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LeBron's encore

11/29/2012 - NBA LeBron James Miami Heat + more
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ESPN The Mag: LeBron James Conversation

Michael Wilbon talks with LeBron James about what James can do to get better.

MICHAEL WILBON: MVP, NBA champion, Olympic gold medal, what's the encore?
LeBRON JAMES: With no Olympics this year, I can't top [laughs] exactly what I did this past year. But it was a great year for me, a great year for our team and all the teams I played for. It was a fun ride.

WILBON: I know that getting better is something you started talking about at the end of last year, not resting on it and specifically getting better. But how, given what you did last year, how the hell can you improve?
JAMES: Well, you just try to get better in every aspect of the game, you try to improve from the year before. I'm still trying to improve my post game and playing in the interior. I'm still trying to improve my ballhandling. I'm still going to continue to improve as a leader. In all those aspects, if I can continue to do that it will help our team in the long run.


WILBON: I was talking to [Celtics coach] Doc Rivers, and Doc said, "I think LeBron is going to be able to play and breathe for the first time [LeBron laughs] now that his first title is behind him. And he's going to be much better." I presume you've heard that from people around the game, veteran people. What do you think about that?
JAMES: I've heard it, for sure, and it's come from a lot of former champions, great coaches. And if that's the case, I'm ready for it [laughs].

WILBON: Do you feel freer, do you feel different?
JAMES: I felt different coming into last year, period. After my first year in Miami, just the whole transition of moving down here and being in a new situation -- it took a lot -- and one thing coming into last year was saying I want to get back to having fun and loving the game like I did growing up and what helped me get to this point. So I've kind of carried that all the way through last year, and I still feel that joy for the game again.

WILBON: I want to go back to something you talked about, your post game. Because for a while that was a criticism: "We know LeBron has the body, the skills, the game to have a great low-post game, but he doesn't do it." But last year you dominated opponents and dominated entire series by playing in the post. What led to you adopting that?
JAMES: I think a few things led to it. What we needed as a team -- we had so many guys who could play on the perimeter. I knew that I can handle the ball, I knew D-Wade would handle the ball, Rio [Mario Chalmers] would handle the ball. But we weren't scoring a lot of points in the paint unless we were driving into the paint. I felt like to help our team, it would be a big thing if I started to attack the paint more without dribbling the ball -- catching the ball in the low post, creating double-teams for my teammates and creating matchup problems. And I wanted to make another transformation in my game.

WILBON: I don't know how much time you could have had to work on anything [LeBron laughs] this past summer. Coach Spoelstra was telling me nine days is all you took off. I mean, how much is too much? Can you OD on basketball? Can there be a burnout factor?
JAMES: It's like with every job, no matter how much you love it, it gets to a point where you'll just be like [puts head back and sighs], I just need a break. And there are days where I'll be like, LeBron you need to chill a little bit or get your work in early so you'll be able to relax at night ... I try to perfect my game so much that I kind of bump heads with myself. I want to continue to get better, and I always feel like if I take a day off here, then somebody else on the other side of town or another city is trying to be better than me.

WILBON: So what could you do this summer, an offseason as short as it was due to the Olympics?
JAMES: Well, I didn't have the extensive offseason like I did last summer to get into the gym and actually work on things, so I went to the film room. I watched a lot of regular-season games. I watched a lot of playoff games -- from not only this year but last year, my first year in Miami. And I also watched a lot of players from the past, champions and other greats that made marks in this game.

WILBON: Will what happened in the past year set or change your expectations about what you think ought to happen this season and beyond?
JAMES: Well, our expectations and my expectation are always the same: We want to get better each and every day as a team -- and that's either on the floor or during film session or whatever the case may be -- and put ourselves in a position where we contend for a title. I think we have the right coaching staff, we have the right organization, we have the right players that, if we do our job, if guys come in and understand what it really means to be a champion, which I know we do, then we're gonna give ourselves a good shot.

WILBON: How much of that will that be aided by a healthy Dwyane Wade?
JAMES: Well, a healthy Dwyane Wade is a better Miami Heat team, no doubt about it. He's still one of the best players we have in this league, that we have in this world. And when D-Wade is healthy and I'm healthy, it's a heck of a one-two punch.

WILBON: It seems like there's much being made locally here in South Florida about the nature of this team growing in a positionless manner, if you will. Do you think this is the evolution of basketball?
JAMES: If it's good basketball -- which is what I believe we play; we play great defense and we share the ball offensively -- then if it's something that can change the game of basketball for the good, I would be happy to be a part of that. As far as our team, we have guys who can do multiple things, so we try not to give guys positions -- we try not to say you're a point guard or you're a center or you're a power forward. The guys that are on the floor are on the floor for a reason, and we all can do multiple things out there. We don't think of it as if you're a center you have to be in the paint, or if you're a point guard you have to bring the ball up. We have a positionless team.

WILBON: Are you comfortable with that? I mean you're old enough now that you grew up with a big man and defined roles. Does it feel weird? Is it a natural thing?
JAMES: It's a natural thing for me because every coach I've always played for always told me, "You're kind of a positionless player. You don't have a position." Just put [me] on the floor, [I'm] gonna make plays. So it fit right in with me.

WILBON: Is there a favorite shot, sequence, game, play from last season that is the face of that whole championship run to you?
JAMES: Wow. I don't want to say it's one shot or a play or sequence. I believe it's a game -- our second-round Game 4 in Indiana. We were down 2-1, they beat us in Game 2 on our floor, they pounded us in Game 3, and it was a must-win in Game 4. We just had come off Game 3, where D-Wade didn't play well at all, and there was so much talk of "Is this once again gonna be a year where we don't succeed?" And I think that game, that kind of helped turn everything around. D-Wade came back with a monster game, and I tried to do the things I can do to help our team win. And we were able to win that game.

WILBON: Last year, it was noted by everybody that you disconnected for the postseason, and it worked. You said, I'm going to put aside the normal things I might engage in and just disconnect. Because it worked, do you go back to the guy you were before the whole grueling playoff run started? How do you handle that?
JAMES: You balance it, for sure. And I think now that I've seen the formula for success, I know how to get there. I know when I can tap into it. Yeah, I did disconnect -- especially in the playoffs. I did things I haven't done before. I turned my phones off and didn't have any people to talk to during all that, so I read a lot. You know, to kind of strengthen my mind and do some things I haven't done before.

WILBON: The reading -- you did this for you, but the reaction you got directly from kids and teachers ... That's pretty amazing.
JAMES: It is. It's powerful, honestly. Like you said, I went into the playoffs and said I wanted to do something different, so I called a friend of mine and I asked him to give me some books. And I started reading and started bringing them to the game. I wasn't doing it for attention. I was actually reading the books. But the reception I got from so many people -- who either liked LeBron or didn't like LeBron, or liked the Heat or didn't like the Heat -- teachers and parents saying that their kid has been coming up to them saying they wanted to read this book I was reading, or they wanted to read a book that was in that genre because I was reading it. It was very powerful.

WILBON: You saw, like many people around the country, a documentary, an ESPN documentary, a 30 for 30 series on Ben Wilson [a top Chicago high school basketball player who was shot to death in 1984]. I was very familiar with him, being from the South Side of Chicago, as Wade is. But as someone who really learned about him, how did the piece impact you?
JAMES: I'm a historian of the game, no matter if it's high school, college, pro. I'd heard about Wilson growing up. Didn't know too much about him. But watching that piece made me very emotional. I shed a few tears, because it hit home for me. I was that 17-year-old kid who came home from a tournament in the summertime and they'd ranked me the No. 1 player in the country. I was that 17-year-old kid in the inner city who everyone knew, "He may be the next one." I know exactly what that was. I know those pressures. And I had those friends around me who said, "Let's protect him. Let's keep him away from harm. No matter what's going on, no matter if it's drugs or gun violence or whatever the case may be, we're going to shield him to make sure that we get this kid to where we believe he can get." Ben Wilson was like me. I was Ben Wilson. And it hit home for me to see him fatally gunned down, the stupidity that still is going on in Chicago today, still going on in America today. It's uncalled for, and we lost something that could've been great, for not only the game of basketball but for sports in general. I also did the math, and I was like, wow ... 1984, 39 days after he was killed, I was born. So the man above must've had a plan.

Michael Wilbon interviewed LeBron on Oct. 29, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.