- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Sometime last fall, as the weather in Ohio turned cooler and the NBA lockout dragged, LeBron James considered a major decision. One that took introspection, maturity and acceptance of responsibility.
James chose to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, on New Year's Eve.
Like with everything James does, this decision kicked off significant publicity. There was talk of the ring and its cost. There were eye rolls from people who wondered what had taken so long; after all, they had gone to her senior prom together eight years ago and later had two sons. There were congratulations offered from across the league.
James' explanation for asking her then, the day after his 27th birthday, was simple.
"It's a good point in my life right now," he said.
Taking that plunge, James' preseason theme of "getting back to being myself," and a new, lower-key and under-control demeanor are all related. James has made some changes to himself, luminous ones when reflecting back to what was going on a year ago.
Last year's NBA Finals was an unqualified disaster for James. His play was skittish, his emotions were scattered and his self-awareness was apparently on vacation. The man who got down on one knee, stunning his fiancée, was not the man who had gone completely tone deaf in the summer of 2010 and kept living in that cocoon right on through uttering sharp words as he walked away while the Mavericks drank champagne 12 months ago.
"All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before," James said following the Heat's loss.
After James left the arena that night, he said he immediately went into a two-week depression, walling himself off from everyone. He didn't play basketball, he didn't talk basketball to pretty much anyone. He didn't even shave.
Somewhere between then and calling a jeweler and Hakeem Olajuwon and the start of this season, James made some sort of unspoken agreement with himself. Looking in the mirror after days of not shaving and daring himself to watch a few minutes of that hideous Finals game film -- especially Game 4 -- can apparently cause a man to admit it was time for some changes.
Unlike big decisions in the past, James didn't make a public scene of this one. He just went about doing it. It hasn't been a perfect transition. (What changes in life are?) But there is no missing the profound difference between James' personality and sense of himself now and a year ago.
Still, there is no guarantee that James, in his ninth season and in his third try in the Finals against a fresh opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder, will reach his goal this time.
Unlike last season, James and the Miami Heat will come into the Finals as slight underdogs. Though perhaps that is appropriate, considering how much else in his world he's focused on changing.
James has very few people in his life that he trusts and even fewer that he confides in. There's his small group of friends who double as business partners.
There's Lynn Merritt, an executive at Nike who has been with him since he was a teenager. There's William "Wes" Wesley, that hard-to-define advisor who James respects. There's Jay-Z, James' idol/friend. There's Keith Dambrot, his old high school coach who has been one of the few in his life who doesn't tell him what he wants to hear.
But mostly James listens to himself. That has been the case since he was a kid. During his rookie season in the NBA, James did not reach out to many veterans for perspective. He did not speak to Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant about challenges and lessons of making the jump from high school to the pros. He didn't even look for or find a mentor teammate. He could get Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson on the phone anytime he wanted, but he did not pick it up.
"I want to experience things on my own not the way someone else did," a 19-year-old James said.
It's ironic, really. In the years since, James has become an outgoing mentor to younger players. He has relationships with numerous stars who came into the league after him and is not afraid to seek them out even in public settings to offer encouragement or advice. Even the guys on the end of the bench.
Last year when struggling Heat rookie Dexter Pittman was dispatched to South Dakota for a long stint with the Heat's D-League team, James called or texted him every day. When the Heat drafted Norris Cole last summer, James called him to invite him to his home for workouts.
I told him he's got to get back to doing what he thinks is right, not what he's supposed to think is right or what anyone else thinks is right. I just kept telling him, put the raincoat on, let all this roll off.
”-- Keith Dambrot, LeBron James' former high school coach
Yet James had somehow gone adrift himself, first starting in a 2010 playoff series that ended his tenure in Cleveland, then his free-agency fiasco, then another mysterious end to the following season. He needed advice and help, but it was not in his nature to look for it or accept it.
"I just told him that he's got to get back to trusting his instincts," said Dambrot, now the head coach at the University of Akron. "He came down here after the Finals and we had a heart-to-heart and I told him he's got to get back to doing what he thinks is right, not what he's supposed to think is right or what anyone else thinks is right. I just kept telling him, put the raincoat on, let all this roll off."
While he sought some counsel, according to those around him, James came to the decision of implementing changes by himself. That meant from a personal and professional standpoint. From finally moving his family to Florida during the season after refraining from doing so last year to the way he's managed his focus and overall mental state for the past six weeks. Those adjustments have shown through during the Heat's playoff run. His attitude and habits are simply different.
Last year, he battled insomnia throughout the postseason. He went to the gym in the middle of the night. He used Twitter in the middle of the night, once declaring "Now or never" at 3 a.m. before Game 5 of the Finals. He watched television commentary about his play and read columns about it.
"I get on the Internet, read you guys' columns, those are fun," James said before Game 5 against the Mavericks. "I've seen a lot of them. They're pretty good. Appreciate it."
This year is different. He hasn't tweeted since April. He's going to bed early, not late.
Did James see Kevin Durant's huge fourth quarter in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs?
"No, I was sleeping but I heard KD was great," James said last week.
What did he think about the Thunder's great comeback to win Game 6 and reach the Finals?
"I didn't watch it but congratulations to them," James said.
What does he think about the commentary about him these days in the middle of the best stretch of playoff games in his career?
"I don't know about anything until people tell me," James said a few days ago, just before resuming reading a book courtside. "I don't read anything but books, I don't watch sports much."
What about the James who was hyperventilating on the court after some big baskets in the closeout game against the Celtics last year? What about the emotional player who fell to his knees after winning that game and then beat the Bulls in the next round?
Saturday night, after the Heat closed out the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, James' first move was to embrace Doc Rivers and talk about how much deep respect he had for the opposing coach.
What about the critics who still hold James to a high standard or people who, based on the television ratings and the signs and chants at various arenas, still want him to fail? And what of the people who still have to wake up to their same lives the next morning?
"I can't worry about what people say about me, about my game, about who I am as a person," James said Saturday night. "People have their own opinions and rightfully so."
Last year, when the pressure came, James was so all over the place emotionally that he had trouble dealing with it. His game, his demeanor and his attitude showed it. In some ways, the same thing happened the previous year in Cleveland, but there were other targets then. His teammates, his coach, even the organization. Free agency was coming for James anyway and it was an excuse for him not to deal with it. But after last summer's Finals, there was nowhere to hide and no convenient place to shift the blame.
As Pat Riley said at the start of this season: "There's no sense in putting extra pressure on yourself. But when you get to the moment of truth, you've got to be relaxed. You don't have to be living up to something you said."
These words were aimed for James' ears. By the time they were said, though, James was already fully into his attempts at amateur behavior modification. Whether or not it will ultimately work will unfold over the next two weeks, where James will be put to the extreme test yet again and his performance will be the ultimate indictor. So far the results have been strong, James responding with huge games in pressure situations during the playoffs.
Most important, though, is that James gets another chance.
"It's been a journey," James said. "It's been a long ride. We couldn't shortcut anything this year. We're happy to be back in this position."