MIAMI -- There’s something you might want to understand about LeBron James as he gets ready to start the season. It’s something that he might deny publicly but that goes right to the heart of what you can expect to see out of him on a nightly basis.
A part of James is hurting. And it is changing him. And it is driving him as he’s never been driven before.
At the core, that is why, this week, James shared some of the hateful and racist tweets he’s been getting. He wants people to know that he reads and hears the still-massive volume of venom. And he wants them to know he’s going to feed on that energy.
Whether all of that ends up in a championship season depends on so many factors, many of which no one can foresee. But although James has found motivation from various sources before, this isn’t a normal preseason template. This is the first time you are going to see him motivated, at least in significant part, by hate.
On Wednesday, James said the hatred he reads on a regular basis on his Twitter feed “doesn’t affect me at all.” But that isn’t the complete truth. He might ignore a lot of it, but he’s also taking some of it in and letting it fester.
Anyone who has spent significant time around James understands how highly aware he is. In fact, his awareness is one of his best attributes. Most can see it simply on the court, where he’s able to dart passes to teammates, read plays, jump passing lanes and figure out angles for chase-down blocks.
With such keen awareness, James has heard the hecklers in the crowd over the years and responded to them often. He knows, by peeking at side scoreboards, whether he was not given an assist when he felt he deserved one and sends an objection to the stats crew. He’ll know which player the coach is about to bring into the game. In interview sessions, he’ll scan the crowd to identify the reporters and prepare for certain lines of questioning.
Once in a game in James’ rookie year, he was waiting to check in at the scorer’s table when a voice caught his attention. A female fan in the front row was calling to him, yelling “Lee-Bron.” As he got up to check in, he leaned over to a person at the scorer’s table and said: “Tell her it is pronounced ‘La-Bron.’”
As he was doing it, he looked over at the opposing bench and saw the coach make a hand signal. A second after he finished giving his pronunciation request, he trotted onto the court and informed his bench the other team was switching to a zone defense.
That is how James operates. He consumes information and processes it in remarkable time. In his mansion outside his hometown of Akron, one of James’ favorite rooms has an entire wall of TVs. On off nights, he enjoys watching every NBA game that is going on. Often all at once. Perhaps a college game or two, as well.
As he watches, he can sometimes predict plays before they happen because of how well he knows the league and its personnel. He’s been known to call out a play, such as a backdoor lob, before it happens. It is because he’s always watching and reading and absorbing.
When getting stretched out before games or after workouts, James often will listen to music and rap to himself while cycling through two BlackBerrys sending texts and reading the Internet at the same time. He reads the box scores. And the transactions. And the rumor pages.
For more than a year, James resisted the urging of friends to start using Twitter, saying he wanted to keep his privacy. He relented in July, just in time for several hundred thousand people to get a direct line to him. When he was asked Wednesday why he even looks at his responses, something that is merely an option in the Twitter program, he basically said he has to see it.
“Once in a blue moon, you need to see that, no matter how many good things you do, you’re going to have people that downplay the things you do,” James said.
That awareness and those consumption habits simply didn’t allow him to get through the summer without feeling a significant portion of the backlash of his decision to come to Miami. Sure, he knew that in Cleveland he would face an angry and intense reaction. But, according to friends, he was taken aback by the national response.
Yet he kept taking it in, kept reading, listening and watching. A month after signing with the Heat, James fired off a tweet verifying that. He wrote, “Don't think for one min that I haven't been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!”
He’s still taking notes and still reading at least some of the hundreds of negative Twitter messages that come in by the day. And there’s no doubt he’ll listen to the hecklers who are sure to arrive nightly, especially in the cities where he turned down contract offers this summer.
More racist messages arrived Wednesday afternoon after James talked publicly about the Twitter responses. There also were plenty of messages of support, and James surely reads and sometimes even retweets those, as well.
But all those negative vibes seem to have some effect. This preseason James has been more withdrawn than in the past, putting some of his trademark bombastic personality away. There isn’t as much laughter. There isn’t as much horseplay. So far, there’s been no sign of dancing. Frankly, it appears to the observer that there isn’t as much fun.
James does seem happy with his decision to come to the Heat. He has said that playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, even for the little time he’s been on the floor with them, has been uplifting. But his hardened demeanor is unmistakable.
Some believe that is exactly what James needs; there was plenty of criticism that James seemed to be too loose the past few years in Cleveland. He led teamwide goofing around in the regular season but didn’t seem to bring enough intensity at times when a ruthless personality seemed necessary in the playoffs.
Only time and games and pressure will tell whether that has changed within James. But something certainly has in his first few weeks in South Beach. This is a more edgy and focused James. And all the hatred he’s taking in certainly appears to be the leading cause.