LeBron James Discusses His Place in Evolving NBA on Eve of 11th Season
MIAMI — LeBron James isn't some kid anymore.
That should be abundantly obvious already, with his maturity evident in everything from his physical appearance to his pressure performances. But just in case he forgets his somewhat more senior status, it seems like someone is always eager to remind him.
"Beas talks about it all the time," James told Bleacher Report this week, referring to new teammate Michael Beasley, whose own growth he has clearly adopted as a personal project. "He talks about how when I was in high school, he remembered watching me when he was in grade school. Yeah, man, me being in my late 20s now, definitely, a lot of guys come in saying, 'Man, I remember you as a rookie and I was in elementary school.'"
Makes him feel old?
"It makes me feel real good, man," James said, smiling. "It doesn’t make me feel old."
Well, maybe these numbers will make you feel old:
It has been almost a dozen years since "The Chosen One" first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a full decade since the ballyhooed debut in Sacramento, more than six years since he reached his first NBA Finals, and countless negated narratives since he made "The Decision" that made Cleveland mad and Miami melt.
So much has happened—to him, to the sport, to the media, to the fans—since those milestones that it's hard to fathom how much else can happen from here.
But this much is clear, as James, two months short of his 29th birthday, starts his chase for a third straight championship Tuesday against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.
This is his league now.
And even as he raises his arms above it, he is still wrapping his arms around it. This is not your grandfather's grumpy NBA ambassador, scorning and spurning so-called rivals just because that's the way the greats say they did it or that it should still be done.
This is more of a chummy champion, whether it's giving postgame encouragement to John Wall, lavishing praise on Kyrie Irving or working out over the summer with his closest contemporary, Kevin Durant.
"It's a new era, man," James said.
In that light, he is unapologetic about his approach: eager to assist, especially if someone wears a Heat jersey, but even if someone doesn't.
"It just came natural," James said. "Seeing younger guys that I see have potential, me being in the position where I’ve seen everything, on the court, off the court. I thought I could use my knowledge to help better (them). Hopefully I’ve been able to help some. But I always had an open chatline with guys who want to learn, want to get better. I’ve never had a problem with it."
Even if he couldn't draw upon a similar example.
"No one ever did it for me like that," James said.
It's no secret that many of the previous generation's stars, Michael Jordan most notable among them, have not been especially nurturing, whether in person or in the press. James laughs and shakes his head when asked if that's why he has taken this tack, to make up for whatever backing he may have lacked.
And it's not like he was entirely alone in the early NBA years. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, or "Big Z" as James still fondly calls the retired NBA center, served as an inspiration for his recovery from foot surgeries as well as an unconditional supporter. Others, such as Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden, became his close friends.
But long before James was even 25, he was already assuming more of a mentoring role, even to those who were close to his age or a couple of years older.
"I think of what Daniel Gibson did," James said. "I took him under my wings, man, and he wasn’t even playing at the time, he was wearing a suit. And then when he got his opportunity, he did some real special things for our team. In a Game 6, on our home floor versus Detroit, he had (31) points off the bench. And also he was a three-point champion on All-Star Weekend. Just to see his growth. And also Mo Williams. I think he’s a little older than me, but I took him like he was a brother of mine, and he became an All-Star. Also, Rio."
That's the Heat's Mario Chalmers, for whom James' love is often tough.
"And even guys that are not on my team," James said.
They can still be in his circle.
"I try to give them advice," James said. "Kevin Durant and Paul George and Eric Bledsoe and Tristan Thompson, so many guys. And not even in my own sport. Braxton Miller is one of those kids. Johnny Manziel, I tried to give some advice to. Just guys who want to be helped.
"I’ve seen it all. From a business side, from a basketball professional side, I’ve seen it all. So I just try to help. I’m an outgoing person, and I mean, I don’t need to hold onto all of this knowledge. I’m not going to be part of this game forever. Hopefully I can pay it forward where I can give my knowledge to all these great athletes that we have in my sport and other sports, and hopefully they can pass it on to the next generation when other guys come up in the ranks."
What is he offering?
"It’s a little bit of everything. It’s whatever they want, man. And I have enough knowledge to give them whatever insight they want. If it’s how to handle the pressure, if it’s how to handle the scrutiny, if it’s how to maintain focus. And also, some of the things they don’t even ask."
He tells them, "The best thing you can do is be a great teammate."
"Then just let your game do the talking," said the four-time league MVP and two-time Olympic gold medalist. "In our profession, work on your game as much as you can, and with everything that comes off the court, just be blessed and honored with the position you’ve been given. But just understand that it isn’t guaranteed. The fact that if you can understand that and not take it for granted, it opens up so much."
Of course, some of this—like so much else—will open James to criticism. Many, stuck in the previous century, believe something is lost when there isn't animosity between opponents. Pat Riley, who plucked James out of Ohio in 2010, was long inflexible on this topic, chiding the likes of Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing—two former Georgetown teammates and two of his favorite players—for socializing while their teams faced off in the NBA playoffs. Riley, however, has never publicly said anything negative about the way that James interacts with Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony or others.
"It’s a different time," James said. "I mean, we don't...there’s not too much going to dinner with guys on other teams during the season. There is communication. But it’s a different time. I’ve been knowing guys on different teams way before this NBA thing. There wasn’t no AAU back in the days, when those guys were playing."
Those "guys," as in the former stars (some turned broadcasters) always speaking about the old school, the old ways, and all the intentional distance between them.
Yes, James hears them.
He doesn't necessarily heed or believe them.
When asked about shows like NBA TV's Open Court, in which former players trade colorful anecdotes, James surprisingly scoffs: "A lot of those guys get on those shows, and they start fraternizing, they start telling tales. To be honest, I ain’t gonna throw no names out there, because that’s not what I do, but a lot of those guys get on those shows and they start lying. They do. Just to make it feel good for the show. Like they weren’t friends with nobody. Like, seriously. Get out of here."
Shane Battier, his elder teammate, has seen more fraternizing over the course of his career. But he too takes issue with any assumption that, in a previous age, NBA players were all off on their own, and thus significantly more serious.
"The narrative that the NBA has sold for the past 20 years is Jordan," Battier said. "That Jordan was a solitary soldier. No friends. And even the friends he had, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, he tried to rip their hearts out every game. And (Larry) Bird and Magic (Johnson) and Isiah (Thomas), the stories about those guys being so cutthroat are legendary. So that's sort of the narrative that fans want to believe. That's not necessarily fair. There are a lot of guys on our team and in our league that still have that demeanor; it's just not publicized."
Even so, James does acknowledge some differences in the times.
"A lot of those guys didn’t know each other until college. And not even college—until they got to the NBA," James said. "So they were just meeting each other, and they were getting right into the fire. I’ve been friends with Chris Paul since I was, what, eight years old? And with Carmelo (Anthony) since I was a sophomore in high school. And me and D-Wade came in as rookies same time, we started a friendship, and the list goes on and on."
Of the three, Dwyane Wade is the only current teammate, though all were James' teammates at the Olympics. James is the godfather to Paul's son.
"He’s like a brother of mine," James said. "Listen, when this game is over, and we’re done and our jerseys are hung up in whatever arena it is, or they place us in the NBA ranks, man, we’ve still got to live our life. We can’t let what people say about us [affect us], man. We still got to live our life. A long life, too. I started this life when I was 18, I’ll be done by 40. So I got 50 more years to live, man. So, we all, as a group, can’t worry about what people say about us."
Every year, that "us" expands, as James takes an interest in more young stars, sometimes with ties to his marketing and contract representatives, sometimes not.
"It’s a new era, man," James said. "And there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t take the competitive spirit out of (anything), man. And I think people need to realize that. You don’t have to hate somebody to compete against somebody. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if my mom is on the floor—I don’t want her to win, I don’t want her to score. When I step out on that floor, people know. People know that (when) I go out and I play, the minutes I’m out on the floor, if they’re not ready, I’m going to dominate them. And even if most of the time when they are ready, I’m still going to dominate them."
His voice takes a different, darker tone there.
That's the tone we heard last January in Brooklyn, where Reggie Evans challenged the legitimacy of the Heat's 2012 championship and James mocked the Nets forward to the media for failing to produce a single offensive rebound in the evening's Heat rout in January.
That's the tone we heard in March after the Heat left Boston, where James had dunked on Jason Terry, as he admitted that he enjoyed embarrassing a player who talks too much.
That's the tone of warning, that his good nature only goes so far, not extended to those who challenge the throne.
So how does James go from congenial to contentious?
"Sometimes you just get tired of being bashed and having to not say nothing at all, having to take the cold shoulder. And I understand that I’m in a lose-lose situation most of the time. If someone says something about me, and if I say something back, it’s like, 'Why are you even engaging in that?' Or, 'You shouldn’t be doing that.' Or, 'Who do you think you are, LeBron?' I get a lot of that. But there’s only so much a man can take sometimes. And you’ve just got to challenge yourself sometimes to understand; sometimes you should say something, sometimes you shouldn’t."
So, liked or feared? Which does he prefer?
"No, it don’t matter," James said. "Nope. It don’t matter to me at all. You’ve got some guys in our league who don’t like me; you’ve got some guys who do like me. I don’t know. I mean, everything that comes back to me, most guys don’t like me."
"Nah. Nah. When they place me with the Heat, no one likes the Heat. So there’s a lot of guys that don’t like me. But it’s nothing for me to really worry about too much. You don’t have to fear me on the court, but respect me. That’s all that matters to me. As long as you respect me, fear or like doesn’t matter."
Off the court, he's tried to rally competitors behind common causes. That was the case when he stepped forward to speak at union meetings during 2013 All-Star Weekend. That speaks to his current place in the league—standing that essentially requires him to take the lead, and not just for 48 minutes, inside 94 feet.
"I understand that," James said. "I believe personally I have a much bigger calling than just putting on a uniform and playing the game of basketball. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’m going to use what I have, and my knowledge and my power to continue to lend a hand in any way I can. Hopefully that can open up some doors for a lot of people."
For now, though, the door swings open on another new season in this new era.
No longer a kid, clearly the king.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
Note: All Images from Getty Images
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