Sports Illustrated Exclusive Cover Story: LeBron James on His MJ Moment and Why This Road to the Ring Was Twice As Tough

27COVv15LeBron 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)

Dwyane Wade’s Knee Has A Cold

dwayne wadeWith the Miami Heat trailing two games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, the team’s championship hopes and dynastic ambitions have come to hinge on Dwayne Wade’s injured knee says senior writer S.L. Price in this week’s SI. While Wade’s injury has contributed to slowing down the Heat’s momentum since entering the finals last week, Price finds that Wade’s strength throughout his life during personal issues has enabled him to play through extreme pain. However tough he is, his production needs to improve if the Heat have a chance.

“I can feel for him, but I can’t really understand what he’s going through. You appreciate when someone puts their body on the line each and every night when they’re not even close to 100 percent” says teammate LeBron James (PAGE 48).

The seemingly unstoppable and energetic Wade’s scoring average has plummeted since suffering a deep bone bruise against Orlando on March 6. His focus has shifted to hours of treatment before and after each game. Although uncertainty lingers about Wade’s performance, the player finds comfort from his mother, Jolinda Wade, praying for his knee. During the second-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, Wade yelled to his mom, “Ma! Come and touch my knee and pray on it” (PAGE 48), which she continued to do throughout the Eastern Conference finals.

“People don’t understand the pain that he’s experiencing… but he doesn’t let it stop him. He understands that the body he’s playing in now is not the body that he played in when he came to the league,” says Wade’s mother Jolinda (PAGE 49).

Aside from his injury, Wade also has been dealing with personal and legal issues surrounding his divorce during this year’s postseason play. His spirits, however, remain positive with everything he is going through. “Me, the last couple days I’ve been coming in, get my work in that I need to, and the last two games that I’ve stepped on the court, I felt better physically… Hopefully I can continue” (PAGE 49).

Wade’s injured body leads to another concern for the Heat after the finals: The possible break-up of the ‘Big Three.’ Lebron James can opt out of his contract with Miami and become a free agent after next season.  Price concludes “the state of Wade’s knees figures to be a heavy factor in whether LeBron stays or ends up somewhere else next year” (PAGE 50).

The Unique Ubiquity of LeBron James on the Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

23COVv27promoLeBron 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)

The 8 Debate – The NBA’s Greatest One-On-One Player

Great 8 DebateWith input from league scouts and executives, Sports Illustrated Staff Writer Chris Mannix put together a list of the one-one all-stars, scorers who excel at getting the job done on their own (PAGE 20).  

1.      LeBron James, SF, Heat

2.     Chris Paul, PG, Clippers

3.     James Harden, SG, Rockets

4.     Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls

5.     Joe Johnson, SG, Nets

6.     Jamal Crawford, SG, Clippers

7.     Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder

                                                                     8.     Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers

Fans can join the debate on SI’s App for Windows 8. Launch the SI app for Windows 8 on your tablet or computer, then tap or click on the 8 Debate live tile in the app timeline. There, you can also watch exclusive video of Joe Johnson talking about going one-on-one.

Editor’s Letter: Once Again, He’s the Chosen One

By Paul Fichtenbaum, Editor, Time Inc. Sports Group

One of the most intriguing parlor games played here at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED begins in January, when our attention turns to the coming year and we think about the tantalizing possibilities the next 12 months could bring. As the events on the sports calendar slowly unfold, and distinguished moments, performances and achievements start piling up, a question inevitably starts to echo around the offices—whom should we be considering for Sportsman of the Year?

It makes for fun discussion and, yes, disagreement. But it’s not a topic we take lightly. The award, which SI has been handing out since our inception in 1954, honors those athletes, teams or executives whose accomplishments embody the spirit of sportsmanship combined with a high level of on-field success. Ask any SI editor or writer at any time of the year who their choice would be and you’ll likely initiate a thoughtful and pointed conversation. Opinions matter around here, and there are lots of them.

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