One could argue that if a man is provided the genes to be 6-8, 270 pounds, that he has a leg up on the competition when it comes to being a superstar athlete. Ask any NBA player, however, about how many individuals they came across during their journey to the brightest of stages who may have had all of the God-given gifts but never quite made it, and each one of them would be able to give you a laundry list of names. The Jimmys and Johnnys who had all of the measurables, mimicked all the moves, could turn a park court inside-out, and thought they would be the next AI only to not put in the work required, their dreams disappearing as it became evident all too late that the game required so much more.
As LeBron James was sitting at the podium following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ third consecutive first-round sweep in the NBA Playoffs, he waxed poetically about the difficulty in winning playoff games, reminded everyone that the Indiana Pacers were led by a top 10 player in the league, but the differences in the final scores were made behind the scenes during practice and film study, and at the margins during the course of games, during moments where fans least expect it. While it will be easy to focus on yet another 70-point effort from The Big Three, or much more fun to poke at J.R. Smith’s behind-the-back attempt in the game’s most crucial moment, James chose to focus on a moment that was neither a highlight nor by one of the Cavs’ most discussed players.
Listen to this from the 30-second point on and try to tell me LeBron James isn't a robot. pic.twitter.com/XErBBfRyoo
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) April 23, 2017
While describing Deron Williams, in the middle of a thought, James appeares to disappear into his own mind, his eyes no longer focused on the media room, but down and to his right where he stared at nothing, delivering a tangent that could best be described as the NBA’s version of the moment when Will Farrell’s character in Old School zoned out during the debate.
“You see the one possession where I swung to it Channing [Frye], Channing swung it to him. He pump-faked Myles Turner, looked off Paul George and laid it up…”
Then he comes to, once again directing his thoughts to the horde. “It’s kind of crazy—I can replay all the plays in my head, huh?”
But it’s not crazy. While the rest of us have trouble remembering what we had for breakfast hours earlier, James’ mind is an external hard drive full of every play he’s been a part of—and some that took place way before his rookie season—residing there for the rare moment one of them needs to be plucked and replayed, audibly or simply in his own head.
In that same interview following Game 4, James was asked about the last time he lost a first-round game. He was reminded that it was the New York Knicks back in May of 2012. The first thing James recalled?
“J.R. had a nice move that game, by the way. Windmill dunk on the baseline. We won that [series] in five, right? Appreciate it.”
J.R. Smith made three field goals in that game, missing 11 others, yet that is what James recalled.
In a 2014 piece penned by Brian Windhorst, James’ friend Brandon Weems discussed how frustrated it was to play LeBron in video games when they were children as the future four-time MVP would memorize every move, dominating his would-be competition. It discusses a moment where James recommended an alteration to a play drawn up by Erik Spolestra based on something that transpired three years earlier. It discusses a moment when a reporter tries to tell James that a shot he took in that day’s game was akin to one a few years earlier—and James shooting it down like a clay pidgeon.
“That one was probably about six feet closer to the baseline and inside the 3-point arc,” said James. “It was over Ronny Turiaf, I stepped back on him but I crossed him over first and got him on his heels. I’m sure of it. It was down the sideline a few feet. It was a side out-of-bounds play; this one we brought up.”
He was right.
There will be a day when James is no longer playing basketball. By this time, there will have been countless other teammates and passes and defenders and screens and pump fakes that will compile a litany of plays that will be cataloged in his mind. We’ll look back and remember the highlight dunks, pinpoint passes and wins—both regular season and playoff. We’ll reminisce about the championship he brought Cleveland in June of 2016, recalling the feeling that washed over an entire city not just in that moment, but for an entire summer. But one thing we should not forget is that LeBron never did—he chronicled it all, using his memory to guide future decisions, calculating moves by the millisecond to give himself that much more of an advantage over his competition.
As if a 6-foot-8-inch, 270-pound man without a shred of body fat needed another advantage… It’s the difference between good and great. It’s the difference between great and LeBron James.
This week in #ActualSportswriting:
- “The Outlier: Lindor’s gifts and purpose work in concert to create superstar” by Travis Sawchik (The Athletic)1
- “David Griffin on his roster vision, Kyrie’s growth, and LeBron’s greatness” by David Zavac (Fear the Sword)
- “Steve Kerr is the King of Cool” by Erik Malinowski (Bleacher Report)
- “Try to describe Giannis Antetokoumpo” buy Eden Pindyck (The New Yorker)2
- “Aaron Hernandez exhibited the slightest change in his final days” by Dan Wetzel (Yahoo! Sports)3
This week in #ActualNonsportswriting:
- “Inside the hunt for Russia’s hackers” by Sheera Frankel (Buzzfeed)
- “Our Climate Change Future is Actually Our Climate Present” by Jon Mooallem (NY Times Mag)
- “How Trump blew up the conservative media” by Eliana Johnson (POLITICO)
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