Today, reports were confirmed that LeBron James is this year’s NBA MVP. Tomorrow, ‘Bron will accept the trophy in front of the Cleveland crowd before his second-round series with Atlanta gets underway. Back in February we put LeBron on the cover of Dime #47, as he was in the middle of his career year. Here’s the reprint of that feature:
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Where did the game go?
Sometime between when Mike could still fly, when Isiah could still finish, when Magic could still seek and Larry could still destroy — sometime between then and when they stepped aside for Kobe, Chris, Dwyane and Dirk — the game escaped us. At some point, everything surrounding the game became the focus: Salary cap number crunching, trade rumors, free agent speculation, insider blogs, insider vlogs, and endorsement conflicts. By the time we looked up and found ourselves talking more about luxury taxes than late-night highlights, it had gone too far. But remember when you didn’t care? When the only game that mattered was the game?
LeBron James’ fight is to get back to that place.
It sounds hypocritical coming from the 24-year-old who, when he was 21, told the world he wanted to be a certified billionaire. It looks impossible for somebody who takes lunch meetings with Warren Buffet and Shawn Carter, who lands on the covers of GQ, Vogue, TIME and Fortune in a 12-month span. And it’s almost laughably idealistic for a kid who once blew a bubble and woke up the next morning with a Bubblelicious deal, who as a grown man is already in the Jordan phase of his advertising career, able to film TV spots where he doesn’t have to say a word to deliver the message. Today’s athlete must view himself as a mini-corporation, but LeBron is a bona fide worldwide conglomerate.
And yet, he wants to go back to just the game. In a season where LeBron cannot be discussed at the mainstream or water-cooler level without somebody bringing up his free agent status in 2010 — or the Knicks, the Nets, the Euroleague, the off-court business, the money or all the other bullshit — he needs the game.
“I love the game of basketball,” LeBron says. “Free agency isn’t far away, but it is far away to me. I live in the moment — I live for the moment — and the game of basketball helps me. Every time I go out on the court, I don’t care about no free agency or what other people think. Everybody’s got their own opinions on that, but they really don’t know.”
And in the game, LeBron has been better than he’s ever been before. From a fascinating prospect in 2003, to a legit superstar in 2005, to nearly a champion in 2007, he is arguably the best player in the world in 2009. Whether you side with LeBron or Kobe (and in today’s climate, apparently you do have to choose), at the very least, it’s taken as fact that LeBron is the most complete ballplayer and the most physically dominant force in the game. At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, he has the controlled velocity of a Koenigsegg CCX and the unchecked power of an Escalade. As my father has taken to saying whenever he sees another highlight, “LeBron isn’t real, man. He’s an experiment.”
Through mid-January, LeBron’s Cavaliers were 30-6 (undefeated at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena) and challenging the Lakers for the best record in the NBA. While LeBron’s 27.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game at press time are not career-highs, his 51 percent field goal and 78 percent free throw shooting numbers are, and his 36 minutes a night are a career-low. Sum total: the most explosive player on the planet has now become one of the most efficient. Three times in a seven-day span during November, he scored 41 points in a game. Six times he’s handed out 10 or more assists in a game. Even in the five games where he’s scored fewer than 20 points, his team is still 4-1. Midway through the season, LeBron is the odds-on favorite to win his first league MVP.
“He’s on a whole other level right now,” says Lakers forward Trevor Ariza. “He’s a killer out there. He’s a beast out there right now. He’s playing at a totally different level, playing with confidence and his team is playing with confidence.”
“He’s always the same,” says Cleveland guard Sasha Pavlovic. “We win the game, he’s the same as when we lost the game. I think that’s what makes him great. After the game, win or lose, playing great or not-so-great, he’s the same — he’s always about the next game.”
With its franchise player cleared for takeover, Cleveland’s front office has followed suit. Criticized in the past for what appeared to be an unwarranted sense of complacency and for not putting the necessary pieces around LeBron to win, Cavs general manager Danny Ferry had a spotless summer of ’08. He traded for point guard Mo Williams, re-signed combo guard Delonte West and three-point sniper Daniel Gibson, and drafted impact rookie forward J.J. Hickson. Together with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and head coach Mike Brown, the Cavs are a legit title threat in ’09. And if anything will in fact keep LeBron in Cleveland, it is the opportunity to play for a championship team.
At press time, Cleveland ranked first in the NBA in scoring defense and first in field-goal percentage defense. LeBron, previously pegged as (at best) a capable defender yet sometimes lazy defender, has been the straw stirring the drink, clocking a career-best 1.3 blocks per game, plus 2.0 steals. According to the Memphis announcers before the Cleveland’s Jan. 13 win over the Grizzlies — in which LeBron posted 30 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists for his second triple-double of the season — he led the NBA with eight “catch-from-behind” blocks, which increased to nine two minutes into that same game when LBJ reeled in a runaway Kyle Lowry and spiked his layup off the glass. And on separate occasions this season, LeBron shut down Paul Pierce (11 pts, 4-15 FG), Caron Butler (6 pts, 3-13 FG), Danny Granger (4 pts, 2-7 FG) and Rudy Gay (10 pts, 5-18 FG) in head-to-head matchups.
“He was always able to score the ball, but he’s single-handedly taken his team to being one of the top three or four teams in the NBA,” says Granger. “You can’t say that about any other teams. Other teams have a Big Three, or two superstars, but LeBron has done it single-handedly. He’s showing how far his game has come and how good he really is.”
“He’s one of those guys who is big, strong, quick, can knock down shots,” says Ben Wallace. “Once he puts his head down, guys that are in position to take a charge or block a shot are a little bit timid about going over there. They might end up on ESPN or a poster, something like that. He definitely strikes fear into a lot of guys’ hearts.”
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The seeds for LeBron’s 2009 odyssey were planted in June 2007. That was when, after his breakout postseason series win over Detroit, LeBron rolled into a Finals matchup with the Spurs. Four games and four losses later, it seemed he was never really that close to a ’chip after all.
“It just let me know that I need to become a better basketball player,” LeBron says. “I think San Antonio did a great job of exploiting some of our weaknesses and me as an individual, and they took advantage of it. But I thank San Antonio, because they made me a better player — that made me who I am today. I definitely went into that offseason after losing the Finals focused on becoming a better individual player, which automatically helps our team.”
One year later, Game Seven, Eastern Conference semifinals. In a shootout with Pierce, LeBron ended up with 45 points, but his 3-for-11 shooting from the arc and some crucial missed free throws in the fourth quarter helped send the Cavs home. Walking off the court in his last important game before the summer’s gold-medal run at the Beijing Olympics, LeBron again faced those familiar, bitter feelings.
“It was time to regroup, you know?” he says. “I was definitely sad and upset, because I’m a competitor and I don’t wanna lose to anybody. But I felt like, you know, if we were at full strength we definitely could have competed a little better. But the better team won …”
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His mouth tightens and his tone drops as those three words ring out: The Better Team. LeBron doesn’t like the sound of that in his locker room, not for a team he’s had in his crosshairs since that day in Boston. He is, as he says, a competitor; one of the most fierce in the League. The smiling, PG-13 jokester that lives in the locker room and occasionally surfaces on the court is more exception than rule when it comes to the game. Between the lines, it is the snarling, mouthpiece-gnawing firestarter that fills out his No. 23 jersey. After a season-opening loss in Boston that was almost a replay of Game Seven — including the backbreaking misses at the stripe — LBJ came back on Jan. 9 and dumped 38 points on the Celtics in a blowout win.
“Winning a championship is my next goal, of course, and I strive every day to get these guys better and help us get to that goal,” he says. “And I want to help them get to that goal, so I work on myself every day. There are a lot of people that can never get to the level of a Jordan or Magic; it just won’t happen. But me as an individual, I’m gonna continue to just get better.”
Wallace, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, one-time NBA champion, and notorious weight-room addict, has seen LeBron’s drive to win up-close.
“We got different workout routines and plans. He sticks to his religiously, and I stick to mine religiously,” Wallace says. “That’s one thing that we do have in common. When we go in that weight room, we’re about our business. There isn’t a whole lot of talking. We’re just about getting stronger and getting better.
“He’s a real student of the game. When we’re on the court, he’s focused,” Wallace goes on. “When we’re in the weight room, he’s focused on doing his business. I think that’s one of the keys to his success. Everything he does, he puts 100 percent into it. For a young man at his age, it’s impressive.”
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But who’s going to talk about workouts? Sports media is about arguments and controversy, two concepts that, since he left high school, have largely avoided LeBron James. He lived up to the hype. He buys his own clothes and cars now. He’s become a family man. So once you get past “Kobe vs. LeBron,” there aren’t too many arguments left out there. The greatness is unquestioned, the potential undeniable. In a lot of ways, the most popular player in the NBA is actually kind of boring in a positive, non-Pacman kind of way. Other than the issue of where he will elect to play in 2010, there is very little LeBron drama to be had. There are no incidents in clubs, no arrests, no beef with coaches or management. Other than a one-sided feud with the Wizards’ DeShawn Stevenson, which mostly features Stevenson running his mouth and LeBron winning games, there is nothing for the media to obsess over. (Why do you think the “crab dribble” story was beaten to death by the national media?) So when all else fails, talk turns away from the game. It turns to everything but the game, even if that is where LeBron is making history.
“Every night it’s like this,” says Pavlovic, nodding to a locker room swarming with reporters, all asking questions about everything but that night’s game. “We don’t talk about it (free agency) because we got used to it, especially LeBron. He’s accepted that like an everyday job. He’s always 100 percent focused. Whatever he’s working on, he’s 100 percent focused.”
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So LeBron just plays. He lives in the moment, plays for that game, and then the next game, and then the next. Let the others talk about 2010, about Forbes lists and future destinations. LeBron stays in the game. The man of many faces — the face of the Cavs, of Nike basketball, of Cleveland, perhaps the face of the NBA itself — has all of those eyes pointed in one direction.
“I’m myself,” LeBron says. “I don’t change for anybody. I don’t change for Nike, I don’t change for the Cavs, I don’t change for the NBA. I only got one face, you know, so it’s hard to be the face of too many things.
“When I first got to the NBA, I was happy to be in the NBA and excited to put on an NBA uniform and everything,” he says. “Not saying I still don’t, but now … I want to become the best player of all-time. I want to be the best player on the court every time I go out on the court. I see my potential, and I’m nowhere near as high as I can be.”