Sports Illustrated Exclusive Cover Story: LeBron James on His MJ Moment and Why This Road to the Ring Was Twice As ToughPosted: June 26, 2013
LeBron James thought winning his first title would be the most difficult thing he’d ever do. He was wrong. Miami’s repeat—which took every ounce of energy from the best player alive—was even harder, says senior writer Lee Jenkins in an exclusive cover story for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands now. James, who appears on his 20th SI cover, reflects on how difficult the road to his second title was and describes his Game 7 jump shot that put the Heat up by four with 28 seconds left as his “MJ moment.”
“I know it wasn’t the magnitude of MJ hitting that shot in ’98, but I definitely thought about him,” says James, whose game-high 37 points in Miami’s 95— 88 Game 7 win helped earn him a second consecutive Finals MVP. “It was an MJ moment,” Then, after a pause, “It was an LJ moment.” (PAGE 60)
It could’ve been the shot that never happened. James reveals he was reluctant to shoot because of his struggles outside the paint in the first six games of the finals. Before Game 7, Heat coaches pleaded with him to shoot more. They showed James video of the San Antonio defense leaving him alone near the free throw line and emphasized his sterling percentages in that area this season. James’s 20 outside shots in Game 7 were the most since he joined the Heat. “Even the best have self-doubt at times when what they’re doing isn’t working,” James says. “You need a reminder.” (PAGE 60)
Jenkins writes that for three weeks during the NBA playoffs, James barely ate and rarely slept more than two hours. He was anxious before games and wired after. After almost every playoff game he required treatment from a Heat trainer and off days were spent either doing Pilates or hitting the heavy bag at the gym. “I was trying reverse psychology,” James says, “so my body wouldn’t think it was tired.” (PAGE 58)
James was able to ignore his pain while competing for a title, but he felt different on the morning after Miami’s Game 7 win. “I felt all these nicks and bruises and little injuries I didn’t know I had,” James says. “My back, my hamstring, my ankle, both my elbows, they were all aching. I guess I just didn’t pay attention to them.” Says Heat forward Shane Battier, “He is strong and he’s fast and he can jump, but what separates him is how far he goes. It’s preternatural. He is telling his body, Here’s the deal: You’re not allowed to break down.” (PAGE 60)
Battier also credits James’s leadership with helping the Heat succeed this year. After the first win of Miami’s 27-game winning streak in the regular season, James insisted that the team stay an extra night in Toronto for a team Super Bowl party. “We were always close, but that took it to another level,” says Battier. “I believe that night was the impetus for the streak.” (PAGE 62)
Whether or not the Heat wins a third straight title next year, James has one more year until he can opt out of his contract. He says his decision will be handled in a more understated way than the one in 2010. “I’m a totally different person on the court, off the court and everywhere in between,” he says. “I know it will come up, but it’s not going to come up until it’s at that point.” (PAGE 62)
LeBron James’s ability to contribute at a high level at all five positions places him among the most versatile players the NBA has ever seen. This week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which features James on the cover, breaks down James’s stunning array of skills, position by position, with takes by Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard, Ian Thomsen, Mark Jackson and Bill Walton. This is the 19th SI cover for James; the last time he appeared was when he was named the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year.
Small Forward: Since every player requires a position, Heat coach Erik Spoelestra pencils in James at small forward. Often manned by the most versatile player on the floor, the three spot is where the 6′ 8″, 250-pound star seems to fit best. Jenkins says, “James performs all the job’s diverse duties: slashing inside for layups and stepping out for three-pointers, handling the ball and hitting the glass, accepting the toughest defensive assignments and smothering them.” (PAGE 32)
Point Guard: Warriors coach Mark Jackson, a former point guard for 17 years in the NBA, says James’s skills at the point are similar to Magic Johnson’s, if Johnson had possessed the ability to score 30 every day. “To me, he has the chance to be the leading scorer in the history of this game and one of the top five assists guys,” says Jackson. “That’s how special he is.” (PAGE 33) Jackson says that in addition to being an excellent passer, James uses his length and strength to disrupt opposing point guards on the defensive end. “Even if he had to play only point guard on both offense and defense, he’s my Number 1 pick at the position right now,” says Jackson. (PAGE 33)
Shooting Guard: When James entered the league, he struggled with his outside shooting—teams dared him to shoot threes as he often took off-balance shots. Since his days in Cleveland, Ballard finds that James has worked with a shooting coach to create a “calmer” shot, which has helped turn him into a better long-range shooter. Now, Spoelestra takes James off the ball for large chunks of time, which enables James to take more efficient spot-up jump shots.“LeBron James could be, would be and is an excellent shooting guard,” says Ballard. “He can drive, he can score and he can defend opposing twos.” (PAGE 34)
Power Forward: James recently developed a post-up game, in which he bangs and bruises like a power forward, writes Ian Thomsen. After working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon before last season, teams now fear James inside—a place where he is one dribble from the basket and one kick-out pass from finding a wide-open shooter. “When the time is right, James could yet become the league’s most challenging power forward, having both an unparalleled ability to pass out of the post combined with a touch that will stretch defenses out to the three-point line,” says Thomsen. “It’s shocking to be the best player in the world and continue to improve,” says Pacers coach Frank Vogel. (PAGE 36)
Center: Hall of Fame center Bill Walton says James, who has played some center in the Heat’s small-ball lineup, can handle the pivot for even longer stretches of time should his team need him to. “He’s an outstanding passer and has outstanding footwork, which are two things you look for in a center,” says Walton. “Plus, who could guard LeBron? What center is equipped to take on that challenge? He can post you up and take you outside and shoot effortless jump shots.” (PAGE 37)
There is little denying the progress third-year forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers has made this season. Despite the Pacers losing their leading scorer, George’s mentor and friend Danny Granger, they have found themselves battling the defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA conference finals. In this week’s SI, senior writer Lee Jenkins profiles George and how his continuous commitment to improvement on both sides of the ball has his team standing a chance against the Heat.
George, a Palmdale, California native, has flown relatively under the radar considering his prodigy build, 6’9 with a seven-foot wing span and a vertical that has the NBA’s finest checking over their shoulders. After attending San Jose State in order to stay closer to home and being drafted 10th overall in the 2010 NBA draft, George has slowly established himself as an all star caliber player. But after a disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs, George found himself “embarrassed. He saw the room for growth,” recalls Brian Shaw, assistant coach for the Pacers (PAGE 38).
George spent the off season working on his ball handling skills with dribbling guru Jerry Powell, his post-ups with former NBA player Don MacLean and his stroke with Shaw. This season George, who made his first all-star team, led the Pacers in minutes (37.6 per game), points (17.4) and steals (1.8) and the Pacers relentless devotion to man-to-man defense has opponents feeling stifled. Lebron James tallied his lowest point total of the year in a meeting with George earlier this season and in another meeting James turned the ball over seven times, a tie for his most all year.
“We’re the only team to beat Miami two out of three times this year,” (PAGE 42) reminds a club house official.
George’s constant longing for improvement has the Indiana Pacers chasing the NBA Finals. “I don’t even know anymore where his ceiling is,” (PAGE 42) says team President Donnie Walsh.
This week’s SI also features an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Mike Conley Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies. Senior writer Lee Jenkins spent seven days with the Western Conference contenders as they devised a game plan for the Thunder, bounced back from a devastating defeat—and got their hair cut just right. Conley is featured on a regional cover, the first SI cover for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jenkins takes readers through the Grizzlies’ preparations for Game 1, including reserve swingman Quincy Pondexter doing push-ups and power forward Zack Randolph reviewing Floyd Mayweather’s victory the night before. Jenkins writes, “The Grizzlies are heavyweights, not welterweights, an antidote to the go-go teams of the Western Conference and a throwback to the days when large men stood on the block with their backs to the basket.” (PAGE 36)
In Game 1, the Grizzlies, the league’s top defensive team, forgot who they were. Memphis allowed Kevin Durant to score 35 points and Kevin Martin to score 25 off the bench. They still had a chance to tie the game with 1.6 seconds left when Pondexter went to the line to shoot three with his team down three. He missed the first shot and Memphis lost. In the locker room after the defeat, Pondexter already had a Twitter account filled with awful messages. He said, “I let down my team.”(PAGE 37)
After every game, coach Lionel Hollins fills a note card with his thoughts for the following practice. Jenkins saw the card—it was filled with ways to slow Durant. “We have to treat KD the same ways as Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul,” Hollins said. “He can’t just dribble down the floor and see one guy. He has to see three guys.” (PAGE 37)
Jenkins also observed a team that is very close knit, from eating meals and seeing movies together on the road to Conley hosting a Warriors-Spurs watch party in his hotel room. “I’m in awe of what he’s doing,” Conley says as he watches the Warriors’ Stephen Curry. In the Grizzlies’ Game 2 victory, Conley finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jenkins says that he delivered “a sequence as awe-inducing as Curry’s.” (PAGE 39)
The coaching staff has encouraged Conley to look for his own shot more often since leading scorer Rudy Gay was traded in late January. “I got a chance to show the world I can do the same things as those other great point guards,” Conley says. (PAGE 38)
With the Grizzlies back home with three days off before Game 3, forward Tony Allen took his daughter to school, Pondexter made his 38th community appearance of the season and Randolph got his weekly haircut at Christyles, where he stops in every Friday or Saturday and always before nationally televised games. Jenkins says, “On the road the Grizzlies are basketball players. At home they are husbands, fathers and dog owners.” (PAGE 40)
With the NBA and NHL playoffs in full steam, daily baseball games and much more in the world of sports, there’s a chance you couldn’t get to all of the great content on SI.com this week. Inside SI has you covered. Here’s a selection of some of the top Sports Illustrated stories and video productions from the past week.
SI announced 10 finalists for its inaugural College Athlete of the Year.
Richard Deitsch reviews Fox Sports 1’s new big hires and more in his weekly Media Circus column.
Jeff Pearlman reminisces about the USFL 30 years later
Ian Thompson says Steph Curry is the latest to establish himself as a star in the playoffs.
Lee Jenkins writes that Kevin Durant can only do so much for OKC.
Rob Mahoney lists five players who have disappointed in the playoffs so far. He also notes the biggest surprises of the playoffs so far.
Do the NBA Playoffs Underdogs stand a chance? Chris Mannix and Maggie Gray discuss the Warriors and Bulls (video).
Mannix discusses how the injuries of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Amar’e Stoudemire have affected their respective teams (video).
Sara Kwak says the Isles vs. Penguins has been the most thrilling series so far.
Allan Muir says the Senators showed their superiority over the shorthanded Habs.
While this week’s SI cover man Sidney Crosby worked his magic in the Penguins’ Game 5 Win, Eli Bernstein says the play of both goalies proved to be the difference.
Stu Hackel on how the NHL may change their policy on head shots.
Tom Verducci says expensive free agents are once again failing to meet expectations.
Jay Jaffe says Matt Harvey is fastest-starting Mets ace ever.
Cliff Cocoran provides this week’s Awards Watch.
SI.com’s Tom Verducci takes a look at the increasing strikeout rate around the MLB and asks if the Braves’ power can overcome their swing-and-miss ways (video).
The Tigers top Joe Lemire’s power rankings.
Peter King notes differing draft strategies, who will control the ’14 draft and more in this week’s MMQB.
Jim Trotter writes on how the California workers comp bill will have a lasting effect on NFL players.
Don Banks asks if betters days are coming for minority hires in the NFL?
Chris Burke on each team’s most pressing question as minicamp looms.
Micahael Bamberger writes that TV saved Tiger Woods from withdrawing from the Masters.
Gary Van Sickle says McIlroy, Stricker and Scott make TPC Sawgrass look easy
Andy Staples takes a stab at his post spring top 25.
Holly Anderson hands out her Sixth annual Switzies, which celebrate the ‘best’ of the 2013 offseason.
Stewart Mandel on how Ohio State aims to break the SEC’s title streak in 2013.
Rick Pitino talks Kentucky Derby, Final Four and 2013-14′s prospects in a Q&A with Pete Thamel.
Luke Winn gives out his second annual data-based hoops awards.
Bruce Jenkins writes that Madrid red clay is a welcome sight after 2012 left all feeling blue
In his weekly mailbag, Jon Wertheim wonders if Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens can find peace.
Grant Wahl provides updates on Alex Morgan, Frank Lampard and various MLS nuggets in his Planet Futbol Column.
Jonathan Wilsion says David Moyes is a safe choice for Manchester United, but comes with risk.
Sid Lowe writes that Jose Mourinho’s separation from Real Madrid getting messy.
Floyd Mayweather tops Chris Mannix’s Pound-For-Pound Top 15.
Floyd Mayweather talks about his title fight victory over Robert Guerrero, and looks ahead towards the rest of his multi-fight contract (video).
Jeff Wagenheim discusses Anderson Silva’s punishment, Johny Hendricks’ beard, and more in his MMA mailbag.
Lars Anderson on what we learned on a rainy, dark day at Talladega.
Carl Estes provides this week’s power rankings.