The mistrial of LeBron James

One game in the life of the most confounding player of our time

Updated: April 6, 2012, 11:40 AM ET
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN The Magazine

LeBron JamesJohn LoomisJames, literally under constant reminder of the trophy he's never won, receives treatment in the trainer's room at AmericanAirlines Arena prior to the Bulls game.

This story appears in the April 16, 2012 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

LeBRON IS RIDING HIS BIKE TO DWYANE'S HOUSE
Long before he dubbed himself the King, long before we became captivated by his burgeoning teenage grace, long before the mere mention of his name could inspire love and awe and rage, LeBron Raymone James was a skinny kid with long arms and big ears who spent his afternoons snaking his way through the streets of Akron, Ohio, on his bike, searching for his place in the world.

Even when he was 9, it didn't matter how chaotic or confusing life was going to be as long as he could ride his bike and join a game. It didn't matter if he wasn't sure where he was going to sleep; if his mom, Gloria, was going to tell him to pack up and move yet again. On a basketball court, he was always going to be picked, made to feel like he belonged, because he understood the game in ways that others did not. He recognized angles. He had the ability to create space. He could anticipate teammates cutting to the basket and reward them.

Even when he began to dominate, when his ego grew to match his talents, basketball was still about fitting in, about finding the open man. "I knew early that this is a team sport, and I took that to heart," James once said. "It just came natural for me. I love the success of my teammates more than my individual achievements." So he pedaled around Akron each day, searching for a game.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James Player Tracker
Todd DetwilerLeBron James: Player Tracker

Peter Lee, a 25-year-old University of Florida graduate, doesn't know any of this. A buyer in the Asian food service industry, Lee has just finished running a half marathon with a group of 30 friends he knows from the Chinese Baptist Church of Miami. He and his brother, Walter, are gingerly walking along Brickell Avenue in Miami toward Lee's house. Both take careful, measured strides on rubbery legs until something in traffic catches Lee's eye at the intersection of Brickell and SE 15th Road.

Whoever that is, Lee says to himself, he's making that bike look puny.

Then it hits him. It's LeBron James -- basketball player, global icon, aspiring billionaire -- sitting in traffic, wedged between two cars.

He's wearing a camouflage backpack, riding gloves and black spandex workout clothes. He leans over the handlebars of a silver-and-red Cannondale. The words "King James" are stenciled on the frame. A helmet is buckled tightly beneath his prominent jaw, and a diamond the size of a button sparkles in his left ear. One of James' best friends, his business partner Randy Mims, sits on a bike just ahead of him, dressed in similar workout gear. Police officers are holding up traffic as more marathon runners limp toward the finish line, and James sits, waiting patiently for the intersection to clear.

Lee fumbles for his phone, hoping to snap a picture that will capture the surreality of the moment, certain that no one will believe this story without visual proof. Before Lee takes one last picture, James glances in his direction. "He was smirking at us a little," Lee says. "I think he thought it was funny that two random Asian guys recognized who he was, because almost no one else did."

The light changes, and James is gone, pedaling the last two miles of his commute to the arena. In a few minutes, Lee will post a picture of James to Twitter (@peter1lee), and the photos will go viral. But for now, he's just another guy in the neighborhood, like all the ones in Akron so many years ago, shouting out from porches and sidewalks to the skinny kid as he rolled by in search of a game. "Hey!" Lee stammers as the two-time MVP rides away. "Beat the Bulls tonight!"


LeBRON IS IN PURGATORY
Ask most anyone who LeBron James is and you're likely to get a blunt reply delivered with great conviction. Choker. God. Traitor. Hero. Arrogant. Generous. Undisciplined. Underappreciated. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is in disagreement. And over the course of this afternoon in Miami, they all will be proved right -- and therefore all be proved wrong.

It's an hour before game time. James' bike is parked outside the Heat locker room, but he's absent from the optional team shootaround. He's not in the locker room. His favorite pregame snack, a ZonePerfect Classic fudge graham bar, remains untouched. Perhaps he feels his jumper doesn't need fine-tuning at the moment. Maybe he's watching film. If he were any other athlete, it would not matter. But when you're today's LeBron -- hovering in the purgatory between the sins of The Decision and the redemption that will come only from multiple Larry O'Brien trophies -- your punishment is to be questioned by those who have lost all faith in you.

You could be watching cartoons with your kids and you don't like it, you say, 'Blame it on LeBron.' If you go to the grocery store and they don't have the milk that you like, you just say, 'It's LeBron's fault.'

-- LeBron James

"I'm an easy target; if someone wants to get a point across -- just throw LeBron's name in there," James will say days later when asked why he's a lightning rod. "You could be watching cartoons with your kids and you don't like it, you say, 'Blame it on LeBron.' If you go to the grocery store and they don't have the milk that you like, you just say, 'It's LeBron's fault.' "

If he misses jumpers today, then, it's because he's not on the practice court. Heat guard Dwyane Wade, however, is. And if James is Hendrix, freestyling from one breathtaking note to the next, then Wade is Clapton, methodically refining blues riffs backstage. With a Heat assistant coach feeding him passes, Wade takes 10 shots from the corner, 10 from the elbow, 10 from the top of the key. He repeats the drill on the other side of the floor until sweat beads on his forehead, every jumper looking as if it came off an assembly line. Hand position. Release. Rotation. Footwork. All are identical. Wade sets his feet -- his right toe always pointed a few degrees inward -- and cradles the next pass with the cadence of a metronome. It's artistry disguised as repetitive motion, and Wade is obsessed with getting the notes just right.

James is scowling when he emerges from the tunnel 15 minutes before tip-off. Almost half the seats in the lower bowl remain empty. A man dressed in a giant banana costume gyrates and dances in the aisle for reasons unknown. The lights dim, giant flames erupt from torches during player introductions and James launches into the pregame routine he made famous in Cleveland. He dumps chalk into his right hand, tosses it in the air and preens to the sky like a conquering warrior king.

Early in his career, he would linger in this moment -- arms extended, cloud of chalk floating above him as he soaked up Cleveland's frenzied energy. In Miami today, the gesture seems perfunctory, toss and pose lasting barely a second. Heat fans fidget in the aisles and order fish tacos. It's like watching a man read his original wedding vows to his second wife while she files her nails and fiddles with her cellphone.


LeBRON IS IN HIS ELEMENT
Poor John Lucas III. The Bulls point guard is not supposed to be guarding James, but it's not as if anyone else on his team has done it so far. The Heat have built a nine-point first-quarter lead, and every time the Bulls have missed a jumper today, James has exploded into the open court. He's already hammered home two violent dunks on passes from Wade, energizing the legendarily laconic Miami crowd. Now, with 5:04 remaining in the first, when Heat guard Mario Chalmers sets a back screen on Bulls guard Richard Hamilton, Lucas sinks to the baseline to help out -- and before he realizes what's happening, the ball is in the air. Wade has floated a pass to James from just inside the three-point line, and James catches it halfway up the backboard, soaring over Lucas' 5'11" frame to flush a one-handed dunk. It's like watching a panther snatch a dove out of the air. "Give all the props to D-Wade," James will say after the game, with more modesty than warranted given that the move will surely end up on the highlight reel of his life. "I just went to get it."

The Bulls today seem helpless to stop him when he's within leaping distance of the rim -- and that's by design. Those who snicker over James' performance in last year's NBA Finals ignore that the Heat were, to put it kindly, a work in progress. The zone Dallas used to close out games merely revealed the dysfunction of the Heat's half-court offense. Then, in August, while talking with Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, the man behind the Ducks' famed hurry-up spread offense, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra experienced an epiphany: In James and Wade, he had two of the most unstoppable forces in the open court. So to maximize their talents, he'd play like the Ducks. He'd solve his half-court problems by avoiding half-court situations.

The result has been what many are calling Showtime 2.0, a pace-and-space offense built around James' strengths -- the inclusiveness, the ability to craft on the fly, the breathtaking physicality. Through the first five weeks of the season, the contrast was radical. The Heat averaged 99.7 possessions per game, compared with just 90.9 last season. And today Showtime is on, the Heat jumping out to an 18-7 lead, turning on-the-ball defense into offense. James' first 10 points come on three dunks and two layups, and there are times in the open court when he and Wade seem to be toying with the Bulls. James has the arm strength of Aaron Rodgers, and every time he snares a rebound he's a threat to hit Wade on a fly pattern. "We just kind of read and react," James says. "On the break, we know we can get some lobs, and in the halfcourt that helps as well. It definitely helps when you know you have a threat on the other side like D-Wade that can make plays. We're not Lob City, but we're doing okay."

It's hard to project whether this style will translate in the postseason, but the Heat are tapping the original genius in James' game. He didn't blossom into one of the best high school players ever by coming off screens for 18-foot jump shots. At 17, he was a maestro in the open floor. Every no-look pass felt like a crescendo.

Those close to James say he still refers to his years at St. Vincent-St. Mary as his happiest and that they believe his decision to join Wade -- among his closest friends in the NBA -- reflects his desire to recapture that joy. Team and family were the same. James was an only child, born to a 16-year-old single mother who struggled for years to drag the two of them out of nomadic poverty. On senior night at St. VincentSt. Mary, when other players were escorted to midcourt by their parents, James had his best friends -- teammates Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee -- do the honors. He had, after all, been riding his bike to their houses and crashing in their basements for sleepovers long before the world ever tweeted his name.


[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesFour years ago, James set out to fix his suspect jumper. Haters may critique the technique, but there's no denying the improvement. As a rookie, he shot 42 percent from the floor and made 29 percent of his threes. This season, 53 percent and 37 percent.

LeBRON IS STILL GETTING BETTER
By halftime, James has 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and his astonishing array of -- forgive the term -- "talents" is fully on display. At the 4:40 mark of the third, he crosses over, squares up and drills a 19-footer in Joakim Noah's face. Just over a minute later he feigns a drive, catches Noah retreating and nails a step-back fadeaway from 18 feet. At times he floats around the perimeter with all the urgency of a man working the room at a cocktail party -- only to flip a switch and thunder toward the basket with jaw-dropping speed. The legend around Akron is that James ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds in high school before deciding to give up football. Early in the third period, when he chases down a loose ball and zips a crosscourt pass to Wade for a rim-rattling dunk that gives Miami a 63-58 lead, it's like witnessing a Sherman tank accelerate and corner like a Ferrari. It's true. LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. He's Oscar Robertson in a young Shawn Kemp's body.

Just ask Robertson.

"My style of play was to get people involved," says the 73-year-old Robertson, the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. "LeBron doesn't have to force it. He's realizing that. He's letting the game come to him. He's out there passing the ball, getting the ball out on the break and boom, they're gone. People should recognize the greatness of the young man and let him play basketball."

Indeed, if it's possible to quietly put together the greatest regular season ever, that may be what James is doing. James' player efficiency rating of 32.3 on the eve of the Bulls game, were he to carry it to season's end, would be the highest mark in the modern era. He's on everyone's short list for defensive player of the year. (Quick: Name another NBA player capable of guarding all five positions.) While his minutes and field goal attempts are down, his points per game have held; he's now the NBA's most efficient per-minute player. According to metrics compiled by 82games.com, James' Simple Rating of plus-20.1 -- a plus/minus measure of how a player performs compared with his counterpart on the opposing team -- would make him the runaway MVP. (Dwight Howard is a distant second at plus-14.7.) And in a season in which leaguewide offensive efficiency and shooting percentages are down, James' field goal percentage (.534) is up almost 5 percent from a year ago (.510) -- primarily the result of no longer settling for three-pointers. In James' first eight seasons in the league, he averaged 4.2 three-point attempts per game. This year? Just 2.2.

Still, sometimes a man has no choice but the long jumper. With 10:54 remaining in the fourth and the Heat leading 79-71, the ball is knocked out of bounds. Only 2.9 seconds remains on the shot clock when James catches the inbounds pass 26 feet from the basket. He leans to his left and barely has a chance to plant before releasing a three-pointer over the outstretched left arm of Bulls forward Taj Gibson.

James' jumper has long been subject to criticism. Before he entered the NBA, author Charley Rosen -- a former assistant under Phil Jackson in the CBA -- predicted James would be "at best ... an average NBA player" because of his erratic jump shot; instead, he became an MVP despite his erratic jump shot. But four summers ago, James spent an entire off-season quietly rebuilding it, concentrating on more consistent hand positioning and on keeping his elbow closer to his body during his release. He still sometimes drifts to one side on liftoff. He fades away when he doesn't have to. He'll likely never own Wade's textbook release or Kobe Bryant's balletic footwork. But these days he always manages to get his broad shoulders square to the rim.

Those shoulders might as well be wearing Gibson as a bib as the ball leaves James' right hand, LeBron landing a foot from the seats. The ball spins, and for half a second the arena feels almost still, like a wave building to a crest. The shot touches nothing but net.


LeBRON IS A CHOKER
Herein lies the enigma of LeBron James -- whose finest moments serve only to remind us that he is the most magnificent disappointment in sports. The application of "choker" is often lazy and spiteful. But it might be the one word the media and the public can hurl at an athlete that's sharp enough to cut through an entourage, an enormous bank account, an army of sycophants and keep going until it hits bone. As last year's Finals were unfolding, James was forced to defend himself against the charge that he was playing fourth quarters with two hands wrapped around his neck. When he admitted that he spent the early-morning hours before Game 5 reading what his critics were saying, the questions only intensified. "The word 'choked' is overused in sports, period," Wade said of James after the Mavericks closed out the series. "We lost ball games."

If James was awful in the Finals, it was awfulness of a kind most NBA players covet: 48 percent from the field, a triple-double in Game 5, almost seven assists per game. He fed Chris Bosh with a perfect swing pass that set up the game-winning points in Game 3. But such nuances no longer mattered when he scored a mere eight points in a Game 4 defeat, playing as if he were in some kind of moody trance. Label became reality.

James was stoic, but the vitriol wounded him. He had trouble sleeping and barely left his room for the remainder of June. "People are trying to break him," Heat forward Juwan Howard says. "They want to see him fall to his knees. They want to see him shed tears. They want to see if he's human. True enough, he is human."

Still, with 17 seconds left to play, not even Dan Gilbert could claim that James has been anything but the finest player on the floor. He's attacked the rim, played suffocating defense, almost single-handedly beaten back the Bulls each time they've made a run. His 35 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists have carried the Heat for Wade, who's shot 4 of 16. With the Heat clinging to a 94-93 lead, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose -- whom no one ever calls a choker -- bricks two free throws. James snags the rebound and is fouled by Noah.

Now all he must do to put Chicago on the ropes is hit two simple free throws.

LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. He's Oscar Robertson in a young Shawn Kemp's body.

Hidden by James' gaudy game tallies is that he's had his worst midrange game of the season, going 1-for-8 on jumpers from five to 14 feet. Then there's this other bit of foreshadowing: Through March 27, James had made 53 percent of his field goals, 37 percent of his three-pointers and 77 percent of his free throws. In clutch time -- the last five minutes of fourth quarters when the scoring margin is five points or fewer -- those rates fell to 39 percent, 27 percent and 69 percent, respectively.

Dr. Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who's spent a lifetime studying athletes in crunch time, claims those with inconsistent technique are most susceptible to the dreaded C-word. Without the muscle memory of rote repetition, they lack the autopilot of more fundamental players. "I call it a baby panic attack. Within a 10th of a second, you have 1,200 chemical changes in your body. For a couple of microseconds you hold your breath, your muscles tighten and it throws your shot off. LeBron is so muscle-bound it doesn't take much." Before James steps to the line, he licks his lips and fidgets with his mouthpiece. He dribbles three times, spins the ball in his left hand, bends his knees. His weight is on his toes. He clenches his jaw. Releases the shot. It swirls around the basket twice ... and out. James grimaces, gathers himself, repeats the routine. Steps to the line, takes three dribbles, flicks his wrist. This time, though, he's rocking back on his heels, fading away as he releases the ball.

The shot caroms off the rim.

A confusing scramble ensues underneath the Bulls' basket. An inadvertent whistle is blown. The officials ultimately call for a jump ball, and when Bosh -- the tallest Heat player -- steps in to take the jump, James waves him off. "I had to do something after missing two free throws," James says later. "I told Chris, 'I'm jumping. (I don't care what you say.'"

James sneers at Gibson as the two eye each other, then crouches into his stance, ready to explode. The ball is barely out of the referee's hands when James springs to life, poking the ball to Chalmers to secure the victory. For the first time this afternoon, James smiles as he chest-bumps his teammates. But the free throws linger in everyone's mind, including his own. It's the first question he'll field from the media in the locker room. It's the first thing he'll tweet about after the game. ("C'mon #6 make your d*mn free throws!") One brilliantly played game, erased in our minds by two errant free throws. Story of his career.


[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Chip LitherlandJames after the game -- in which he tallied 35 points, 11 boards and 5 assists -- looks less like a man whose team just won and more like a man who just can't win.

LeBRON HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
James is dour when he emerges from the showers. Wearing only shorts and his flip-flops, he's swarmed by a small army as cameras, recorders and microphones are shoved inches from his mouth. He covers his face with his hands and drags them from his forehead to his chin, slow and deliberate, as if already weary of the questions before they've even begun.

He's reverted to doing postgame interviews in the locker room after spending all of last season fielding questions only in news conferences with Wade at his side. There are nights now when he's gregarious, when he and Wade will chuck towels at each other, or he'll get dressed belting out songs that get stuck in his head. ("Got One" by rapper 2 Chainz is a current favorite. The entire Reasonable Doubt album by Jay-Z is a standard.)

But on this day, one more in a string of hero trials, the missed free throws have put him in a sour mood. "I think that's a problem with our league sometimes," he says as soon as a reporter brings them up. "You all evaluate the last minute of games or the last 30 seconds of a game and forget that this is a complete 48-minute game. We understand where you guys come from. We understand what makes the headlines. It's the world we live in."

Fifteen minutes later, the questions are wrapping up, and James has his eyes on the door. Sensing this, one in the scrum of 30 reporters asks James about his bicycle commute. Did he have fun riding to the game?

"Did I have fun?" James asks, rolling his eyes as he repeats the question. He's not sure how to answer. "I don't know. I do it all the time. What, you guys drove here? You guys are crazy."

The reporters laugh, and James cracks a smile, his first since he entered the locker room. He jokes that he might not have enough energy left to ride home and should probably sleep at the arena so he won't miss tomorrow's shootaround. And when he grins, the smile does a number on his face, and for a second, he looks like a kid again.

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Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine