THERE WAS a moment during last Friday's Cavaliers-Warriors game when it looked as if Golden State center Andris Biedrins, who is no small man at 6'11" and 245 pounds,had been sucked out of an airplane hold, so forcefully was he sent flying backward. Biedrins was attempting to protect the rim when Cleveland forward LeBron James came charging down the lane in that straight-line,parting-the-waters manner of his. Gamely, Biedrins took to the air to try to block the shot, and then—whoomp!—next thing you knew he was hurtling onto his backside.
This is an article from the Feb. 2, 2009 issue
As for the 6'8" James, he remained both on-balance and on-course, as if he'd merely hit a patch of turbulence on his solo commuter flight—nonstop from basket to basket, departing 15 times nightly—before rattling in a layup. Minutes later he took off again, only this time he toppled two Warriors, then threw down a one-handed dunk of surpassing violence.Afterward, Golden State forward Stephen Jackson described the perils of such encounters, "As big as he is, you hope he just doesn't run you over and give you a concussion."
And just how big is James, exactly? Well, that is a matter of intense speculation around the NBA. He came into the league in 2003 weighing 240 pounds and is listed at 250 in this year's media guide, but that number is clearly low. There are whispers that he goes 265; one report recently had him at 274. "He's at least 260, right?" guessed Jackson, who added that D-ing up James is like"guarding a brick wall."
In an attempt to settle the matter last week I brought a scale to my interview with James at a ballroom in San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel. He laughed, but didn't get on,saying, "I can't let everybody know everything about LeBron," said James, who more than any other star understands the value of mystique. He did joke that he'd "gotten fat"—this from a man with 5% body fat whose raised veins run like tiny interstates up his arms and calves—then hemmed and hawed before confiding that he had gained eight pounds this summer "even though I was trying to lose 10." That said, a Cavs source puts James's weight "between 265 and 270."
Which,considering his extraordinary speed and skill, is staggering. There are plenty of centers who don't weigh that much, including Cleveland's own, 7'3",260-pound Zydrunas Ilgauskas. If Magic Johnson was the first big man to play like a point forward, then James is the league's first point linebacker."He even makes reads like a football player," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who worked with James for the last three years on the national team. "And he has enough speed; he could probably play free safety." Imagine that coming up to hit you on a slant pattern over the middle.
It would be one thing if James were merely an athletic marvel, but his game has grown along with his physique. He's the primary reason the Cavaliers were an Eastern Conference--best 34--8 at week's end—including 20--0 at home—and, for the first time in James's career, a championship contender. Sure, credit also goes to coach Mike Brown, who was wise enough to delegate offensive and defensive game plans to his lieutenants this season, as well as 6'1" Mo Williams, who is the diminutive Pippen to James's Jordan. But it all comes down to the guy who through Sunday was averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.0 steals and three mother-of-God-did-you-see-that? plays a game. "You knew the Cavs would be good, but I didn't think they'd be this good," says one Eastern Conference scout. "I didn't think LeBron was going to improve that much,especially defensively. It's not usual to see a guy his age come back better and stronger every year. He really is a freak."
If so, then let us examine this freak who, it should also be noted, has scored almost 12,000 points and is barely 24. By taking the measure of the man, perhaps we can calculate his impact on the game. Consider this LeBronatomy 101.
This is sure to exasperate scrawny teenagers toiling in weight rooms the world over, but despite his bodybuilder's physique, James has never really lifted. At least not the way a normal human would to develop such musculature. (Think heavy weight,low reps, lots of grunting and Metallica.)
Rather, James began working out seriously only last June. "He just messed around in the weight room and got by on raw strength his first few years," says Cavs trainer Mike Mancias, who oversees all of James's conditioning work. Even now, James eschews what he calls "iron-man championship lifting," such as the bench press, for core exercises, dumbbells and, starting last summer, yoga—not that he was an easy convert. "I had to start with poses he wouldn't think were too goofy, if you catch my drift," says Mancias. Still,there was James at a hotel in Los Angeles last summer, busting out some downward dog by the pool in front of his fellow guests.
That James has gained weight is as much a mystery to him as anyone else. He doesn't gulp protein shakes or pound down extra carbs, instead eating three square meals (such as oatmeal, chicken, salmon) prepared by his chef, with the occasional candy snack in between. "It's kind of crazy," James says. "My body's, like, reversed."
Now James lifts every game day for 20 to 30 minutes, following a set routine. Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry attributes the new regimen to James's national team experience. "From a corporate sense, it's like those guys spent their summers sharing best practices," says Ferry. "If they have a meeting in the morning and Kobe Bryant comes in sweaty, LeBron's going to say, Holy s---, this guy's already working. That's what it takes."
Just as Tiger Woods remade his swing when he was already dominant, James spent last summer quietly reconstructing his jumper, working with assistant coach Chris Jent five days a week, an hour and a half per session. If you watched James shoot last year, you know why; even though teams were petrified of his penetration, he sometimes looked like he was chucking pumpkins at the backboard. According to NBA.com, he hit only 37.1% of his two-point jumpers from the top of the key and the wings, which are the money spots for an off-the-dribble midrange shooter.
So James worked to develop what Jent calls a "calmer" shot. This meant better balance—when firing on the move, James has to contend with the considerable momentum created by his weight—and keeping his right elbow locked at his side so that, as James puts it, "the ball will go straight instead of veering off sometimes."
Like a pee-wee player, James began by putting up one-handed shots close to the basket. Next came one-dribble jumpers and free throws, then midrange shots. Remarkably,never once during the sessions did he fling a three-pointer. (Let's see you spend one hour at the gym and resist the temptation.) "He's so strong that he can shoot a jumper from half-court," explains Jent. "Form first, and the range will come."
The results are encouraging, if still indicative of a work in progress. At week's end James was shooting 43.8% on two-pointers from the top of the key and the wings. When he's hot—as he was in the Cavs' 88-80 win at Portland on Jan. 21—he will hit a succession of deep one-dribble pull-ups that make him all but unguardable. "That's the shot he didn't have before," noted one Eastern Conference personnel executive at the game. "A couple of those I was like, 'No way,'but he hit them." Indeed, the jumpers, fading and dagger-like, were reminiscent of—what's his name again?—oh yes, Mr. Bryant.
Feet (Size 16)
Last summer Idan Ravin, a Washington, D.C.--based trainer whose clients include New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul and Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony,worked out James and was struck by how quickly he covered ground. "Most players can go full speed from baseline to baseline in somewhere between 11 and 14 strides," says Ravin. "LeBron covers that in nine or 10."
This is especially valuable on defense. Draw a circle of, say, six feet around most players and this is how much space they can patrol—call it their defensive radius. For James, that circle can become almost twice as big. "He can be all the way in the lane on that skip pass and still close out [on a shooter on the wing]," says Cavs assistant Mike Malone, the team's defensive coordinator. "And it's not a six-foot guy like me closing out, it's 'Holy crap, this is a big guy coming at you.'" He's become a lockdown guy too. In a Jan. 9 showdown with the defending champion Boston Celtics, James harassed swingman Paul Pierce into 4-of-15 shooting with five turnovers in a 98-83 Cleveland win. "He's leaps and bounds better on defense now," says one Eastern Conference scout, praising James's footwork, balance and understanding of schemes. "He's not trying to leak out for dunks anymore. I think before,that's what separated Kobe from him, but now LeBron has stepped it up to his level."
In essence James has become the coolest toy any defense-inclined coach could imagine. When the Cavs play the Hornets, for example, James can not only guard the 6-foot Paul,but he can also switch to 6'9", 240-pound power forward David West on a pick-and-roll. "Instead of a little guy like Mo or Daniel Gibson, now it's LeBron switched on to West, and he can bang him," says Malone. "You know how tough that is for a team?"
At the NBA predraft camp six years ago, James's vertical leap was measured at 44 inches. Given that he estimates he gets about a foot higher jumping off one leg, that means that with a running start he could probably leap over your armoire without even turning horizontal. This, it goes without saying, is a useful basketball skill. For example, when asked what one part of James's game he would steal, teammate Wally Szczerbiak says, "That go-go Gadget calf muscle on his left leg."
This is not to imply James's two-foot jumping is subpar. A couple of weeks ago, with Cleveland depleted by injury, he jumped center against the Memphis Grizzlies, winning the tip against 7'1" Marc Gasol. A week later he played center for nearly 12 minutes against the Hornets and held his own, which should come as no surprise considering what he did during the Olympics. "He would switch off on opposing centers and say, 'Don't worry about him, he ain't going anywhere,"says McMillan. "Because he understands leverage, he would get underneath bigger guys so they couldn't move."
Eyes (New and Improved)
Despite his estimable court vision, up until a year ago, James had trouble seeing certain things. Like, say, road signs. Growing up, James had horrible eyesight. "I was in the classroom, and I couldn't see the chalkboard, so I had to move to the front. I couldn't see a sign three blocks down. I couldn't see a lot of stuff."
So, obviously, he got glasses, right?
"Nah," he says with a sheepish smile. "My pride wouldn't let me."
Thus during high school and his first five years in the NBA, James operated in something of a haze, which must make all the players who got torched by him feel great. Only James claims it never affected his game. "I could see everything on the court. I never had a problem with here"—he holds his hands to the side of his head, indicating his peripheral vision—"it was right here in front that I had the problem."
Then, a little over a year ago, James got Lasik surgery. Now, as he puts it, "it's kind of cool, because I can see stuff in the distance. I'm like, So that's what that is! Pressed, he admits it's probably improved his on-court performance too, saying, "Well, I have gotten better."
Hands (Flinging It)
They measure 91/4 inches from the bottom of his palm to the top of his middle finger, and he's been able to palm a basketball since the 10th grade. This allows him not only to wave it around if he so pleases on drives but also to grab a disproportionate number of one-handed rebounds. It also enables him to throw passes with astonishing velocity. "At first I had to get used to it because he'd surprise me," says Szczerbiak. "He'll be on the other side of the court and—bam!—the ball's right in your shooting pocket."
The Cav catching many of those passes this season is Williams, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team trade last August. That Williams is a point guard with a shooting guard's mentality is O.K. by James, who says he loves that Williams "has confidence and doesn't hesitate." That Williams is accurate doesn't hurt either; according to 82games.com he was third in the NBA this season in two-point jump shot accuracy (49.4%). The result: James finally has the sidekick he's longed for. "Every night I go out on the court, I know there's a guy I can rely on to make things happen for the team and himself and for me," says James. What he does not add is, It's about time, but no one would blame him if he did.
Brain (Like a CEO's)
As physically gifted as James is, Ravin says his "soft skills" might be his greatest asset. "He's so engaging and able to command so much attention and respect that people will mimic him," says Ravin. "That's very powerful, especially in a league of guys trying to fit in."
This season,James is even more vocal. He cajoles, he ribs, he commands, all with his coach's blessing. During huddles James suggests plays, and on the floor he has the freedom to change defensive matchups. So when you see James switch onto an elite scorer like Bryant or Blazers guard Brandon Roy, it is his decision, not Brown's.
James's knowledge of the game is such that McMillan thinks he could coach one day. Then again, as McMillan notes, "When you have that type of mind and then the talent that he has, he could do pretty much whatever he wants."
And that's the really scary part. At age 24 James is already one of the two best players on the planet while remaining far from a finished masterpiece. (The other, the 30-year-old Bryant, is pretty well-refined at this point.) "We saw him grow up from 18 to 24," says Ferry. "And we're going to see him change again from now until 30. We just don't know how."
Even James can't help but marvel at his potential sometimes. "If I'm just getting my man-strength now," he says, "I don't want to see me at 32."