The king self-motivates

LeBron's obsessive intensity fits the pandemic bubble


Imagine being Lakers shooting guard JR Smith. The last time he was in the playoffs, as a Cavalier, it was the 2018 Finals. The whole world watched JR’s crunch time mistake morph into LeBron’s volcanic, meme-worthy anger. 

Not long after that, LeBron fled the Cavaliers to build a team in his vision—presumably one that would not make such mistakes—in L.A. With Avery Bradley playing shooting guard, the Lakers raced to the top of the standings, and are currently the Vegas favorite to win the 2020 title. 

Smith, meanwhile, reported to the Cavaliers the following fall. A few weeks into the season, despite being productive and barely 33, the Cavaliers cut him. Smith is on video, in Los Angeles—mere miles from where LeBron and the Lakers did not employ him. For more than a year, he languished at home, unemployed, maybe retired, and in his words, “depressed.” For a time, he says, he was “asking, asking, asking, asking” his agent about where he might play, but then he tired of that, and instead just determined to be ready if someone did call. He watched a lot of the Lakers on TV, but didn’t hang out with his friend LeBron as much as he once had. 

Then the coronavirus paused the season and worried the Bradley family. Avery’s six-year-old son is reportedly prone to tough reactions to respiratory infections—enough that Bradley informed the team he would sit out the restart to parent. So in early July, the Lakers called Smith. In some of his first public comments as a Laker, Smith said part of his job would be to “try to stay out of the way.”

A 2019 TrueHoop series on LeBron, obsession, and the mentality of many elite athletes:

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LeBron is a force of nature. His secret ingredient: He won’t tolerate any slack in himself. But that intolerance can make him a handful as a teammate. This is an undertold story of LeBron, even though sometimes it’s on global, televised display. The last time LeBron and Smith were in the Finals, LeBron broke a whiteboard. The whiteboard, in LeBron’s estimation, broke LeBron’s hand. And the hand injury broke the Cavs. 

LeBron’s relentlessness—as a worker, as a teammate, as a leader—has always been a double-edged sword. It has made him the best, but it’s also  the sore spot that led to falling out with teammates who might have helped him win more. Compared to Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard, LeBron has not had a lot of young teammates blossom into stars. It’s part of the reason he has played on many subpar rosters. 

In a pandemic, however … it looks like more of a superpower than ever. A year ago, TrueHoop featured a series about the obsessive mentality of many of the world’s top athletes—today we will revisit that mentality in the new context of COVID-19. 

With 4.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers trailed the heavily favored Golden State Warriors by a mere point. As Cleveland point guard George Hill stepped to the line for two free throws, almost the entire arena full of people—all the players, all the coaches, 19,596 fans—stood. Hill hit the first while barely moving a single muscle of his face. 107-107. When Hill’s second free throw bounced high off the metal of the rim, the hometown Warriors, with far better rebounding position, were vastly more likely to grab it.

But the Cavaliers’ JR Smith swooped across the lane, leapt high, and grabbed an against-all-odds offensive rebound, creating the opportunity of a lifetime.

In a tied NBA game, the team with the ball at the end wins more than 60 percent of the time. In addition, the team that wins Game 1 of the Finals wins the championship more than 60 percent of the time. In that moment, there was a way to do the math, for the first time all year, where the Cavaliers were favored to win the title.

Smith had good choices:

  • Call timeout.

  • Pump-fake, with an eye to getting fouled.

  • Pass to LeBron, as open as he’d been all season.

Instead, Smith took one dribble. Then a second, while using his long legs to spider away from the valuable territory around the rim to a useless part of the court near the scorer’s table. Coaches sometimes wander out there during play. It’s against the rules, but the refs rarely bother calling it.

The clock fell without mercy or pause, steady as a stone tossed from a bridge. With three seconds left, Smith was at a dead sprint in the wrong direction. By his third dribble, most of the arena, TV-viewing audience, and globe could see Smith was perfectly executing the correct play for a different situation, if Cleveland had a lead. In that case, you win so long as nobody touches you.

But the Cavs weren’t winning. They were holding a moon rock of opportunity—one shot to win the game. About the time of Smith’s fourth dribble, LeBron’s screams got through. Smith whipped a pass to Hill, who caught it to the blare of the horn marking the end of the fourth quarter, and the only 4.7 seconds of the season in which anyone considered the Cavaliers favorites.

In perfect unison, as if rehearsed, Cavaliers Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green, and Hill all made wide hands, palms upward. “What the hell?”

LeBron took it harder. In that moment his body became a meme, anger visibly emitting from his forehead, arms, and eyes. He would soon be photoshopped holding a baby, holding ramen, or—my favorite—over a chart showing U.S. healthcare expenditures vs. life expectancy compared to the rest of the world. LeBron hates inefficiency.

Lip readers and ABC broadcaster Mike Breen would suggest that Smith then said, “I thought we were ahead.” Whatever he said, it robbed James of the ability to speak.

Teammate Kyle Korver slapped Smith five as he walked off the floor, as did four more Cavaliers. LeBron stared straight ahead. Popped his mouthguard halfway out of his mouth, considered, then pulled it back in.

Mouth injuries are not especially common in basketball. But in the 2007-08 season, LeBron started wearing a mouthguard all the same. The reason, according to a source close to him, is that he has a habit of yelling at people. There he is in game broadcasts, hollering at his mom for … something … when play strays near her seat under the basket. There he is in timeouts, chewing out his teammates. Now and again you might notice LeBron ambling up the court when the other nine players are sprinting. That, a source who knows him well insists, happens when he’s super mad at a teammate or a coach or somebody. Too mad to run.

And—often—he’s in the faces of referees. The mouthguard, as it was explained to me, functioned as a little stall, a moment of pause, to reduce technical fouls. Sure, you can yell, but first, you’ll have to take this spitty thing out of your mouth and wave it around.

In the timeout, LeBron unfolded one of his special thick handi-wipes—everyone else on the team used a normal towel—and worked at the sweat on his head. He carefully twisted his wristband, so the words “I PROMISE” lined up just so on top of his wrist. Then he refolded the wipe. Some things needed straightening out.

When the replay appeared on the scoreboard, LeBron leaned back and watched, dumbfounded, mouthguard half out of his mouth. He could stomach JR Smith only on video. As the timeout ended, the players all put their arms in, to touch each other. For several awkward seconds, LeBron didn’t join, keeping his arms crossed in an unmistakable pout.

After losing in overtime, the Cavs would go to some trouble to get their story straight. Many backed Smith when he said he knew the score. LeBron took a different position.

When ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz pressed LeBron, the star said: “I don’t know his state of mind.”

“Do you know if he knew the score?” Schwarz asked. James flashed his eyes, then stood. NBA PR man Mark Broussard, charged with running the event, simply said “thank you.” Despite the windowless room and the late hour, LeBron donned sunglasses and exited.

That was the night LeBron reportedly punched a whiteboard in anger “and,” he explained after the Finals were all over, “pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand.” That was the night the Cavs lost the Finals.

Later in the Finals, while LeBron was playing with an anger-induced hand injury, Kerr inserted a rookie (drafted in the second round) in a tied, fourth-quarter, Finals road game. It almost seemed unfair that Jordan Bell was splendid, dunking over everybody. Why does Stephen Curry get teammates who excel? 

“Last game, Jordan Clarkson had came in,” Bell said of one of LeBron’s younger teammates. “I think he missed like two shots, and I looked up—he was out of the game. I was like, ‘Damn, he got pulled already, just for missing two shots?’ I guess when you play with LeBron, all you have to do is just catch and shoot. If you’re not doing that well, I guess you got to come out.”

LeBron does not cultivate a culture that tolerates mistakes.

The 2020 NBA Finals will be played in what everyone is calling “the bubble,” but in some ways it will be the most exposed competition in decades. Who worked hard out in quarantine? NBA players are accustomed to support from all kinds of trainers, chefs, nutritionists, and to-the-minute schedules. For over a decade now, teams have functioned under the assumption that building the right environment—culture, if you will—around its players can supply a crucial edge in the pursuit of titles. 

But pandemics wreck things. On most teams, quarantine fitness took the form of Zooming with a trainer. Some players even claimed (dubiously, in some cases) to have had no access to a basketball hoop during quarantine. And who among us doesn’t understand how staying at home all the time saps motivation? If ever an NBA player were going to eat a full tray of brownies … 

Recent LeBron social media posts include the angriest emoji. 

Then there’s LeBron. A core workout he posted at the pandemic’s peak in April, along with his lean shirtlessness, communicated a lot about his downtime or lack thereof. (First comment: “no fat at all on this king.”)

The bizarre conditions of this NBA playoff bubble will favor those who work hard when nobody is watching. Indeed we have reports—both anecdotal from the bubble, and scientific from P3’s Marcus Elliott’s assessments of its clients—that NBA players are going into these playoffs with a never-seen-before spread in fitness. Some are huffing and puffing up the court, blatantly above their ideal weight. Others are at their fittest ever. 2020, Dr. Elliott suggests, will be the year of the self-motivated. 

Advantage: LeBron.

A few weeks before punching a whiteboard in the 2018 Finals, LeBron won a second-round game against the Raptors by showing, more or less, how his unique mindset could pay off. He drove the length of the court toward a place NBA players don’t generally value: the baseline. At near-full speed, he jumped high off his left foot, turned in the air, and lofted a soft one-handed floater. The play-by-play said it was from nine feet; it looked farther. Momentum carried LeBron out of bounds while the ball ticked off the backboard, then dropped cleanly through the net as the final buzzer sounded.

This twisting, high-speed ballet move was surely among basketball’s toughest shots, and LeBron uncorked it for the first time with a playoff game on the line. LeBron has this skill too? On the ESPN broadcast, analyst Hubie Brown lost himself for a moment, managing only to mutter: “oh, jeez.”

The story of that shot begins, in some ways, when LeBron was in elementary school. “James is the product of a childhood that left him prone to obsessing about routines,” writes Brian Windhorst of ESPN. “In third grade, he missed 100 days of school. In fourth grade, a foster family, the Walkers, established rituals for everything from homework to grooming. LeBron turned in every assignment on time, had perfect attendance and has, according to those close to him, fetishized routine ever since.”

Pam Walker remembers that LeBron shared a room with Frankie, and she often had to ask Frankie to clean his half of the room. But LeBron’s half was tidy. “They put the discipline act into me,” said LeBron.

Like a lot of elite athletes, LeBron sees work, work, and more work as the answer to almost every question. In an Uninterrupted barbershop conversation, James’ friend and agent Rich Paul quotes Patriots coach Bill Belichick saying that after winning the Super Bowl, his team was five weeks behind in preparing for the following season. LeBron roars with approval. 

Ray Allen has long been famous as the NBA’s obsessor-in-chief, on and off the court. When Ray’s college roommate Travis Knight once left dirty dishes in the sink, Allen was so rattled he put the filthy plates in the poor guy’s bed. In the NBA, he’d get itchy if teammates altered their warmups. 

“Ray’s to blame,” teammate Paul Pierce told Jackie MacMullan for a Boston Globe story about Allen’s obsessions. “He’s crazy. One night he gets on the plane and says, ‘Paul, you’re in the wrong seat.’ I told him, ‘Man, there’s a hundred seats open. Leave me alone.’”

At the start of the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2010 NBA Finals, the Celtics had already lost two out of three to the Lakers and trailed at home. The Celtics were seen as essentially three stars—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Allen. But 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. The Lakers called timeout.

Some people die without having celebrated 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.

Illustration by Patrick Truby

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 the character Jesus Shuttlesworth he played in “He Got Game,” 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 can’t stand it. 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.

Years later, a microphone caught LeBron, in a Heat huddle, telling his teammates: “Ever since I saw ‘He Got Game,’ I thought he could do no wrong.” James is talking about Allen, by then a real-life teammate, whom people still call Jesus Shuttlesworth. Just then Allen walks by, and James hollers “Keep going, Jesus,” pronouncing the name in Spanish (“HAY-soos”) as the two slap hands.

In 2007-08, the Cavaliers’ front office had some hope Devin Brown could be the strong wing they felt the roster lacked. He played well enough and even started 20 games.

But on the day of a playoff game against the Celtics, three sources relay that 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 night. The Cavs lost the series, and LeBron lost his cool. 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 with LeBron.

Straight-A students can’t stand slackers. Dan Rosenbaum was an adviser to then-Cavs’ GM Danny Ferry when LeBron was a young player there. 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. Over time, that meant trading away many 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.”

The biggest NBA story of 2010 was “The Decision.” This was the multi-faceted debacle by which LeBron weighed his options in free agency and ultimately starred in a TV show announcing he would leave his hometown Cavaliers to join a roster of hand-picked All-Stars in Miami. LeBron had spent enough Team USA bus rides and dinners to know Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shared his frustration with unfocused teammates. This, sources say, is what really drove “The Decision.” Three straight-A students, ready to destroy the class with the best group project ever.

In other words, LeBron would sooner skip town than put up with a typical 20-something. Fittingly: A young super-talent with a reputation for poor off-court choices, Michael Beasley, was banished from the Heat before LeBron’s arrival. Sources say (and almost every game broadcast confirms) that once on the Heat, LeBron displayed constant disdain for one of the only other young players in the rotation, Mario Chalmers. When LeBron returned to Cleveland four years later, high-potential teenager Andrew Wiggins was shipped out for veteran Kevin Love, while JJ Hickson and Dion Waiters filled Chalmers’ role as the sources of LeBron’s scorn, on and off camera.

When LeBron returned to the Cavaliers later in 2014, he noticed that Kyrie Irving had a habit of playing one-on-one with Iman Shumpert, with an unusual set of rules: Buckets only counted if shot with the wrong hand, or off the wrong foot. People were doing work LeBron didn’t do? Eventually, LeBron jumped in. Those one-on-ones led directly to the game-winning shot years later in Toronto, a one-handed floater off the wrong leg that nobody knew he had in his arsenal.

Pelicans executive David Griffin, who ran the Cavaliers at the time, says he witnessed some of Irving and James’ after-practice sessions, telling TrueHoop, “I guarantee that by the time he launched that, he had practiced it at least a thousand times.”

And here the montage of every sports movie begins. Cavs practices often began at 11; LeBron reliably got there, sources say, by 8:30. He outworked the competition and then some; success followed naturally.

“The anxious person has the same fight-or-flight response—and in some cases experiences the same physical panic, agitation, cold sweat, and itchiness—that anyone can feel when adrenaline begins to pump in response to a threat,” psychiatrist Gail Saltz writes in “The Power of Different.” “However, the person with anxiety isn’t reacting to immediate danger, but rather to worry about what might happen.

“In milder forms, this kind of worry can be preventive—the student who is worried enough about the test to study harder is likelier to do better than the student who knows she’s smart and trusts that she’ll do well.”

Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright has written about the power of imagined enemies: Ancestors who steered clear of sticks in the path avoided many a deadly snakebite. Sometimes erring on the side of caution is no error at all. Other times, believing sticks are snakes can be limiting, especially socially.

Is there superpower in obsession? I rattled off stories like this at a tiny blond wood table in the crowded Joe’s Coffee on 8th Street in Manhattan. Across from me, NYU associate professor of psychology and neural science Jay Van Bavel held up a hand. He had heard enough!

“Do you know what obsessive-compulsive disorder means?” he asked. “It means you’re so obsessed with your own weird needs you don’t accommodate others.”

Van Bavel is the director of NYU’s Social Perception and Evaluation Lab. His passion: how humans delude themselves into believing untrue things—for instance, that a stick might be a snake. Emotions tinker with us in more profound ways than we might suspect. Sometimes we just see snakes.

Our ideas about ourselves can be just as wacky. “We’re actually very bad, as humans, at sticking to plans,” Van Bavel says “Three weeks into the new year, 20 percent of people stick to their resolutions. Twenty percent!” And here’s where it starts to be about LeBron: What knocks us off course, often, is social pressure. It wasn’t long ago that NBA players stayed out late. Michael Jordan was spotted in casinos in the wee hours. Nowadays many elite performers stay in the hotel with their sleep journals. Obsession could be an athletic tool, Van Bavel says, in making you “so good at practicing so much.”

Van Bavel sees this as a new problem: “Athletes have gotten better and better. Science has optimized training programs. Some of them are really good at sticking to it. Probably the ones who can endure the longest are people like LeBron, Ray Allen is another one, who have all these rituals.”

Another narrative of LeBron’s career: inferior rosters. Why aren’t they as good? In part, because the game of NBA salary cap gymnastics means great teams must identify and nurture a steady stream of below-market talents, who tend to be young and unproven. On LeBron’s teams, those minutes, dollars, and touches have often gone to older workhorses who never miss shootaround, like Allen, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, James Jones, Richard Jefferson, Jared Dudley, Rajon Rondo, and Danny Green.

When he returned to Cleveland in 2014, LeBron united with the player who might have been the young running mate he needed to stay at the top: Kyrie Irving. A few weeks into their time together, LeBron decided to take over the running of the offense, marginalizing Kyrie. Did he discuss those changes with coach David Blatt? “No, I can do it on my own,” James told reporters. “I’m past those days where I have to ask.” Later in the season, James could be seen berating Irving on the bench. They managed a title together, but eventually Irving asked for a trade. 

“The collective interest versus the individual interest,” Van Bavel says, “underlies every problem we have.” Van Bavel mentions global climate change but readily suggests it could apply to  LeBron’s teams too. “There are intrinsic tradeoffs. Getting rid of highly talented players who don’t fit the stereotype might not lead to optimal team outcomes. Or might not satisfy the need for control.”

LeBron’s competitiveness can be oppressive, overwhelming, and anti-social. A source who knows him well calls it the “most under told story in sports.” He struggles to be around the normally motivated, gets impatient with those who don’t work as hard as he does, and has little tolerance for mistakes. 

Most years, his teams pay a psychic tax. This year the calculus is a bit different, and not just because he’s in phenomenal physical condition. He is also happily paired with the well-liked Anthony Davis, who has the effect of softening LeBron. 

Many starting NBA point guards (Jamal Murray, Dejounte Murray, D’Angelo Russell, Eric Bledsoe, De’Aaron Fox, Jeff Teague) have accrued about 300 assists this regular season. LeBron has 636, first by a country mile. Many come from relentlessly feeding Anthony Davis, a teammate for whom he seems to be determinedly cultivating a special affection.

And also, maybe this year, when the trick is to avoid the coronavirus, there’s a premium on obsession. Don’t we all want someone very detail-oriented overseeing … everything? While the rival Clippers are dealing with an unapproved outing to a strip club, and a resulting quarantine, it’s notable that LeBron and the Lakers sometimes practice in masks. There’s a “locked in” quality to this team. Here is LeBron cursing due to a single missed shot over a 48-year-old assistant coach. The team has ended recent huddles saying “1,2,3 Mamba.” 

The Bucks have the NBA’s best record and an easier path to the Finals. The Clippers are formidable. David Thorpe will update us on everyone’s title odds on this website later this week. But if this is the season the title goes to the self-motivated, it’s hard to bet against LeBron. He has brought purpose to the bubble.

LeBron has long been determined to be the best player. 

Can he be the best teammate, too? Ask JR Smith.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop. Later this week: David Thorpe weighs every team’s title odds.

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