OAKLAND, Calif. -- He has marinated in a Finals loss for 193 days, and now LeBron James flies west from Cleveland on Christmas Eve to revisit the concrete bowl on the San Leandro Bay that's home to everyone's new favorite darlings, the Golden State Warriors.
Soon after he arrives at the hotel in San Francisco on Thursday, James tells Cavaliers' assistant coach Phil Handy that if the Oracle Arena court is available on Christmas morning, he'd like to get a sweat in during the hours before the 2 p.m. tip. Early games can test a player's tempo, and the opportunity to get some shots up, work on his handle, see a couple of touches in the post would soothe his rhythm when the ball went up.
"He knows his body," Handy says.
James doesn't typically work out pregame, but here he is at 11:15 a.m., wearing knee-length gray sweatpants, the NBA's cute-ugly Christmas socks and a black Cleveland Basketball T-shirt whose long sleeves cling to his sculpted triceps like cellophane wrap. He wrestles with Handy on the left block, pivots baseline, pivots again, then goes up and under.
By now he has worked up a sweat, and he yells over to the far sideline, "Bring some water." James isn't officious; he doesn't treat these guys like valets. There's almost a collaborative feel to the session, even as he's enveloped in the full bass of his wireless Beats Solo2s. Handy collects the ball, then instructs James on the next sequence of choreography. James nods, then asks for clarification.
"Left twice, then right three times, and jab first?"
A nation of basketball fans from Boston to Los Angeles have started to fill arenas 90 minutes before games to witness Stephen Curry's warm-up routine, but James has the place to himself. It's an empty, cold space this early, and James blows into his open fists.
"Down first or back?" LeBron asks.
"One stab, one hard step back," Handy tells him.
James goes to work, concluding each rep with that patented little kick with his right toe. When he's in a groove, lyrics flow freely from his mouth. When he misses badly, it's "Goddamit!" A missed free throw draws, "Ah, you bitch!" Between sets, he consults with Handy on mechanics, then moves to the next spot.
"He's so coachable," Handy says. "He's passionate about getting better, even at this stage."
LeBron is buying and selling, shipping and receiving. He personifies the new-age superstar athlete, a product of self-determination who doesn't just manage a personal brand, but leverages it. That salary he earns from Cavaliers Operating Company, LLC? Pocket change. His recent lifetime deal with Nike will feather his nest until his dying breath. A king's annuity. He has parked himself at the table for the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations. He won't just earn a paycheck; he'll dictate the thickness and pattern of the checkbook.
But influence is a different currency, and down the hall Curry has started to amass his own fortune. There's the championship ring, at LeBron's expense. He's now the most prolific seller of player jerseys, also at LeBron's expense. On Christmas morning, the league announced the first All-Star ballot returns, and James had half as many votes as the man he succeeded in the spotlight, Kobe Bryant, and a 150,000 fewer than Steph.
"Instead of everyone going their separate ways, we have one spot we can go and just enjoy each other's company. It just continues to build the camaraderie that you need to be successful from year to year."
Fans are fickle. They embrace novelty and nostalgia, shiny new objects and esteemed bronzed ones. But LeBron is neither new nor old, luminary nor upstart. He's the constant on a landscape that's shifting beneath him.
"Being the most influential player in the game, for him, is a challenge," says James Jones, whom LeBron calls his favorite player of all time. "That's his goal. When you think about basketball from here on out, who was that one transcendent guy who you couldn't replicate, there was no other? When you have a LeBron James, a 6-8, 265-pound, point-forward scorer. There aren't very many of them. The game has to change, to find something else."
The game has found Curry, who has expanded the base of NBA fans. And just as LeBron pushed the league to reimagine how size, speed, vision, finesse and intuition could be packaged in a single player, Curry has redefined what constitutes a high-percentage shot -- and the people love it. They love that he looks like their brother's college roommate, love that every Warriors postseason tilt is bring-your-daughter-work day.
LeBron's appeal isn't relatable, because he's not like you. His hulking body emerges from the training room an hour before the game, ankles taped, abs ripped, a tangle of sinewy muscle looking for a mountain to climb. He settles in at his locker, grabs the large Beats Pill speaker, and pumps Rich the Kid into the room. There's nowhere to hide from LeBron.
"No, we have no traditions," James says of his young family at Yuletide. "If I can get a home game on Christmas, then we'll have a tradition."
Playing in a visiting building on Christmas Day is being twice-cursed for an NBA star. It's an assignment away from family, but also a cruel reminder that your previous season concluded with a loss. So here's LeBron, spending the holiday on a business trip in StephWorld.
"He's so coachable. He's passionate about getting better, even at this stage."Cavs' assistant Phil Handy on LeBron James
All week long, LeBron has insisted there's no added consequence to a game in late December, that you can't compare a sprightly shooter and a strapping forward who fight in different weight classes. The cosmic connection with Steph begins and ends with mutual admiration.
"We don't talk, but we have a lot of respect for one another," LeBron says. "I think he's special. He's very special. We all know that."
The tribute is neither grudging nor demonstrative. It's the regard you have for a talented colleague at work who you never think to invite out for a drink. LeBron knows the talent business, so he must know that Steph is it, the comer in a league that celebrates -- no, relies on star power.
But there's no time for those considerations now, because Kevin Love is in trouble. He's under the basket with possession of the ball, but sandwiched between two of the league's best defenders, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. LeBron hears the alarm. He zips down an open lane of the hardwood to collect the ball for what could've been an easy bucket in a game with few. Love never shuttles a pass to LeBron, and gets stuffed by the Warrior hoagie. LeBron takes issue, but Love already knows he flubbed the play. The two slap hands as timeout is called, and it's all good.
Last season, LeBron was a bear in the Cavs' locker room, quick to tag teammates as soft and to confront adversity with antagonism. Those who take note of such things say LeBron's turn to positive leadership this season has been apparent. So when he gets on Tristan Thompson after a botched set that drew Draymond Green rather than the less mobile Festus Ezeli for LeBron, it's a clinic, not a scolding. A few minutes later, LeBron draws Steph.
The game becomes still. LeBron holds the ball and surveys the scene over Steph's outstretched arms. It's two samurais standing with their swords drawn, both fully aware that whoever moves first forfeits the advantage. LeBron takes two jab steps in quick succession, one at 10 o'clock, the next at 2 o'clock, but Steph doesn't yield. With the shot clock set to expire, LeBron takes a single dribble and steps back for a 3-pointer that scrapes the roof but doesn't fall.
After this moment, LeBron is a career 0-for-9 when guarded one-on-one by Steph .
"Obviously when you step on the court, you start to relive some of those moments but I haven't reflected much at all," LeBron says. "It's a totally different stage."
LeBron is right: The Christmas Day game produces a crescendo in the fourth quarter, but never reaches full climax. But for a few minutes down the stretch of a ragged, but reasonably close game, LeBron's mind and body wrest control of the game. This time, Steph can't possibly contend with the brute force that is LeBron rolling downhill to his left. Nor can Klay Thompson shake him off a curl, as LeBron shadows him to the basket, swatting away the remains of Thompson's drive at the rim.
Physicality still matters in the NBA, the way James controls his body, asserts his body, wields it against all comers. A superstar throws his weight around the basketball court and doesn't worry about casualties, which is how we end up with another uncontested slam by LeBron on the other end. Skill plus strength, intuition plus impulse. The Warriors might feature a collective roster of versatility, but don't you forget I was brandishing that versatility before the first splash.
"You can get into the era of analytics, you can get into the era of statistic, you can get into the era of small-ball, you can look at a lot of different things, but there's one thing you can't ever replace is the type of player you can put in any system and have those players thrive, and he embodies the versatility," says Jones. "That's what makes him unique -- no slight to any other player. That's what sets him apart. I think it's hard for the casual fan to appreciate that. They might not see the nuance."
LeBron interlaces his thick fingers and presses both palms into the crown of his head. He has just missed two free throws late in the fourth quarter that could've given the Cavs a fighting chance. There's no "Ah, you bitch," no histrionics. Just a long stare into middle distance, with almost a resigned smile.
"I had a couple of plays I wish I could get back," he tells a confidant in the locker room, which was notably unbothered by another loss to Golden State. The Cavs didn't drop the game because the Warriors were a younger, more innovative team. They lost because they couldn't hit a shot.
"I didn't put too much into it," he says. "I told the guys on the bench, 'Don't put too much pressure into this one game.'"
It's a struggle to imagine that this picture of strength also harbors human frailty, and if it's hard for us, imagine what it must be for him. Over the course of any career, youthful exuberance mellows and talent grows into itself. Who knows exactly when that happened for LeBron. Forty-eight points in the double-overtime win over Detroit in the 2006-07 conference finals? The night of the first title in 2012? Trying to pinpoint an exact instant is impossible, but somewhere along the way -- and not so long ago -- LeBron became the league's elder statesman. The emergence of Stephen Curry as NBA supernova might have been that moment, as his ascent pushes LeBron into a position of seniority.
And with that comes LeBron's first brush with basketball mortality.