In the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defeat of the Toronto Raptors last Friday night, LeBron James contributed 33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and one steal, an exquisite box score showcasing the full panoply of his talents.
Instantly coralled for an on-court interview about becoming the first player in half a century to reach six consecutive NBA finals, James briefly stopped the questioning so the television audience could eavesdrop the Raptors’ fans rapturously acclaiming their own vanquished heroes. Then he deflected much of the praise on to his own team-mates.
Fourteen years ago, Sports Illustrated put an oversized 17-year-old from Akron, Ohio on the cover and proclaimed him "The Chosen One", a ludicrous headline that on any other shoulders might have become a burden. Earlier this season, he was back on the front of the magazine, wearing a business suit with a strapline cataloguing how he's already played more NBA minutes than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
That this evolution, from teen phenom to sporting plutocrat (his investment portfolio has included stakes in everything from Liverpool to Beats headphones), has taken place in the type of unforgiving media glare that eventually broke Tiger Woods makes his story extraordinary.
When the Cavaliers square up to the
Golden State Warriors
in game one of the best-of-seven championship series on Thursday night, the 31-year-old is chasing the third title of his career. The most important title of his career. Two summers ago, he returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat to try to bring glory to the most beleaguered sports city in one of the most beleaguered regions in America.
Last June, partly due to injuries to his supporting cast, they came up short against Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Even in defeat, James led both teams in points, rebounds, and assists, the first player in history to manage that feat.
Everything in the 11 months since has been about getting back to this spot. The Cavaliers now boast the highest payroll in the NBA and a deeper squad, with role players hand-picked to complement the team leader. They are built to win now.
When coach David Blatt, whose appointment predated James' second coming, appeared too inexperienced for the job, he was ruthlessly jettisoned in mid-season. No matter that his team had just won 30 of their 41 games to that point. In mid-winter, they were already thinking only of June.
While his replacement Tyronn Lue was presumed to be LeBron’s preferred choice, notions about a puppet regime were dispelled by the new boss recently telling his legendarily loquacious star player to “shut the f**k up” in one huddle. A simple rejoinder that did much for Lue’s credibility and, reportedly, team chemistry. That there was no lingering ill-feeling can be deduced by the fact the other week James orchestrated a post-victory dousing of Lue by the entire squad after he set a record for most play-off wins by a rookie head coach.
A preternaturally gifted physical specimen at 6ft 8ins and 18 stone, James is equipped to play just about every position on the court, always determined to improve those around him, and as liable to pass to a better-placed colleague at a key moment as to go for glory himself. For some, his unselfishness is part of his greatness, for others, a sign of weakness (would Michael Jordan let somebody else take the final shot!) He may never reach Jordan's tally of six titles but James could yet surpass his impact beyond the court.
Last summer, he played himself in several scene-stealing cameos in the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, and his production company has an office on the Warner Bros' lot in Hollywood where a reserved parking space bears his name. Before Christmas, Nike inked him to a lifetime deal that will earn him more than a billion dollars.
James also uses his celebrity for the greater good, railing, for instance, against the damage guns are doing in American society. In partnership with Chase Bank, he has also guaranteed over $40 million (about what he draws down each year from endorsements) to fund the college education of over 2,000 kids in his native Akron, 38 miles from Cleveland, as part of his “I Promise” campaign.
“It means so much because, as a kid growing up in the inner city and a lot of African-American kids, you don’t really think past high school,” said James who never went to university. “You don’t really know your future.”
Earlier this year somebody worked out that James had won NBA Player of the Month 31 out of 75 possible times, a stunning testament to his consistency. Yet, for the first time in a decade, there’s a growing consensus that the pure-shooting Curry may now be the league’s best player.
The 31-year-old didn’t react by tailoring his game towards amplifying his personal stats, everything has, instead, remained solely focused on bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to the rust-belt. That the Warriors boast the most wins by any team in a single season and Curry carries the mantle of MVP for the second successive year makes the showdown special.
“The organisation gave us everything we need,” said James at the start of training camp last September. “There are no more excuses.”