Bringing a title to Cleveland made LeBron James SI’s Sportsperson of the Year
After midnight, when the kids are down and the streets are still, LeBron James asks his wife if she wants to go on a cruise. That’s the term he uses, and because Savannah has been with him since high school she knows he is not referring to a yacht in the Caribbean. They head to the garage, grateful somebody can watch the children, and select one of the more inconspicuous cars from their fleet—usually the pickup or an SUV. And as Northeast Ohio sleeps, they turn out of their gated mansion 20 miles south of Cleveland and continue another 20 miles down Interstate 77, through the darkness and into the past.
The cruise does not follow a defined route. It can start in West Akron or North Hill, Merriman Valley or Lane-Wooster, but it always traces the same stops on a boy’s urban odyssey. There’s no need to fire up the GPS. “I don’t know every address,” James says. “But I can find the places I’m looking for.”
Hickory Street, where Big Mama’s house used to sit high atop the hill, before the city tore it down. “My first home,” James says. His mother, Gloria, who gave birth to him at 16, raised him there with her mother, Freda, across from the low-slung lawn maintenance center. All that’s left on the property is an asphalt driveway in the woods and railroad tracks running through hickory trees in what used to be the backyard.
Overlook Drive, up the block, where he and Gloria lived with the Reaves family after Big Mama died and they struggled to pay the electric. “The Reaves cut out the bottom of a crate and nailed it to the telephone pole,” James remembers. “I hooped all day on that crate.” Now the neighborhood kids have a real portable basket and a trampoline on the corner of Overlook and Hickory.
Silver Street, where he moved in with Uncle Curt and ran alongside Mount Peace Cemetery, a block away on Aqueduct. “I dreamed of being Batman, of making the NBA, of buying a house for my mom, of being the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—the Fresh Prince of Akron,” James laughs. “It was as big as I could dream.”
The Elizabeth Park projects, two hulking concrete buildings in the basin under the Y-Bridge, down the street from the single-story Baptist Church with the brick façade. “That’s when things got really tough,” James winces. “It was a mess. It was survival. There was violence. I saw so much I wouldn’t want my kids to see.” The blighted structures have since been leveled, turned into the Cascade Valley Apartments, a collection of two-story condos with multi-colored wood paneling.
Woodward Avenue and the three-story white house with green trim flanked by twin maple trees out front. James walked the two blocks to Harris Elementary School, also since razed and turned into parkland. “It was nice being that close to school, but you start to wonder, ‘How many more times are we going to do this? How many more times are we going to move?’ But I wasn’t going to ask my mom those questions. She was making the best choices for us that she could.”
Frederick Boulevard, Crestview Avenue, Moon Street. There are others he forgets. The order blurs. Did he sleep on a couch or in a bed? Did the place belong to an uncle or an uncle’s friend, a cousin or a friend he just called a cousin? “I know Moon Street was fourth grade,” James recalls, “when I missed the 82 days of school because I couldn’t get across town.” He’d often stay inside and eat from the same box of cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “A bag of potato chips was like a steak.”
Hillwood Drive, the green-and-white traditional with peeling paint and a tiny teddy bear hanging from the roof of the front porch, where youth football coach Frank Walker opened his doors. “Here is a married couple with a son and two daughters,” James says. “Here is structure. Here is stability. It was the first time I’d felt that since Hickory.”
Spring Hill Apartments, a six-story white shoebox on Rentar Lane, with units tucked behind sliding glass doors and vertical blinds. Gloria and LeBron were on the top floor above the playground. She made him leave his sneakers on the deck because they smelled so bad after school and practice. “That was it,” James sighs. “Finally, just me and my mom, united. Friends came over, wanting to spend the night, and I was like: ‘You guys have moms anddads but you want to stay with us? I thought that was so cool. I got there in sixth grade and didn’t leave until 12th. So for all the painful memories, there are bright ones. That’s a bright one.”
The cruise, which he takes about every six months, ends back at the mansion gates before sunrise. “Blessings on top of blessings,” James says. “It makes you appreciate them all.” Among professional athletes, and particularly NBA players, James’s childhood journey is not unique. But he clings to it as a subject of reflection and a source of inspiration.
“When you grow up the way I grew up, I don’t think you ever really get past it,” he continues. “I think it’s part of you forever. Life is like a book and I think you have to go back and read your book sometimes, to learn from it. Maybe I’m at Chapter 8 right now, but you can’t sit down and start reading a book at Chapter 8. You have to go back to Chapter 1.”
With 2 minutes and 27 seconds left in the first half of Game 7 and the Cavaliers trailing the Warriors by three points, Tyronn Lue called timeout. “Bron, you’ve got to be better than this,” the Cavs coach implored.
“What do you mean?” James asked, incredulous. He had just scored 41 points with 16 rebounds in Game 5 and added another 41 with 11 assists in Game 6, evening a series that was essentially over. He’d sent his teammates impassioned late-night group texts, showed them the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford and convinced them during a post-practice bus ride across the Bay Bridge that the championship was their destiny. It’s already written, he shouted from the back.
“What more do you want me to do?” he pressed Lue.
“Stop being so passive!” the coach barked. “Stop turning the ball over! And guard Draymond!” James’s numbers looked fine—12 points, seven rebounds, five assists—but he had unleashed a few sloppy passes and Draymond Green, his primary assignment, was 5 for 5 from three-point range. “Bron was mad, pissed off at me, and then we went into the locker room at halftime and I told him the same thing in front of all the guys,” Lue recalls. “He was mad again, pissed off again.”
After Lue finished, he saw James approach assistant coach Damon Jones in the locker room and overheard their exchange. “It’s messed up that T Lue is questioning me right now,” James said. The Cavaliers trailed by seven. The season was slipping.
“Everything I read all year is that you want to be coached, want to be held accountable, and trust T Lue,” Jones replied. “Why not trust him now?”
James was still rankled. He moved on to James Jones, his long-time teammate, who has ridden shotgun to the past six Finals. “I can’t believe this,” LeBron said.
“Well,” Jones responded, “is he telling the truth?”
Lue, ducking in and out of a back office, kept an eye on LeBron. “He stormed out of the locker room,” Lue says. The coach laughs as he tells the story. “I didn’t really think he was playing that bad,” Lue admits. “But I used to work for Doc Rivers in Boston, and he told me, ‘I never want to go into a Game 7 when the best player is on the other team.’ We had the best player. We needed him to be his best. I know he might have been tired, but f— that. We had to ride him. And he had to take us home.”
With 1:08 left in the game and the Cavaliers in another timeout, James sat motionless on the bench at Oracle Arena. He had cooled Green in the second half. He had swatted Andre Iguodala on the crucial breakaway. He had put up six straight points, and the score was tied. “I will never forget that timeout because he was so calm—and we were so calm because he was so calm,” remembers Cleveland power forward Kevin Love. “I could see Adam Silver in the stands over here. I could see Phil Knight over there. Everything was kind of moving in slow motion.”
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin flashed back to a game at Quicken Loans Arena in November 2014, shortly after James returned to Cleveland. “We were dropping confetti for every regular-season win at home,” Griffin recounts, “and three wins in, Bron was like: ‘Can you do something about the confetti? We haven’t accomplished anything yet.’” Griffin asked the game operations staff to quash the confetti, which they did, but after the Cavs vanquished the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, James noticed unwelcome debris tumbling from the rafters. In an otherwise jubilant post-game locker room, he spotted the GM. “Griff,” James grumbled, “how ‘bout that confetti tonight?”
“Dude,” Griffin shot back, “we won the East.”
“That’s a trophy,” James deadpanned.
The Warriors took the hardware he wanted, and for a year, the NBA belonged to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two splashy sons of the suburbs reared by dads who played in the league. “LeBron tells everyone he’s gotten to the point where you give it your best effort, and if you don’t win, it is what it is,” Griffin says. “I think that’s bulls—. I think he was consumed by that trophy in a way that was probably not healthy, and when he didn’t get it, I don’t think he was the same person for a while. I think it bothered him deeply and he came back a radically better version of himself.”
Golden State went 73–9 last season, a record no team had ever reached, and seized a 3–1 lead in the Finals, an advantage no team had ever overcome. “But the thing is, when you have LeBron James, you’re never afraid,” Griffin continues. “You’re never David against Goliath because you have Goliath. So fear does not really exist. Every circumstance we put ourselves in, we expect to get out of, because we have him. He makes you believe you can do anything because he is present, and we all get to succeed because we’re in his sphere. I imagine that’s how it was with the Yankees and Babe Ruth, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Griffin points out a photograph of James, hanging in a hallway of the Cavaliers practice facility, taken moments after Kyrie Irving hit the three and Love made the stop and Tristan Thompson did the double-take as the horn sounded. James’s arms are wrapped around Love’s neck, his head tilted skyward, eyes squeezed shut. He is standing on the tiptoes of his black-and-gold Soldier 10s. Love could feel an actual weight lifting from his teammate’s 250-pound frame. “Look at LeBron’s face,” Griffin says. “Look at that joy. I don’t know what he can do that’s bigger than this. I really don’t. It’s like if the best player on this year’s Cubs were from Chicago, or the best player on the 2004 Red Sox were from Boston. He broke the curse at home.”
James knows the picture. He passes it almost every day. “I didn’t cry when José Mesa blew the save for the Indians,” he says. “I didn’t cry when Earnest Byner fumbled at the 1 for the Browns. I didn’t cry when MJ hit the shot over Craig Ehlo. I would have been pulling for Jordan because that’s who I wanted to be. But I’m part of this community and I know what those moments meant. So the first thing I thought about were the fans who waited 52 years. Then I thought about my family. And then I thought about my upbringing, the people who supported me when I didn’t have a dime to my name, and my life was a struggle. There were so many emotions—too many to hold onto.” He rattles off names of the uncles and cousins, coaches and teammates, friends and strangers, who once offered a sofa and a cereal box, or more. He mentions the fourth-grade teacher who gave him a stack of worksheets for extra credit so he could see fifth. He scoffs at the suggestion that he was protected because he was gifted.
“There are a lot of gifted nine-year-olds,” he counters. “They did it because they cared.”
He never owed his hometown a debt. He repaid it anyway, with backbreaking interest.
LeBron James is SI’s 2016 Sportsman of the Year because of those three games in June. Considering the opponent, the deficit and the stakes—for himself and his region, eternally entwined—it is hard to find a more prodigious championship performance in sports history, much less basketball history. Afterward, as the Cavaliers flew from the Bay Area to Las Vegas for their victory party, James approached Lue on the plane and thanked him for the final push. “I needed it,” he said.
By traditional measures, 2015–16 was not his best season, not even close. His rebounds were up but his assists were down and his scoring was static. In a pop-a-shot league, he laid bricks outside the paint, barely scraping 30% from three-point range. “But that’s not how you measure the greatness of somebody like this,” says Wayne Winston. “You have to look deeper, at what he does for his team.”
A statistics professor, Winston designed the famed Lineup Calculator for the Mavericks in 2000 to gauge the effect players have on each other. Plug James into the calculator for ’15–16 and he nearly breaks it. “A great player is worth nine to 10 points for his team per 48 minutes,” Winston says. “In other words, if he played an entire game with four average players against five average players, his team would win by nine to 10 points. Last season, LeBron was worth 19.4 points per 48 minutes, the best year of his career.”
When James was on the court, the Cavaliers were better than the NBA average, no matter who was with him. And when he was off the floor, they were worse than the average, no matter who was replacing him. “We’re The Sandlot,” Love says. “And he’s Benny the Jet.” When Love was on the court with James, for example, the Cavs were 12.2 points better than average. When Love was without him, they were 4.1 worse. When Irving was with him, they were 9.7 points better than average; without him, 1.3 worse. The results were similar with role players. Channing Frye, for instance, was plus-22.6 with James and minus-5.1 without him. Not much changed in the playoffs, either. Tristan Thompson was plus-14.7 with James and minus-22.9 without him. Cleveland’s most effective post-season lineup was actually James and four subs. “When LeBron runs the team with four journeymen,” Winston says, “the team is amazing.”
Players don’t need the calculator to grasp the phenomenon. In January ’15, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert flew to Cleveland, having been traded from the Knicks to the Cavaliers. Shumpert was devastated. “It was the first time Shump had been traded and I told him, ‘I know the feeling, I know where you’re coming from, but this could be a great thing,’” Smith recalls. “‘The pressure isn’t on us anymore. We can just be free and play. That’s what LeBron lets you do. He lets you go out there, with heart and energy, and just play.’”
To acquire Shumpert, the Cavaliers had to absorb Smith, best known for his clubbing, tweeting and lead-foot driving. “I’ve got him,” James told Griffin when trade talks began. On Smith’s first full day in Cleveland, James was rehabbing an injured back and found him in the weight room. “People say you only care about offense, offense, offense,” James told Smith. “I think you can become one of the top five defenders in our league.” Smith, an unconscionable gunner, didn’t know if James was joking. “I sat there for a minute and started thinking, You know what, he might be right,” Smith says. “I’m not going to be able to shoot step-backs at will anymore here. I have to use my athletic ability, my speed and strength, in a different way.” They became workout partners that day.
Smith feared his reputation would never change, no matter what he did, a concern he shared with James. “We talked about that,” Smith says. “I try not to talk about it around anybody else. I’m an insecure guy when it comes to my game and he’s the same way in a sense. That’s why he’s always working on jump shots, free throws, areas he doesn’t feel good about.” Smith grew close enough to James that he felt comfortable texting him late at night after the Cavaliers dropped Game 4 of the Finals, falling behind 3–1. “I told him, ‘No disrespect to anybody else, but we can’t win without you being aggressive,’ ” Smith recounts. “ ‘I don’t care about turnovers. I don’t care about missed shots. We need you to be you.’ ”
James needed Smith to space the floor. In the 2015 Finals, Smith shot a meager 29.4% from three, and in the rematch he wasn’t much better. At halftime of Game 7, he was at 31.7% for the series and 0 for 4 on the night. While Lue worried about James, James fretted about Smith. “I was really down on myself,” Smith says. “It felt like the year before was happening all over again. Bron came up to me at half and was like: ‘Don’t worry about that. Let it come. You’re going to hit some big shots and we’re going to get right back in this thing.’ ” Smith scored eight points in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter, drilling two threes, and the mighty Warriors buckled.
The caricature of J.R. Smith—the parties, the GIFs, the speeding tickets—appeared buried. And roughly eight hours later it was resurrected, as he sprayed $23,000 worth of champagne into the crowd at XS Nightclub in Vegas, evidence that a man can only change so much. But Smith had already morphed from renegade to darling, in the time it took to peel off his championship T-shirt. The Cavaliers trusted Smith enough to award him a four-year, $57 million contract extension in October, or maybe it’s more accurate to say they trusted James enough. During free agency, the Cavs essentially bid against themselves for Smith, as other organizations questioned his value without James. Smith, after 11 scattered seasons and four stops, had finally discovered the place where he could prosper.
“I’m never going to leave Cleveland,” Smith says. “Even if they trade me someday, I’m going to live here forever.”
On the Sunday before the presidential election, James and Smith sit on white plastic folding chairs in a backstage hallway at the 94-year-old Public Auditorium in downtown Cleveland, waiting for Hillary Clinton. James is no political firebrand, and when Clinton’s campaign first asked him about appearing at a rally over the summer, he was apprehensive. He endorsed her, in an op-ed for Business Insider, but giving a speech was another matter. He decided that if the race was close at the end, and he could make a difference, he’d muster a few words. “I get nervous,” James admits. “People give me notes, bullet points, but I don’t know what I’m going to say. I just talk from the heart.”
Clinton did not know James personally but she watched Game 7 on a small TV next to a recovery room at Columbia Medical Center in New York after her daughter, Chelsea, gave birth. “As big as you are, as busy as you are, it humbles me that you’d take the time to do this,” Clinton tells James, when they meet backstage. “Of course,” James responds. He introduces Clinton to Smith, who vows to keep his shirt on. “Oh, you look good either way,” Clinton cracks, and James howls. He then introduces Smith’s eight-year-old daughter, Demi, whom James calls his niece. He explains that Demi was just in Washington D.C. visiting monuments. He snaps a photo as the girl describes what she saw.
The time has come. James walks across the tiled floor into the auditorium, up five metal steps, to a blue carpeted stage. Applause engulfs him. “I want people to understand how I grew up in the inner city,” James tells the crowd. “I was one of those kids and was around a community that was like, ‘Our vote doesn’t matter.’ But it really does. It really, really does.” He speaks for less than two minutes, but the campaign is thrilled. Not only did the most famous man in Ohio appear with the candidate, he had also posed backstage with the staff, as they stood on chairs around him. Only one person was missing from the shot. “Should we get HRC in here?” an aide wondered. “No, that’s okay,” another chirped, and Clinton shrugged good-naturedly. She hung off to the side, out of the picture for the first time in about six months. “I think this may have happened once before,” an aide mentioned, “with Brad Pitt.”
Two days later, James and his wife stayed up until 4 a.m., watching the state and the country choose Donald Trump. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have my father, so you looked up to people in positions of power,” James says. “It could be athletes or actors or leaders, like presidents. I think parents could use some of those people as role models. But when we elect a president who speaks in a disrespectful way a lot, I don’t know that we can use him in our household.” The next morning, James and Savannah ate breakfast, before the Cavaliers flew to D.C. for their championship ceremony with President Barack Obama. “I think we’re going to have to do more,” he told his wife. “I think we’re going to have to step it up more.”
This was the year of athlete activism, and James honored the greatest of all, donating $2.5 million to support a Muhammad Ali exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. James reveres Ali, as a revolutionary as much as a fighter, and feels a responsibility to speak out when stirred. He voices an opinion on virtually every subject reporters ask him about, from police brutality to NFL ratings. But his form of engagement differs from Colin Kaepernick’s, and for that matter, Ali’s. “I understand protests, but I think protests can feel almost riotous sometimes, and I don’t want that,” James says. “I want it to be more about what I can do to help my community, what we can do so kids feel like they’re important to the growth of America, and not like: ‘These people don’t care about us.’ I’m not here to stomp on Trump. We’re here to do our part, which starts in the place we grew up, street by street, brick by brick, person by person.”
James’s philanthropic efforts are well chronicled. His foundation sponsors every at-risk third grader in the Akron public school system, following them through high school. With his first class currently in eighth grade, the foundation partnered last year with Akron University to guarantee four-year college scholarships for any of the students who graduate high school with a 3.0 grade point average. “It was huge,” says Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, who currently counts 1,100 students in the program. “But we try to stay ahead of our kids and we started thinking about what their life would look like in college. We learned that the dropout rate for African-American students, between freshman and sophomore year, is really alarming.” Campbell called James into the office in Akron after the All-Star Game and shared the statistics she’d found, that 18.6% of first-time African-American students at U.S. public universities graduate within four years of starting, according to the Digest of Education studies. “We can’t get them all the way there,” she said, “and see them drop out.”
In October, the foundation announced plans to create a 7,000 square-foot institute at InfoCision Stadium on the Akron campus, which will become a 24/7 haven for the students. “Even though the university is in their backyard, I think there’s sometimes a feeling that it’s for someone else and not for them,” Campbell says. “We needed a place where they can feel safe and carry that home-away-from-home feeling.” Campbell and James have five years to figure out what exactly they will do with the space—they’ve assembled a board of experts to make recommendations—but they could use it for tutoring, counseling or social events. They like that the site is in the football stadium, partly because the exterior wall is glass, looking out over Akron.
James weighs in on a lot of sensitive issues but his cause—underprivileged children and families in Northeast Ohio—is clear. It informs even some of the choices he makes for his production company, SpringHill Entertainment, when he and business manager Maverick Carter are picking projects to back: Cleveland Hustles, an unscripted series in which aspiring entrepreneurs pitch a panel of investors their ideas for small businesses in Cleveland; There Goes the Neighborhood, a comedy in which a white family moves into a gentrifying African-American section of Cleveland; The Wall, a game show in which $12 million will be on the line every night. “What always appeals to us are real stories that are authentic and inspire people,” Carter says. “That’s the common thread.”
“I sometimes look at LeBron and see that six-year-old boy in him, who grew up in a place that was cold and gray and poor, and everybody told him that you can’t do anything here and you have to leave,” Griffin says. “And now he is living out every single childhood dream he ever had, literally everything he ever could have thought of. I remember being that little kid. We all remember being that little kid. And I know he’s inspired me to dream bigger than I ever did before. I think he’s inspired a lot of people to do that. He’s Ohio’s favorite son—again—and he’s using that to the full extent of its bandwidth. He’s making this as big as any other place.”
Cleveland has hemorrhaged population since 1950, from 900,000 to 400,000, and the first decade of the new millennium saw a 17% drop. But in the past five years, the drain has slowed significantly, to 1.46%. “Something is happening,” says Richey Piiparinen, senior research associate of The Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State. “The river burned in ’69. The mayor lit his hair on fire in ’72. Everybody left. We were defined by Rust Belt shame. We were the first region that died. And then recently, we’ve seen trends pointing to this return migration, this boomerang effect. LeBron is the face of it because his boomerang was so iconic.”
The shift was caused primarily by the growth of Cleveland’s health-care industry, not the presence of a basketball player. But Piiparinen studies a discipline called psychogeography, how the emotions evoked by a place determine whether people choose to live there. “It’s part of what makes a city hot,” Piiparinen explains, “and there’s no doubt LeBron ties into it.” When James announced in ‘14 that he was coming back to Cleveland after four years in Miami, 7.4% of the city’s population was age 25 to 29, a figure that had barely fluctuated since ’09. A year later, the number had spiked to 8.3%, while the national average held steady at 6.9. Owners of downtown apartment buildings were among the biggest beneficiaries. According to Joe Marinucci, president and CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, housing in the area has hovered above 94% occupancy for the past 16 quarters.
“There’s a group here called Look Up To Cleveland that puts high-school students through one-day sessions about things going on around Northeast Ohio, good and bad,” says Jacob Duritsky, the vice president of Strategy and Research at Team NEO, a nonprofit economic development organization. “I give the presentation on the economy, and at the end, I always ask these 17- and 18-year-olds how many of them intend to come back to Cleveland after they go away to college. I started asking six years ago, and out of 50, 10 or 15 would raise their hands. Last year, 43 or 44 raised their hands. I don’t know anyone who says they are moving back just because LeBron James did, but he’s an important piece of a change in momentum.”
One of Duritsky’s colleagues, Mike Stanton, grew up in West Park and Fairview Park. In ’09, he graduated from Ohio State and served in the Army for five years. After that, he worked for a plastics manufacturer in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, before Team NEO called last spring. He interviewed in Cleveland on a Wednesday, during the Eastern Conference semifinals, and flew back to Atlanta that night. “I got in my car, on the top deck of the parking garage at Hartsfield Airport, and turned on the radio because the Cavs were playing the Hawks,” says Stanton, 30. “The Cavs were up by 25. They’d make like 20 three-pointers. The announcers were talking about how obscene it was. You’re looking for some reassurance and that kind of provided it. ‘The decision is made. I’m coming home.’ ”
Cassi Pittman grew up in East Cleveland and didn’t apply to one college in Ohio. She went to the University of Pennsylvania and earned her Ph.D. in sociology and social policy from Harvard. Then she followed the crowd to New York, where her father went to college, at Columbia. He used to tell her, “The only people who don’t stay in the city after graduation are the ones from California and Cleveland.” She moved back in July ’14 as an assistant professor of sociology at Case Western. “LeBron was not the catalyst,” says Pittman, 33. “But I did tell everyone we made our decision mutually.”
Likewise, 32-year-old Jessica O’Rielly wrote a “Coming Home” essay when she resigned from a New York media company last June, moving with her husband to Shaker Heights. And 31-year-old Valerie Malloy insisted on a chalk toss when she wed her longtime boyfriend, Elliott, after a move from Omaha in September ‘14.”One of the groomsmen brought the chalk,” says Malloy, married at Ariel International Center in Cleveland. “But it was the dustless chalk so it didn’t work.”
On June 19, Father’s Day, Valerie and Elliott visited both sets of parents and grandparents before heading downtown to watch Game 7 at a bar. But Winking Lizard was packed and the air conditioning at Huron Point Tavern was out. They finally secured a table at Becky’s with eight friends. “I was crying, and not just because there was champagne and beer in my eyes,” Malloy says. “It was probably the greatest day of my life.”
The return migration has touched many Ohioans, none more so than the big boomerang himself.
Two days before the ring ceremony, James walked from the weight room to the court at the Cavaliers practice facility. “Is this what you thought it would be?” Griffin asked.
“No,” James replied, “it’s so much more.”
When the Cavs drafted him in 2003, placing 40 years of a city’s dashed hopes on his shoulders, it was a burden. “Just learn as much as you can, soak up as much as you can and get better,” James told himself then. Fronting a franchise, at 18, was challenging enough. Healing a region’s damaged sports psyche was too much. At times, he seemed to rebel against the role that was handed to him, famously doffing a Yankees hat before a playoff game against the Indians at Jacobs Field in ‘07.
Juxtapose that image with the scene at the World Series this fall, James wearing Indians hats and jerseys to his suite at Progressive Field, leaving Beats by Dre headphones in the home clubhouse with notes that read: It’s your turn. “LeBron James pretty much is Cleveland,” says Indians closer Cody Allen, “and when he is on your Jumbotron, going nuts with his guys, that stuff gets ingrained in your mind. Things in this city changed when the Cavs won. People took that excitement and optimism and shifted it right over to us. I don’t necessarily think we needed that, but it breathed something into us. Everywhere you went, you’d see Cavs gear and Indians gear. They went together. In front of mom-and-pop stores, you’d see Cavs banners with Indians banners. It was like small-town high-school football pride.”
When the Tribe was on the road, James watched at TownHall in Ohio City. “Long way from the kid in the Yankees hat,” he laughs. “I still love seeing the Yankees play baseball. That was part of my childhood. But it’s different now. I think it takes a while to understand your purpose and who you are. When you find that out—and it happened for me in Miami, when I was by myself and had to be more independent—you realize, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ I’m here to represent for Ohio but mostly for the youth that look up to me. When you find your calling, everything else is easier.” Last summer, after Dwyane Wade hit the free-agent market, James did not try to steer his friend. But when it became clear that Wade would join his hometown Bulls, James told him: “Those are the people who watched you grow from a kid into a man.”
On a crisp, cloudless Sunday morning in the first week of November, the subject of James’s sports apparel is once again at issue. The Browns are hosting the Cowboys and James has reserved a suite at FirstEnergy Stadium. One of his friends calls, before brunch at Urban Farmer, to make sure he is not wearing any blue-and-silver stars. James grew up a Dallas fan, ever since he played youth football for the South Rangers, whose uniforms looked like the Cowboys’. James assures his friend he has already decided to go neutral.
In a gray Nike hoodie and a black “Always Believe” hat, James watches from the front row of his suite, next to Tristan Thompson and Khloe Kardashian. Bernie Kosar swings by to say hi. With 23 seconds left in the first half, Cleveland receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr. grabs a 12-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Instead of savoring a rare highlight, Browns’ fans sitting below James turn to check his reaction. He smiles and claps three times.
“Lakers-Suns tonight at 9:30,” James announces, before retreating inside the suite for a halftime game of cards. He does this a lot, blurting out random matchups and tip times that would only pique the interest of a devoted League Pass geek. Bucks-Wolves! Hornets-Pelicans! “He knows every team so well, he could run the pregame walk-through by himself,” says Jordan McRae, the Cavaliers second-year guard. “Every young guy should get a chance to play with him, even just for a little bit.”
“There’s always something on his mind,” Griffin adds, “something he’s planning, something he wants to achieve, and we’re all a part of it, but there’s no way to know exactly what it is.” If the first month of this season is any indication, it has to do with playmaking. James is averaging the fewest field goal attempts of his career, 17.2, and the most assists, 9.7, whipping four-seamers to Cleveland’s bevy of oversized shooters. When reporters recently asked him about records he most admires, the first one he mentioned was Scott Skiles’s 30 assists in a game. He wants to help Irving win an MVP, and in the process, he may wind up snatching another for himself. The more immediate concern is Smith, mired in a wretched shooting slump, and demonstrating some familiar flakiness. In one defensive possession at Milwaukee, he comically left his man to hug Bucks reserve Jason Terry.
Two days before Thanksgiving, James sits on a bench next to the Cavaliers practice court, leaning against a black pad that supports his back. “Where are your shoes and socks!” he hollers. “Go put on your shoes and socks!” His youngest son, nine-year-old Bryce, is playing barefoot with Irving. Bryce is in fourth grade now, the same grade James was in when he lived on Moon Street and missed the 82 days of school. Someday, he may take Bryce on a cruise, but for now he just wants to sit back in this basketball palace and watch his boy rebound for his point guard.
“This is amazing, isn’t it?” James asks. “This is my life.”