LeBron James chases the ghost from Chicago and basketball immortality
Five weeks after the parade, LeBron James watches the final minutes of the last game for the first time. He sits in a black swivel chair, on a basketball court inside an airport hangar, as 81 of America’s best amateur players study him from metal bleachers. They have come to Los Angeles for the annual Nike Skills Academy, three days of drills and scrimmages, plus a different kind of workout: film study with LeBron. The idea is for James to deconstruct clips of this year’s Finals against Golden State, allowing the next generation to see the floor through his eyes. James dutifully dissects pocket passes he threaded to Tristan Thompson and hesitation moves he put on Andre Iguodala, three-pointers he rushed over Festus Ezeli and box-outs he missed against Draymond Green. But as footage from the fourth quarter of Game 7 unspools across the portable big screen, his reactions grow more animated, his descriptions more detailed. He grips his armrests. He covers his face. He pumps his fist. “S---,” he mutters, when Steph Curry springs free. “Cash,” he coos, when Kyrie Irving lets fly. “Run this back,” he instructs Cavaliers assistant coach Phil Handy, in charge of the video, when he fails to pick up Klay Thompson in transition. “Run it back again.”
James pauses at a jump hook by Kevin Love on Klay Thompson with 10:35 remaining: “Kevin was struggling, but this is a mismatch. Our 6'10" power forward has a two guard on his back. That’s the only thing I see. I’m giving him the ball. Who knows, maybe this is part of the reason he shuffles his feet 35 times against Steph in the last minute.” He stops again at a three-pointer by Curry over Tristan Thompson from the top of the circle at 6:57: “Steph is probably the best shooter I’ve ever seen [off the dribble],” James says. “Do not let him go left or right crossover. He gets the ball so fast to his pocket in rhythm. Double T is shading him to his left. He has the right stance, good lift, but Steph was able to cross it over.” He halts once more at 6:18 on a jumper by Klay Thompson over Iman Shumpert: “I could have stayed high on Klay, but I didn’t. It’s my fault. I’m seeing it happen, but my antenna is not as far up as it should be.”
At the two-minute mark Handy lets the tape run. “Game flow,” the Cavs call this, when they sit back and watch without interruption. James throws up his hands when he leaves a jump hook short. It’s 89–89. It’s been 89–89 for more than three minutes. “We’ve held the greatest scoring team to 89 points on their home floor,” James says. “If we can get a bucket, we can get a stop.” The blue-chippers are fully aware of what’s coming. They are more curious about the anxiety on James’s face. Doesn’t he realize he’s going to win? “You ever watch a movie that you’ve already seen, so you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still like, What is going to happen?” James explains. “I just watched the O.J. special on FX, and the judge is reading the verdict—Orenthal James Simpson—and I’m on the edge of my seat. I knew what was going to happen, of course, but I felt like I didn’t. This is the same thing. I know we win. But I don’t really know what happened.”
Irving dribbles around a J.R. Smith screen and Curry switches onto him, the matchup Cleveland wanted. From his chair James raises three fingers in the air and thrusts them triumphantly by his side as Irving’s three-pointer drops. The campers crack up. When the film ends, he turns and faces them. He feels as if he is peering into a time machine, gazing upon his 17-year-old self, back at the Nike All-American Camp in 2002. He is comfortable in front of this crowd. A prospect in the second row asks what motivates him, now that he has delivered Cleveland’s elusive championship, the defining accomplishment for the era’s defining player. James fiddles with the rubber band on his wrist. The old one, which he wore in Game 7, read I PROMISE. The new one, a gift from Michele Campbell, who runs his foundation, reads PROMISE KEPT.
There are so many directions James could go with that question. He rambles for a second about maximizing talent and supporting family. A photo of Kevin Durant, pointing to the heavens, hangs on a banner behind the bleachers. That’s probably what the kids expect, a riff about Durant and the Warriors, ganging up. He looks beyond the banner.
For the past decade, dramatic story lines have followed him, some of his own making, others contrived and distracting. Can he make the big shot? Can he win the big game? Can he win the big game in Cleveland? All that has melted away, into a puddle of Moët on the Oracle Arena hardwood, and finally he is left alone with the only subplot that ever really interested him. He has pondered it forever, but could not voice it, not with one title or even two. But now he has three, and the weight of this latest trophy tips scales the others did not. The guy in the second row waits for an honest answer.
“My motivation,” James says, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
James finishes a full-court run with the high schoolers, his first time on the floor since the Finals, and lies on a training table to stretch his legs. “Why do I feel like I’m about to go into therapy?” he asks. Because you started talking about ghosts, he is told. “My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” he says. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”
Of course, Jordan owns six championships, a long way from three. But even Jordan never produced a Finals quite like the opus James just completed: snapping a 52-year drought, erasing a 3–1 deficit, leading both teams in all five major categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals), and doing it against an opponent with the best record the league has ever seen. “This was bigger for me than the first and the second,” James says, “because of everything it represents.”
On June 20, around 3 a.m. at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas, the Cavaliers lost track of him. While they toasted their title poolside at XS Nightclub—where Smith sprayed $23,000 worth of champagne, according to credible estimates—James slipped out the door. He wound up at Allegro, an Italian restaurant on the casino floor, sitting silently over a Margherita pizza.
Growing up in Akron, James bounced with his mother from apartment to apartment and school to school, working to make new friends wherever he went. Then they’d move again, and he’d start over. Eventually, James stopped trying, stopped talking. When he was ranked the No. 1 sophomore in the nation at St. Vincent–St. Mary High, coach Keith Dambrot told him, “Best sophomore in the country, my ass. You don’t open your mouth. You don’t open your mouth, we won’t be any good.”
After the Cavaliers drafted James with the first pick in 2003, coaches watched video with him, and he barely spoke. “I got about five words,” says former assistant Melvin Hunt, who arrived in ’05 with coach Mike Brown and defensive guru Michael Malone. “Yes, maybe, I don’t know.” He just wanted to play, and if there wasn’t a game at Quicken Loans Arena, he’d throw together a pickup run at North High in Akron. The Cavs still made James their captain in 2006, and by the time he left for Miami in the summer of ’10, he understood what the position entailed. “He’s standing up at shootaround, telling guys what he’s seeing, imploring them to focus,” Hunt recalls. “What a transformation.”
When James holed up at the Wynn in July 2014 and decided to return to Cleveland, he was choosing to unleash the voice that Dambrot inspired him to develop. The Cavaliers’ culture, slipshod compared with the Heat’s, had to be overhauled. Typically that role is left to an executive or a coach, but James believed he was ready to do the job. “There are times you’re like, Damn, can a player really do this?” he says. “Is it too much?” This March the Cavaliers sat atop the Eastern Conference, but they were nowhere near as consistent as the Warriors. James grew frustrated, his leadership style swinging among passive and aggressive and passive-aggressive, with Twitter activity to prove it.
“It wasn’t going well, and I had to look in the mirror,” James says. “I had to reset, recalibrate and get out of that little funk I was in. I had to command better. As tough as I’d been, I think the guys wanted me to be tougher. If the bus is at 9:45, get there at 9:40. If you’re not going to practice hard, sit out. We couldn’t have any more slippage. I had to keep doing this.” He mimics a man twisting a screw into a two-by-four, with sound effects.
Cleveland blitzed the Eastern playoffs and dissolved locker-room cliques, thanks in part to a new addition. Power forward Channing Frye, acquired from the Magic at the trading deadline, either didn’t know about the subgroups or didn’t care. He ate with everybody, included everybody on group texts, and dinner reservations expanded to 15.
After the Cavs lost Game 4 of the Finals, James trudged into his house at 2:30 a.m. “You’re down 3–1,” he says, “and nobody has ever come back from 3–1. You’re facing a team that won 73 games, and you’re going back to their home floor, where they just won 54 in a row. Self-doubt creeps in.” James’s wife, Savannah, asked if he was O.K., and he responded with a dissertation about a turnaround jumper that Tristan Thompson sank late in the second quarter. Thompson never makes that shot. James believed it was a sign. The Cavaliers would surely win the game and tie the series. “This is a tough loss,” he said. “But there’s a light still shining.” He picked up his phone, the one with the Larry O’Brien Trophy as the screen saver, and sent a group text to the entire team:
“No matter how we got to this point, we’re here now. . . . We have to go to Golden State for Game 5 and we have to come home anyway. So why not come home and play a Game 6. . . . Let it go, play hard, be focused, follow my lead, and I’ll make sure you get home for a Game 6.”
James insulated himself from the on-air critics—”Venom for your mind,” he says—but he has experienced enough June tempests to sense when another is swirling. LeBron 2–5 in the Finals! Love to the Celtics! Irving to the Clippers! James has grown numb to the hysterics he elicits, but his teammates have not. Coach Tyronn Lue declined to show the Cavaliers video of any Finals loss, choosing psychological benefits over tactical ones. “I felt like my job was to keep everything positive and upbeat,” Lue says. “Golden State is America’s team. And we were more like the villains. Our guys were tired of seeing Golden State, hearing about Golden State.”
Somewhere between Cleveland and Oakland, James believes he stepped into a zone that spanned the series. Irving sprouted into the league’s next superstar. And the Cavs caught a massive break when Green was suspended for Game 5. “Everybody thought it was because of me,” says James, who stepped over Green late in Game 4 and received a crotch shot in return. “I didn’t think he’d be suspended.”
James scored 41 points in Game 5, when Green was out, and 41 in Game 6, when Green was back. Just inside the two-minute mark of Game 7, he spotted Iguodala streaking for a go-ahead basket, and old Cavaliers flashed back to a forgettable matchup against the Trail Blazers at the Q in 2009. In the closing seconds, Brandon Roy drove to the right from the top of the key, and James leapt from the weak side to reject him. The spring-loaded prodigy who used to gamble for steals with Larry Hughes had discovered that he could be instinctive as well as disciplined. The Cavs rejoiced in their locker room as if he’d hit a buzzer beater. Seven years later, he again swooped in from the weak side, spiking Iguodala’s layup against the glass. “Storybook,” says Hunt.
With 69 seconds left, Cleveland called timeout, and Lue drew up a play for Irving to win the championship. The rookie coach had not told the Cavaliers that his mother, Kim, was undergoing chemotherapy treatments in Houston for her second bout with breast cancer. Nor had he told them that his grandmother, Olivia George, went there to care for her and was promptly diagnosed with lung cancer. She was also undergoing chemo. Kim and Olivia could not attend a single playoff game, but they were with Lue during his most important speech. “Everything we put into this season,” he said, “all the things we’ve been through, all the scrutiny, all the doubters and haters, we have a chance to do something very special.” The bench, electrified by the message and the moment, was bedlam. “Chill the f--- out,” James said, “and let’s get a bucket.” His voice, hoarse and monotone, cut through the noise.
“You have to go back and check out the tape when the clock hits zero,” says Tristan Thompson. “It’s the most delayed reaction ever. The game is over and we’re all still locked in, like we don’t know what to do, like we’re waiting for Game 8. I think we were all looking at LeBron, and when he hugged Kevin, it was like, Holy s---, we actually won.”
James is spending the summer in L.A., city of a million transplants, and the Ohio expats find him. He could be grabbing sushi at Sugar-fish or ice cream at Sweet Rose Creamery, and they -approach, not always with cellphone cameras or autograph requests, but heartfelt thanks. “Just yesterday, I was on the rooftop at The Peninsula, and a lady came up to me crying and hyperventilating,” James says. “She was like, I’m from Cleveland and you have no idea. She’s right. It’s been more than a month, and I still have no idea.”
Every Cavalier has a similar story. General manager David Griffin was out for dinner with his wife at Flour Restaurant in Moreland Hills, Ohio, when a grandfather, father and son stopped him and broke out their most agonizing Earnest Byner/John Elway/Jose Mesa memories. “The old man grabbed my arm and burst into tears,” Griffin says. “He was bawling and telling me that I changed his city forever, and I felt so unworthy of his appreciation.
“Think about this: We were one minute away from, ‘Griffin’s a moron for trading Andrew Wiggins, and Kevin Love got lost in the Finals, and they spent the most money ever on a team that didn’t win, and they have to blow everything up.’ But LeBron blocks a shot, so instead it’s the greatest success in Cleveland sports, the first time in history coming back from 3–1 down, and the first time in forever winning a Finals Game 7 on the road. Our lives are all so different for those few milliseconds of time. That’s awesome. It’s also insane.”
The draft was four days later, and a week after that, owners started handing $60 million to scrubs. Then on the morning of July 4, while James hosted a small barbecue at his house in Brentwood, Durant joined the Warriors. The Cavaliers were overshadowed once again by the prospect of Golden State scoring a gazillion points. If they were weary of Warriors highlights before, just wait. One NBA front office ran simulations, based on player values, for the upcoming season. Cleveland came out with 64 wins, second best in the league. Golden State came out with 83, better than undefeated. They broke the system.
Durant. Curry. Green. Thompson. Jordan never encountered a foursome like that, the second-best player in the world hooking up with the third, presumably to dethrone the king. The stakes spike for James even in a quiet summer when he is following the Indians (“Funny how their long winning streak ended in Toronto,” he says, “just like ours”), explaining why he won’t let 11-year-old LeBron Jr. buy a cell phone (“He’s lucky. He gets to grow up slower than I did”) and discussing race relations with his 71-year-old father-in-law. One such conversation, after the Dallas shootings, helped shape James’s message in the impassioned ESPYs address he delivered with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.
Shortly after Durant signed and the NBA’s tectonic plates shifted, James started setting his alarm for 5 a.m., working out in a West Hollywood gym at 6. He insists the Warriors are not the impetus, but he acknowledges that he rarely trains this hard this soon. He has not even signed his own contract yet with the Cavaliers, a formality, though he is likely to ink another one-year-deal that positions him to command a higher maximum salary on a long-term pact next summer.
“LeBron reminds me sometimes of Kevin Garnett,” says Lue, a former Celtics assistant. “KG was so engaged in the game that he couldn’t really enjoy it. I’m hoping, now that LeBron won a championship in Cleveland, he can really just enjoy the game and the city and the camaraderie and being the best player in the world, without all the pressure.” It’s a sweet thought, and it’s true that Durant and Curry will split the spotlight, theoretically allowing James to surpass milestones and collect accolades in relative peace. Unfortunately, the immortals are not wired that way. They are driven to slay monsters, as many as four at a time, and chase ghosts. “I’ll have peace when I’m done,” James sniffs.
He may never reach the giant Jumpman, legs splayed in the sky, but he is entering the airspace.