The King James version
A decade into his reign as the NBA's Chosen One, LeBron James confesses all
ESPN The Magazine: LeBron James Confesses
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 28 NBA Preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 28 NBA Preview. Subscribe today!
FIFTY FEET FROM LeBron James, chaos reigns. In a downtown Miami park, photographers from two different organizations are debating how much time they'll get to take his picture, while the production crew waiting to shoot his next Sprite commercial is hovering all around. Dozens of local kids are buzzing on a playground, frantic at the idea that he might cast them a glance. A 6'10" LeBron look-alike -- complete with matching beard -- is having LBJ's tattoos drawn onto his arms so the real LeBron doesn't have to wait around for the folks shooting the commercial to get the lighting just right. Between games of Xbox in their tricked-out trailer, his high-motor sons, 6-year-old Bryce and 9-year-old LeBron Jr., are darting out the door to ride dirt bikes under the watchful gaze of their grandmother.
The King, meanwhile, is oblivious to it all -- lounging in the trailer, legs outstretched, signature high-tops off, in a black sleeveless T-shirt that reads: NO HEART, NO CHANCE. He's eating a turkey sandwich prepared by his personal chef. He leans back, smiles widely, recently returned from a week of sailing on a yacht through the south of France with 10 family members and friends. He's a week from his wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, the mother of his boys. Life couldn't be better. He's won the last two NBA rings, the last two Finals MVPs, four of the last five season MVPs, the last two Olympic golds. In the story of his life, LeBron is quite possibly inhabiting the best part of the best paragraph in the very best chapter. He is the cursor, blinking in the space just to the right of the sentence that reads: He did it again -- and just to the left of the one that will soon read: Now do it again.
Is it good to be The King? Consider, instead, if it's even remotely possible that it's ever been better.
LEBRON JAMES: I took one month off. We ended on June 20, and I started working out on July 20. I didn't do anything. It was hard. The challenge for me is that my mind wants to always be in the gym. But I understand that I have to give my body rest from all the pounding and everything I've been through the last two and a half years. So it's a fine line, man. But it's hard for me to sit down. It's hard for me to sit down when I know I could be doing something -- working on my game in the gym or going to the Wellness Center by my house back home [in Akron, Ohio] or just doing some conditioning, doing a Pilates session or whatever. I'm just always trying to keep the edge, man.
Your agent, Rich Paul, told me he thinks you're 85 percent of the player you can be. What percentage would you put on it?
I don't know the percentage, but I know I still have room for improvement. I feel I can improve on my shooting, on my ballhandling, on my low-post game. Since I started playing ball, I've only been in the low post for two years now, playing with my back to the basket. So that still needs a lot of improvement to catch up with the rest of my game. If it's something I feel like I don't do very well, I just try to come back and do it better.
Will you play more in the post this year?
Yeah. Absolutely. I think it's a dynamic that helps our team more than anything. We don't have too many conventional post-up guys. Obviously, CB [Chris Bosh] can get down there, but he's more of a spot-up, catch-and-shoot, pick-and-flair guy. D-Wade does a little bit down there as well. But it brought a new dynamic for our team when I started to change the pie chart of my game -- less perimeter and now adding a little bit more in the post.
You used to not like playing in the post.
It wasn't that I didn't like it; it was just something I wasn't comfortable with. I would say I'm comfortable with it now. And for me, anything that adds value to our team and the guys around me, my teammates, I'm all for it. If it took me playing without the ball and cutting more or slashing more without the ball, if it took me playing point guard, if it took me playing center, if it's going to help our team, I'm for it. And I felt like in order for our team to be more dynamic, I needed to be in the low post. It just creates so many matchup problems. Teams can't play me one-on-one down there, so when a double-team comes, with me being as tall as I am and with my basketball IQ, I'm able to find guys uncovered. So it's a dynamic for our team that not many teams have.
Did you add any post moves to your game this summer?
I worked on a lot of post moves without dribbling, creating space and also getting to one countermove. If you take away one thing, being able to counter off of it, I also have a counter to a counter. If you take away the counter, I'm able to exploit that as well. So it's going to be pretty fun down there for me this year.
You said earlier that if there's something you don't do very well, you try to work on it. What don't you do very well?
I don't want to give that up [laughs heartily]. I don't know. What's the scouting report on me? Force me left? I think that's what it is -- force me left or make me shoot.
The Spurs dared you to shoot.
The Spurs dared me to shoot, and it worked for the first few games, and it became a mental challenge for me. I started rethinking. I was thinking too much. But once I got past that, I just started thinking to myself, Man, you've worked on your shot too much to now go back in reverse. Just go out and do it. Just go out and shoot the same shots you shoot in practice, the same shots you shoot in workouts, and just believe in them.
So you were having doubts about your J?
Yeah, yeah, it was more mental than anything, the first couple games. Game 1 was okay. Game 2, I struggled. Game 3, I struggled from the perimeter. It wasn't even my jump shot. It was more of how they were playing me, and I was trying to drive into the teeth of their defense when they were playing off me instead of just shooting the jump shot -- taking what was there. I went into the film room after Game 3, and I was like, Man, just go out and play. Do what you do best and just feed off the game and let it do what it do.
People would say, How does the best player in the world have doubts?
Well, when you do something at a high level for so long and when it doesn't happen, you start to … it's not even questioning yourself. You just have doubts, like, Am I making the right play? Should I take this shot, or should I drive? I think we all have doubts.
Your first high school coach, Keith Dambrot, said you're an intellectual genius on the court.
[Laughs long and hard] Well, he's not going to say anything bad about me. He was the first person who told me I could be special, really special. He was the first person who told me I could be the greatest basketball player ever if I wanted it. He told me that when I was a sophomore in high school. I just looked at him crazy. Then he started coming to practice and saying, "If you put your mind to it and you focus in, you could be the greatest ever." I didn't believe it, though.
Do you believe it now?
Well, that's my goal. That's what continues to motivate me -- winning championships and being the greatest of all time. That's my goal.
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I don't know. I don't know what it would take for the so-called experts to say that -- that's not what I'm trying to do. My goal is to be the best of all time, and that means maximizing everything I have. And I feel if I can maximize my game, then I can be ranked as if not the greatest, then one of the greatest. Obviously, I have to keep winning. But I'm a winner. I've always won. So that's not a question. And I feel I will continue to win as long as I can stay healthy and be a part of something special.
A lot of people feel that you have to win five rings like Kobe Bryant or six rings like Mike.
I don't think about that. That really doesn't mean much to me. I don't play the catching game. I'm not trying to catch Magic or catch Bird or catch Kobe. I'm into maximizing what I have while I have the opportunity to do it. I've played my first 10 years at a high level, and I'm trying to play my next 10 at a high level, or as high as I can be.
In a lot of people's eyes, you're not competing with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, you're competing with MJ, and to a lesser extent, Kobe.
[Chuckles as the names MJ and Kobe are mentioned] Right ...
I mean, when you say you want to be the greatest of all time, Jordan is the one everyone thinks is the greatest.
Yeah, that's who everyone puts as the best. But you're always going to have arguments, no matter what. People are going to like Jordan, people are going to like LeBron, people are going to like Kobe and so on. Magic, Bird … But I don't really think about it too much and say, Okay, I want to catch MJ. I'm saying I want to be the greatest, and I think I have an opportunity to do it just because of my skill set and because I feel like I've got a lot of room to improve.
But I definitely look at MJ as the greatest. Without MJ, there's no me. He gave me hope. He gave me inspiration as a kid. I still watch MJ tapes to this day. I was watching Come Fly With Me and Jordan's Playground and His Airness on vacation earlier this summer. So I'm watching him all the time, trying to learn from him. I even watched a clip … It was funny. I watched a clip last night when he had 51 while playing for Washington, the game after he scored in single digits. He put up 51 on the Hornets. So ...
A lot. A lot. I watch Jordan more than anybody, for sure. But I'll watch tapes of AI [Allen Iverson] too. I don't take anything from AI. Well, I do -- his will. They say he was six feet, but AI was like 5'10½". Do we even want to say 160? 170? Do we even want to give him that much weight? And he played like a 6'8" 2-guard. He was one of the greatest finishers we've ever seen. You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all. AI was like my second favorite player growing up, after MJ.
Do you wish you had more of a relationship with Jordan?
[Leans back pensively and starts smiling, as if he's not sure he should answer the question] Ahhh, I mean, I don't know. That's a trick question. I do. I do at times. You know, he's somebody who I looked up to, and I've never had a conversation with him about the game. I would love to sit down with him and just know exactly what he was going through and know what was his mind frame throughout all his special years. Throughout his pains -- you know, not being able to get past Detroit, then overcoming Detroit. Or asking him, "Why did you retire? What made you come back? What made you come back again?" You know, everything that we all think we know. Just kind of having a sit-down conversation.
[LeBron is seemingly done, winding down his thought. But then he pipes up, realizing there's more he wants to say. He gets louder, more animated.] And then also to hear him talk about me. I would like to know what he thinks about my game and ways I can get better. He probably thinks he can beat me one-on-one right now [laughing]. I know he probably thinks that. I know MJ definitely thinks he can beat me one-on-one right now.
Why do you think you guys haven't developed a relationship?
I think it's just being busy. Obviously, I'm busy. MJ has a lot going on. I don't know the reasons, but it's never been sparked. I've seen him at times. Of course, I've met him a few times. I went to his 50th-birthday party at All-Star weekend. I went to his party to show respect and pay homage to the greatest. I had a conversation with him there. Obviously, there were a lot of people there. But I don't know. I don't know.
When people think about the killer instinct, they always think of MJ and Kobe. Do people underestimate your killer instinct? People say you have it but not like those two. Do you think you have it like they do?
Ahh. I'll just put it this way, man. There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically -- two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don't think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way. Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe. Magic didn't kill the way they killed. Does that mean he didn't have a killer instinct? Kareem didn't either. But does that mean Kareem didn't have a killer instinct? The same with Bird. That doesn't mean you don't have a killer instinct. Tim Duncan don't kill like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but I've played against Tim Duncan twice in the Finals and I know for sure he's got a killer instinct. So there are different ways to kill. MJ had a killer instinct for sure. But if people really think that MJ didn't talk to nobody and didn't smile on the court, they're crazy. They're crazy. I've seen him. I was watching a clip the other day of him blocking Charles Barkley, and they're laughing about the play -- on the floor. Right now, if I block Kevin Durant on the floor, or I block Carmelo Anthony and we laugh about it? Ahh, I'm going to get killed [laughing]. I'm telling you. But there are different ways of killing.
Do you think you'll change people's minds about that?
I hope. I hope. I hope people will see that there are different ways of winning. And I win by … I don't want to say doing it my way. I am doing it my way but not in a selfish way. I want to win by having fun and having a brotherhood around me where we all have the same goals -- and that's just going out and winning, man. When I'm having fun, I'm loving the game, and that's what brings joy to me. [Leans back and smiles] Every now and then my look comes out, though -- like Game 6 in Boston . People say, Why don't he do that all the time? [laughs] Man, I don't even … first of all, I have no idea why that look even happened. Somebody took a great photo. The camera was right on time, and he happened to get me when I was a little bit tired and I looked up. Bam! Now, it's The Look [laughs]. It's the LeBron Look. The LeBron Face [laughs]. It's cool, though. It's cool. Don't think for one second, though, that I'm not zeroed in on what I need to get done to kill my prey.
I've always felt you viewed your teammates as family. Does that come from how you were raised -- as an only child?
That's exactly where it comes from. I always wanted brothers around because I was an only child. And when I got Sion, Dru, Willie and Rome [at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School], I was like, This is what I want. And then the funny thing is, when you have guys around you and you all have the same common goals off the court, and then you go on the court, it's easy because you have that friendship, that relationship, and y'all work hard. So when you get on the court and you're successful, you're like, This is the model. This is the model that I want. Is it the model for everyone? No, it's not. Everyone's different. But when I had that group of guys and we went on the court and we won -- and off the court, we had a great time and we worked hard and we all believed in the same thing -- I was like, This is the model that I want. And it's carried me to this point where I am today -- from when I was in Cleveland to now being here in Miami. Like, it hurts me a lot to see a guy move on. It hurt me a lot to see Mike Miller have to be amnestied this year because he was like a brother of mine, a brother of ours. He's been there with us from day one when we all came to Miami, so it hurt.
How do you create that family atmosphere on a team?
It's not like before the season starts I map out a plan or a blueprint about "How do you create camaraderie? How do you create brotherhood?" I think it's just part of who I am. I'm an unselfish superstar, and I work my ass off. I think that creates it. I'm not saying, "Let's work hard, let's do this, let's sacrifice," and then on the other end I'm not doing it myself -- not working hard at practice, not sacrificing. I'm doing those things that I'm preaching. That creates it, and then me being the unselfish guy that I am. It's not like I'm doing it just to … It's just who I am. I love seeing the success of my teammates more than anything. I love D-Wade's Game 4 more than anything. How people were just crushing him, crushing him, crushing him, and he comes home with a "Flash" moment in Game 4. And CB having those unbelievable plays in Game 6. The two blocks -- the block on Danny Green, the block on Tony Parker -- the offensive rebound to give it to Ray Allen. And Shane [Battier]. When Shane was getting killed by the media -- "Shane can't make a shot; Shane can't make a shot." And next thing you know, here he goes. He hits six threes in Game 7 of the Finals. Those things I love more than anything.
You've been criticized for that attitude.
I have. I have. And I still am.
Why don't you just go out and try to take over games with your scoring?
At the end of the day, I don't feel like we even get to that point [the Finals] if I'm doing what everybody's telling me to do -- "Why don't he pass the ball to his teammates? Why don't he go out and just think about scoring 40 and 50?" Then I don't see us being the No. 1 team in the East. I don't see us getting to the Finals. I don't see me being who I am. That's not me.
What could you average if you just went out and looked to be a scorer?
Probably more than that.
Probably more than that. I could get about 35 or 40. I probably could do it. It'd be hell on my body, though, I tell you that, trying to get 40 a night. But I can get 35 a night. I'm averaging eight assists a game. You cut that in half. I'm at 27, 28 points a game right now, with eight assists a game, so …
Two years ago, you started turning off your cellphone and blackberry during the playoffs.
Yep, two years ago.
Do you watch SportsCenter and stuff like that during the playoffs?
Nope, nope, not really. I don't watch any of it too much during the playoffs. Everything's magnified during the playoffs, and I like to get away from it, as far as that aspect of the game -- SportsCenter, radio talk shows, NBA TV, all that. At that point, I turn my phones off. No communication. I like to kind of just watch movies, watch TV shows, read books.
Why did you decide to do that?
I don't know. Just to focus. I wanted to try it. It was something unconventional. Nobody told me. I just tried it. I said, You know what? The playoffs start on Saturday. I'm going to turn my phones off on Friday. I'm going to see if I can do it. Then I started reading. I told [business manager Maverick Carter] to pick up a few books that he heard were pretty good. I read them and enjoyed it. It's not for everybody, but I enjoyed it.
When you hear people say you froze against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, what do you think?
Umm, I definitely didn't play up to the potential I knew I was capable of playing at, so you could make any assessment -- I froze, I didn't show up, I was late for my own funeral [laughs]. You can make your own assessment. I can't argue with nothing.
Was that a turning point in your career?
I've had so many turning points in my career. Losing in Game 7 in '08, second round of the playoffs to Boston. Losing to Orlando in '09. Losing to Boston again in 2010. I had a lot of turning points. It's not just one. I got swept in the Finals before, man. I think it just gets to a point where you just say enough is enough. I think the Dallas series was the enough-is-enough turning point.
Imagewise, do you feel you've gotten back to where you were before 2010? Or maybe even improved your image? Not in Akron but across the country?
I'd say I've seen people's perception change from who they thought I was in 2010 to who I really am now. I've changed personally. But things have changed. I believe time heals all, and the way I've reshaped my life and the way I've played the game in these last few years has helped my image. I wasn't saying, This is how we're going to do it. This is the way we're going to get LeBron's image back. It was just like, This is how I want to live. This is how I want to play basketball, and it kind of just did it on its own.
I've heard you say you've become a better person, a better father, a better teammate and all that. I mean, it's not like you were a bad guy before.
I ain't never been a bad guy. I think for everyone, when you run into mistakes, it's how you handle those mistakes. It's how you come back from them. I made a comment after we lost to Dallas about people going back to their regular lives. After they're done criticizing LeBron, they still have to go back to their struggles. And I've learned from that. I feel like that was a mistake. That wasn't who I am. I don't even know where that came from. Being an underprivileged kid growing up and now having a huge foundation that helps underprivileged kids and underprivileged families, that was very insensitive to say that.
So I've grown from that. On the court, I've grown from not being there like I should have been there for my team in that Dallas series. So I think that year, and the way the press was handling me, and all of a sudden I got a villain hat and all that, it changed me for the wrong. And after that season, I was like, Man, that ain't me. I ain't about that life [laughs hard]. Get back to being LeBron. That's on and off the court.
Is there a superstar person -- athlete or otherwise- -- whom you talk to about dealing with the things you go through?
No, there's nobody I really talk to about it. I know if I needed to talk to Jay Z about it, I could, for sure. Him coming from the same background -- inner city, no way out -- and making it. Everyone believes you should be a savior here, and you have to balance that. That's the theme of the show we're doing, Survivor's Remorse. I don't want to say I've done it on my own, because I haven't done it on my own. I've had the support of my friends and family. But I've never really talked to anybody about it, about my road to success. Hopefully, I can stay here. I ain't trying to leave where I'm at.
You're in a different era today. With social media and 24-hour sports-talk radio, every single game, even quarter, of yours is critiqued. That wasn't the case back in the day when MJ played.
I look at it like this: MJ wasn't perfect. MJ had bad games. He had turnovers. He had games where he felt like he should've been better. But I think the greatest thing about MJ was that he never was afraid to fail. And I think that's why he succeeded so much -- because he was never afraid of what anybody ever said about him. Never afraid to miss the game-winning shot, never afraid to turn the ball over. Never afraid. And that's what I love most about him besides, obviously, the flying through the air and the tongue-wagging and the game-winning jumpers and the shoes and the baggy shorts. I think his drive and never being afraid to fail is what made him, and he would be unbelievable still today because of that.
Do you ever battle a fear of failure?
That's one of my biggest obstacles. I'm afraid of failure. I want to succeed so bad that I become afraid of failing.
How do you deal with it -- how do you overcome it?
Just win [laughs]. Keep winning and I don't have to worry about it. Keep winning.
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