “My first home,” James says. His mother, Gloria, who gave birth to him at 16, raised him there with her mother, Freda, across from the low-slung lawn maintenance center. All that’s left on the property is an asphalt driveway in the woods and railroad tracks running through hickory trees in what used to be the backyard.
Overlook Drive, up the block, where he and Gloria lived with the Reaves family after Big Mama died and they struggled to pay the electric. “The Reaves cut out the bottom of a crate and nailed it to the telephone pole,” James remembers. “I hooped all day on that crate.” Now the neighborhood kids have a real portable basket and a trampoline on the corner of Overlook and Hickory.
Silver Street, where he moved in with Uncle Curt and ran alongside Mount Peace Cemetery, a block away on Aqueduct. “I dreamed of being Batman, of making the NBA, of buying a house for my mom, of being the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—the Fresh Prince of Akron,” James laughs. “It was as big as I could dream.”
The Elizabeth Park projects, two hulking concrete buildings in the basin under the Y-Bridge, down the street from the single-story Baptist Church with the brick façade. “That’s when things got really tough,” James winces. “It was a mess. It was survival. There was violence. I saw so much I wouldn’t want my kids to see.” The blighted structures have since been leveled, turned into the Cascade Valley Apartments, a collection of two-story condos with multi-colored wood paneling.
Woodward Avenue and the three-story white house with green trim flanked by twin maple trees out front. James walked the two blocks to Harris Elementary School, also since razed and turned into parkland. “It was nice being that close to school, but you start to wonder, ‘How many more times are we going to do this? How many more times are we going to move?’ But I wasn’t going to ask my mom those questions. She was making the best choices for us that she could.”
Frederick Boulevard, Crestview Avenue, Moon Street. There are others he forgets. The order blurs. Did he sleep on a couch or in a bed? Did the place belong to an uncle or an uncle’s friend, a cousin or a friend he just called a cousin? “I know Moon Street was fourth grade,” James recalls, “when I missed the 82 days of school because I couldn’t get across town.” He’d often stay inside and eat from the same box of cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “A bag of potato chips was like a steak.”
Hillwood Drive, the green-and-white traditional with peeling paint and a tiny teddy bear hanging from the roof of the front porch, where youth football coach Frank Walker opened his doors. “Here is a married couple with a son and two daughters,” James says. “Here is structure. Here is stability. It was the first time I’d felt that since Hickory.”
Spring Hill Apartments, a six-story white shoebox on Rentar Lane, with units tucked behind sliding glass doors and vertical blinds. Gloria and LeBron were on the top floor above the playground. She made him leave his sneakers on the deck because they smelled so bad after school and practice. “That was it,” James sighs. “Finally, just me and my mom, united. Friends came over, wanting to spend the night, and I was like: ‘You guys have moms and dads but you want to stay with us? I thought that was so cool. I got there in sixth grade and didn’t leave until 12th. So for all the painful memories, there are bright ones. That’s a bright one.”
The cruise, which he takes about every six months, ends back at the mansion gates before sunrise. “Blessings on top of blessings,” James says. “It makes you appreciate them all.” Among professional athletes, and particularly NBA players, James’s childhood journey is not unique. But he clings to it as a subject of reflection and a source of inspiration.
“When you grow up the way I grew up, I don’t think you ever really get past it,” he continues. “I think it’s part of you forever. Life is like a book and I think you have to go back and read your book sometimes, to learn from it. Maybe I’m at Chapter 8 right now, but you can’t sit down and start reading a book at Chapter 8. You have to go back to Chapter 1.”
With 2 minutes and 27 seconds left in the first half of Game 7 and the Cavaliers trailing the Warriors by three points, Tyronn Lue called timeout. “Bron, you’ve got to be better than this,” the Cavs coach implored.
“What do you mean?” James asked, incredulous. He had just scored 41 points with 16 rebounds in Game 5 and added another 41 with 11 assists in Game 6, evening a series that was essentially over. He’d sent his teammates impassioned late-night group texts, showed them the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford and convinced them during a post-practice bus ride across the Bay Bridge that the championship was their destiny. It’s already written, he shouted from the back.
“What more do you want me to do?” he pressed Lue.
“Stop being so passive!” the coach barked. “Stop turning the ball over! And guard Draymond!” James’s numbers looked fine—12 points, seven rebounds, five assists—but he had unleashed a few sloppy passes and Draymond Green, his primary assignment, was 5 for 5 from three-point range. “Bron was mad, pissed off at me, and then we went into the locker room at halftime and I told him the same thing in front of all the guys,” Lue recalls. “He was mad again, pissed off again.”
After Lue finished, he saw James approach assistant coach Damon Jones in the locker room and overheard their exchange. “It’s messed up that T Lue is questioning me right now,” James said. The Cavaliers trailed by seven. The season was slipping.
“Everything I read all year is that you want to be coached, want to be held accountable, and trust T Lue,” Jones replied. “Why not trust him now?”
James was still rankled. He moved on to James Jones, his long-time teammate, who has ridden shotgun to the past six Finals. “I can’t believe this,” LeBron said.
“Well,” Jones responded, “is he telling the truth?”
Lue, ducking in and out of a back office, kept an eye on LeBron. “He stormed out of the locker room,” Lue says. The coach laughs as he tells the story. “I didn’t really think he was playing that bad,” Lue admits. “But I used to work for Doc Rivers in Boston, and he told me, ‘I never want to go into a Game 7 when the best player is on the other team.’ We had the best player. We needed him to be his best. I know he might have been tired, but f--- that. We had to ride him. And he had to take us home.”
With 1:08 left in the game and the Cavaliers in another timeout, James sat motionless on the bench at Oracle Arena. He had cooled Green in the second half. He had swatted Andre Iguodala on the crucial breakaway. He had put up six straight points, and the score was tied. “I will never forget that timeout because he was so calm—and we were so calm because he was so calm,” remembers Cleveland power forward Kevin Love. “I could see Adam Silver in the stands over here. I could see Phil Knight over there. Everything was kind of moving in slow motion.”
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin flashed back to a game at Quicken Loans Arena in November 2014, shortly after James returned to Cleveland. “We were dropping confetti for every regular-season win at home,” Griffin recounts, “and three wins in, Bron was like: ‘Can you do something about the confetti? We haven’t accomplished anything yet.’” Griffin asked the game operations staff to quash the confetti, which they did, but after the Cavs vanquished the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, James noticed unwelcome debris tumbling from the rafters. In an otherwise jubilant post-game locker room, he spotted the GM. “Griff,” James grumbled, “how ‘bout that confetti tonight?”
“Dude,” Griffin shot back, “we won the East.”
“That’s a trophy,” James deadpanned.
The Warriors took the hardware he wanted, and for a year, the NBA belonged to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two splashy sons of the suburbs reared by dads who played in the league. “LeBron tells everyone he’s gotten to the point where you give it your best effort, and if you don’t win, it is what it is,” Griffin says. “I think that’s bulls---. I think he was consumed by that trophy in a way that was probably not healthy, and when he didn’t get it, I don’t think he was the same person for a while. I think it bothered him deeply and he came back a radically better version of himself.”
Golden State went 73–9 last season, a record no team had ever reached, and seized a 3–1 lead in the Finals, an advantage no team had ever overcome. “But the thing is, when you have LeBron James, you’re never afraid,” Griffin continues. “You’re never David against Goliath because you have Goliath. So fear does not really exist. Every circumstance we put ourselves in, we expect to get out of, because we have him. He makes you believe you can do anything because he is present, and we all get to succeed because we’re in his sphere. I imagine that’s how it was with the Yankees and Babe Ruth, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”