LeBron James, A+ student

Part 3 of a TrueHoop series on LeBron James

After trading for Anthony Davis, the Lakers are darn close to title favorites. Vegas loves them, David Thorpe likes them even more than that. I get it. To me, LeBron is clearly the best basketball player of all time, and Anthony Davis is likely—this year, because of their relative ages—to be even better than LeBron. On top of that, they did better than expected in filling out the roster. There's a chance Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jared Dudley, and some of the younger players will come together in a meaningful way. 

What I can't pretend, though, is that every player is equally likely to be part of a roster that congeals into more than the sum of its parts. The Lakers are making a massive bet on lesser players blossoming at the same exact time we are learning that LeBron is a very persnickety teammate. He carries disdain visibly and often. Few meet his high standards. In ways obvious and subtle, temporary and permanent, he has bailed on the majority of the rosters he has played with. Either he leaves town or, like last season, gets huffy in ways that led to team meetings and, eventually, almost everybody—teammates, coach, president—parting ways with the organization one way or another. All of which puts a certain amount of pressure on the Quinn Cooks and Dwight Howards of the world.

Here, now free of charge, is Part 3 of TrueHoop's 5-part series about the mentality that makes an elite athlete. Spoiler alert: It can also make a tricky teammate.

To read the whole series: 

By Henry Abbott

Winning a championship is great, but, in these overworked and stressful times, maybe even that can be tough to properly savor. The head coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichick, once said that after winning the Super Bowl, his team was five weeks behind in preparing for the following season.

Can you imagine having that be the topic in the car home from winning it all? You might feel like nothing was ever good enough, that it was never time to have fun, that smiling, or slowing down, was never a good choice.

In an Uninterrupted barbershop conversation, LeBron James’ friend and agent Rich Paul quotes that Belichick line, and LeBron—noted for his insane work ethic—roars with approval.  It’s one of many signals into his overbearing nature, which a source who knows LeBron calls the “most under-told story in sports.” LeBron has bragged about not just spending his precious downtime watching Division II NCAA basketball—but also making his wife Savannah join him.

I have heard 100 stories like this from elite athletes, and took them to a crowded Greenwich Village coffee shop to discuss with esteemed NYU psychologist Jay Van Bavel. Was there magic in this relentlessness? Not long into the stories he put up his hand to stop me. “Do you know what OCD is?” he asked. “OCD just means you’re so obsessed with your own weird needs you don’t accommodate others.”

A moment of intolerance
The 2010 Finals pitted the league’s most storied rivals, the Celtics and the Lakers, in dreamy fashion for fans.

Well, for most fans. The Celtics were on the verge of a nightmare. At the start of the fourth quarter of Game 4, their team had already lost two out of three and trailed at home. The Celtics were seen as essentially three stars—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen (Jesus Shuttlesworth, himself). As the fourth quarter began, another Celtic, Glen “Big Baby” Davis bowling-balled his way to several key buckets over taller, more elegant athletes. A particularly dogged Big Baby bucket put the Celtics up six with 8:22 to play. Boston fans were ecstatic. The Lakers called timeout.

Illustration by Patrick Truby

Some people die without ever having celebrated anything as thoroughly as Big Baby did on his way to the bench, complete with a kind of shouting Walt Whitman rhymed about, and a piggyback for his smallest teammate.

And—it made headlines—a stream of drool. “You know what babies do,” intoned ESPN commentator Mark Jackson over the slow-motion replay, as his dour-faced colleague Jeff Van Gundy giggled. “No question about it: BIG. BABIES. DROOL.”

It was an all-time SportsCenter moment, except one dude ruined it: Ray Allen, the tidy child of a military family, stormed through the highlight with a fixed scowl.

Ray built his career with 10,000 hours or more of imposing order on chaos. Missed shots tend to feature randomness: feet weighted atypically, elbow tilted out, a sightline obscured by a defender. Thanks to an elaborate practice regimen, even by NBA standards, Allen had learned to tame the noise, to keep things consistent no matter the circumstances.

Allen comes from a rough childhood. In his book From the Outside, he remembers going to school without lunch and intervening when his dad came home late and was rough with his mom. And, like Shuttlesworth, he remembers resolving that hard work would be the cure. In a military town where you could get fined for imperfectly groomed lawns, Allen made a killing with his lawnmower while other kids were playing.

The whole arena is sharing an electric set of emotions with Big Baby. Conceivably the kind of moment that makes you want to play, watch, or care about basketball in the first place. But Allen is the straight-A student who can’t bear the class clown. He hot-foots around the celebration like a commuter stepping around vomit on the train station floor, on his way to becoming one of LeBron’s favorite players.

The next-generation Ray Allen
Many elite athletes embrace difficult, persnickety, and anti-social things and become difficult, persnickety, and anti-social.

The NBA’s next-generation Ray Allen, J.J. Redick, has similar tendencies, on and off the court. At a recent Sixers practice, balls bouncing around him, a scrimmage on the next court, I ask Redick about athletes and obsession. He fully acknowledges it’s an issue, and he’s part of it. “I mean, I am fanatical. Religious. Number one it drives my wife crazy. Because she’s like, can you spend a little more time with us? But you know, you get to the point where you’re doing two-a-days and you’re day 27 of 30 work days, and it’s like the ninth of August. And you’re like aw shit I got six more weeks of this before training camp even starts. You know?”

You can feel, in that story, both sides of Redick. That he suspects it is too much, and that he needs to keep doing it. The team staff, he says, calls Redick The Jackhammer, because he’s always, in Redick’s words, “just pounding away, chipping away.” Redick isn’t even totally sure it helps. He tells a story about when the team’s 24-hour flight to China, and a virus, kept him from all of his normal routines—and he had one of the best shooting nights of his career. What does the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Todd Wright, have to say about Redick’s routine? “He’s just like man you just need to chill,” says Redick.

But Redick doesn’t chill, or can’t. The NBA offseason is basically all summer, like in school. Even with those months off, Redick says he struggles to find time to travel anywhere, for instance to see family and friends. Now that he’s older and wiser, his big concession is a few days off around Labor Day. Other than that, he’s working out. “It drives my family crazy too, because they’re like we want you to come see us!” he says. “And I’m like I can’t get out of my routine. I wish I could. Now with kids too, I don’t travel as much, I don’t do as much. Everything, unfortunately—well not unfortunately because it’s a great life and I love it—but everything in my life revolves around you know the preparation and the diligence that I feel like I have to put in to be good at what I do.”

As he talks, Redick is on the gym floor, lilting back and forth kneading the muscles of his mid-back into a roller. He has a playoff game the next day. What happens if he misses a workout? “It fucks with me. It’s tough.” I ask if he feels it physically. He stops rolling, eyes flash. “Ohhhhhh, yes.” Here he is deadly serious, taps his heart, to show where he feels it. “There’s a stress level, an anxiety level.”

He theorizes it has a lot to do with craving some control in the wild and unpredictable environment of the NBA: “Yeah, you’re on a boat, it’s pretty fucking choppy, and somehow you’ve got to figure out a way to get that anchor down. And you know I’ve told Ray Allen this. He said something and I read it early in my career, and I’ve taken that with me. It just goes back to the routine. And it’s just like whether you’re in a slump, or you’re in one of those ten-game streaks where you’re shooting 55 percent from 3, you just don’t change your routine. You can never blame the routine. I see a lot of guys, especially younger guys, without figuring that out, it is chaotic for them. It is chaotic. It is chaotic. They go through some self-doubt. They go through frustration. They get high, they get low. It’s one of the great lessons that we learn as NBA players is just, the extremes of the highs and the lows, the valleys and the mountains, and being able to keep an even keel with that. And that goes back to why guys get obsessive about their routine.”

Here is a man who thinks like Belichick. “I use this sort of analogy all the time,” says Redick. “If you have a bucket, and you wanted to fill that bucket with water, but you could only do it one drop at a time, and to get to that full bucket, that’s where you’re a master. It takes a long time! And so if you’re taking days off, I think you’re sort of limiting the amount of water that you can put in that bucket.”

Redick has heard that LeBron is one of the best at filling that bucket.

This is how to break LeBron’s heart
Devin Brown was once, briefly, a LeBron teammate in 2007-08. A tough and physical wing player, he had played on the Spurs when Cavaliers coach Mike Brown was an assistant there. The Cavaliers’ front office had some hope he could be the long-term solution as the strong wing they felt the roster lacked. He played fine, even started 20 of his 78 games as a Cavalier. But it didn’t work out playing with LeBron.

On the day of a playoff game against the Celtics, three sources agree, Devin Brown failed to show up for shootaround. The team tried calling, then finally somebody drove over to his house and found him passed out, evidently on the wrong end of an indulgent late night. The Cavs lost the series. LeBron was shattered. With such clear goals, and so much hard work, how could you let one fun night ruin everything? Brown had a few more years left to play; none would be for LeBron’s Cavaliers.

Brown didn’t sour LeBron on Cleveland all by himself. But several sources, including Maverick Carter (Hollywood producer, LeBron’s business partner, and close friend since high school), says the human frailties of Brown and others drove LeBron to distraction. Straight-A students can’t stand slackers.

Throughout LeBron’s career, says one team source, he has displayed constant disdain for one teammate or another, from Mario Chalmers in Miami to J.J. Hickson and Dion Waiters in Cleveland.

By internet traffic standards, the biggest online story in the history of the NBA by 2010 was “The Decision.” This was the mutli-faceted debacle by which LeBron weighed his options in free agency, and ultimately starred in a half-hour TV show announcing he would leave his hometown team, the Cavaliers, to join a roster of hand-picked All-Stars in Miami.

Before “The Decision,” Dan Rosenbaum was the adviser on advanced statistics to the Cavs’ GM Danny Ferry. In a phone conversation, Rosenbaum says he believes that LeBron felt let down by his teammates: “At that same time, Delonte West had all the issues. Larry Hughes had his brother’s death; it made it very hard. [Hughes] wasn’t the same person after that. Things were hard for him after that. My guess is that kind of stuff probably contributed to that kind of feeling for LeBron. Maybe the Devin Brown thing ended up being the final straw.”

Rosenbaum makes it clear that LeBron wasn’t directing the front office. But the team put extraordinary effort into guessing what he’d like. And over time, that meant more trading away of young players and draft picks. “To me, that was always kind of the wrong approach,” Rosenbaum says. “Once those years are over, those years are over. You sacrifice by trading away draft picks, then you don’t have young guys he can see himself grow old with.”

Meanwhile, most summers LeBron played for U.S.A. Basketball, at various Olympics or World Championships, with a hand-selected group of the NBA’s finest. By 2009, he had spent enough bus rides and team dinners to know Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shared his frustration with unfocused teammates. They had their own Devin Brown stories. This connection, sources say, is what really drove “The Decision.” (It’s also why you can see me on TV in the days before, saying the three would play together; the only question was in which city.) Three straight-A students, raising their hands, ready to destroy the class with the best group project ever.

It wasn’t nirvana—LeBron seemed to bark at young point guard Mario Chalmers every game. But in general it worked. I asked Shane Battier if LeBron tended to yell at his teammates in Miami, and he said “no, because they were all veterans.” Which might be the bigger point: The risky players almost never made the roster.

Absolutely not partying
The Devin Brown incident is instructive. It might seem like a small worry, but a surprisingly big issue for the hardest-working athletes, it turns out, is partying.

Performance expert, running coach, and author Steve Magness remembers training with his friend Alan Webb, one of America’s foremost runners, under coach Scott Raczko. The workouts wrecked Magness, an elite college runner. The pre-warmup jog, two kinds of stretching, a proper warmup jog, and 40- or 50-meter sprints took about an hour. Then the actual track workout began, which would be some prescribed set of 200s or 400s or worse. Once they'd completed an hour or so of running, very often they’d have a few calories of some energy bar or fruit, and then start an intense hour of weightlifting. The mile is four minutes. The preparation was three hours.

People talk about mansions and private jets, but more than anything, this is what it’s like to be LeBron. All this work. To the people who do that obsessively, Magness says, the sloppy regular habits of the rest of us are seen with disgust.

The word “disgusting” comes from the French, where it has always been about the taste of something, or nausea. When the physiological and psychological work together so perfectly, choice is laughable; do you choose to be disgusted when you happen across someone else’s puke? Imagine if your feelings about Devin Brown were similarly powerful, physical, and out of control.

One December, Magness and Webb hopped in Webb’s car with Haitian Olympian Moses Joseph and drove to Tallahassee. The point of Magness’ story is that they were three single guys in their mid-20s who didn’t do one thing that could be considered entertainment. They didn’t go to a movie. They didn’t go out for a meal. They worked out in the morning and kept off their feet in the hotel suite.

When I ask Webb if he remembers the trip, he says, “Yeah! That was a super memorable trip!”

Why, I ask? I guess here I’m fishing for an anecdote, but he doesn’t have one. “Well, Steve was there,” is the best he can do. Webb really likes Magness.

They were in Florida for three weeks. Did that include New Year’s Eve? Magness hadn’t thought to mention it. “Yeah,” he replies. “We could hear people partying outside.”

What would Magness have felt if Webb had walked in with a six-pack, saying they should go dancing?

Shock and awe,” gasps Magness. Their approach was a twist on the Nike slogan. “We were Just Doing That,” he says of the training.

All work and no play
Predictably, a Miami project designed to maximize work flirted with the perils of overwork. In LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s first season together in 2010-11, James was closing in on a decade of NBA play without a title. There was a certain desperation, which he served by playing long minutes through the regular season and playoffs. Then he fizzled in the Finals, losing, somehow, to the Mavericks.

There was press about LeBron being a doomed superstar. Internally, the Heat had a different interpretation: He was exhausted. LeBron had surpassed 3,000 minutes in all of his eight seasons except when he sat out six games with an injury. They concocted a goal to deliver him to the playoffs fresher.

It was a battle. It’s always a battle to talk obsessive workers into rest. The job fell to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

A couple of years later, at some All-Star weekend event in early 2013, Spoelstra told me it had not been easy. “I had to sit down with LeBron,” he told me. “In a series of meetings. And what we eventually agreed to, and it wasn’t easy, is that he would add one short rest, around the beginning of the fourth quarter. You can look at the play-by-play; this was a new thing.”

LeBron didn’t love it. But he understood.

Spoelstra wanted me to know, though, that I was causing him trouble. The Heat head coach was getting a lot of calls from his dad Jon, a lifelong sports executive who ran several NBA teams. In retirement, he still followed the league closely. He had a bee in his bonnet, an ax to grind with his son: LeBron needed more rest. His dad had read my story pointing out that the NBA was changing. Once upon a time Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the like played massive regular-season minutes, and then went on to win championships.

But the rules had been tweaked in 2001, by design, to increase the movement of players and the ball to make the game more appealing to fans. Evidently, the result was that a minute of work had become more taxing to players’ bodies. By the time Spoelstra approached me, it had been nearly a decade since anyone had played more than 3,000 regular-season minutes and won the title that same year.

So Spoelstra had to talk LeBron into some more rest to settle some concerns for his star, as well as some concerns from his dad.

LeBron has played under 3,000 minutes every year since, except 2017-2018, and has won three titles.

Dial it down
For the sake of argument, let’s say most of us want to work 200 days a year, and the way to be super elite at what you do is to work more than that. That takes an extreme mindset. The people who are wired to work 365 days a year have a chance to really excel! But maybe that’s also not quite right. Maybe the right number is a little less, maybe 300 or 350.

Nobody knows the exact number, and it varies. But we do know that being an A-plus student is not synonymous with understanding, noticing, and motivating classmates. It’s a hard balance to find. But dialing it back a tiny bit once in a while might make you less likely to get hurt, fresher, more relaxed, open, inspiring, tolerant, and fun to be around. It might even make you better able to make friends, bond with teammates, and build a team.

Bull Durham is mostly a movie about Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, being a minor league baseball hero. Usually he does good sports things, like hit homeruns, but one late night he is terrible—breaking into the stadium drunk and opening three valves to turn on all the sprinklers. By design, it ruins the infield, forcing the cancelation of the next day’s game. Now the players can continue their night of drinking.

“Oh my goodness,” Davis says through a grin, as the sprinklers kick on, “we got ourselves a natural disaster!” Then Davis sprints through the water and slides through the mud into first base. His teammates toss aside their beer cans and follow. The music swells for the happiest moment of their season, some big combination of Devin Brown and Big Baby, covered in mess, reveling, delighted to be together. The bonding of a lifetime, for the low low price of one measly day off.

LeBron isn’t good at everything.

Banner art by Mike McGrath Jr. Instagram: @michaelmcgrathjr Twitter: @mikemcgrath