LeBron James: Grown-Ass Man

words Lang Whitaker
portraits Atiba Jefferson

It’s early morning in Cleveland, exactly one week before Christmas, which means the stores downtown in The Tower City Center shopping mall are open, prepped for shoppers to stock up and then rush home with their treasures.

Only there are no shoppers, at least not at 8:50 a.m.

If this is Santa’s big scene, he must still be chilling at the North Pole, deep under the covers. It’s cold and foggy outside, and the buildings and roads and Lake Erie all have a grayish hue, like they’re not really feeling the holiday season.

A sign the size of Romeo Crennel covers the side of a sad-looking building and calmly states, “We Are All Witnesses,” the text kissed beneath by a swoosh. The sign was erected last spring when the Cavs were advancing in the NBA playoffs. That run (and ad campaign) ended, but the sentiment remains: Right now, Cleveland and the surrounding area belong to the Cavaliers, and, more specifically, to LeBron James.

A few hours later, the Cavs convene for practice across the street at the Quicken Loans Arena, which aggressively brands itself as “The Q.” While the Cavs run drills on the arena’s main floor, an impromptu SLAM photo studio made from rented equipment, gaffer’s tape and elbow grease is constructed on the practice court. SLAM lensman Atiba Jefferson gets his camera set to capture LeBron as our new NBA logo, our silhouette with soul.

After a few days of discussion in the SLAM Dome, a practice photo session in L.A. with a streetballer as a model and a good 15 minutes of discussion on the Cavs’ practice court, it’s decided that the best way to catch the iconic swerve of the NBA logo will be to have Bron run in from the right side of the camera, dribbling with his left hand, and then make a 90-degree turn at the camera.

Suddenly LeBron is here, his presence announcing itself as profoundly as a clap of thunder. He comes rolling in, rocking a crisp white Cavs uni, the rest of LRMR trailing a few feet behind. We explain the cover concept to LeBron as quickly as we can, knowing he’s worn out—he’s already fighting a cold, plus he’s been through practice (after which he stayed for at least 30 minutes shooting jumpers) and another shoot for Nike. Basically, the only thing standing between LeBron and a trip home to crash beneath his own covers is this shoot.

The idea explained, a trace of a smile plays across his face and then LeBron nods seriously.

“Let’s get the shot,” he says.

He strolls over onto the set, his feet pointing to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock respectively. (This is probably worth its own sidebar, but have you seen his feet? “Slue-footed…his feet look like he grew up on the West Coast,” says one of his teammates. LeBron’s been so prodigiously gifted by the basketball gods that it’s not completely inconceivable to believe someone threw those feet in there almost as a joke, a way to give the rest of us mere mortals some small imperfection to pick at.)

LeBron finds his mark and does one take as scripted. Then he stops, rubs his chin and looks at the floor.

“Hey…” he offers uneasily, as if the words coming out of his mouth are as much a surprise to him as the rest of us. “What if I stand here…” He posts himself on the tape “X” marking the spot. “And you take a picture while I do this…”

Suddenly LeBron’s body convulses: his right shoulder drops, his left shoulder juts skyward, his right leg crosses behind his left. To be honest, it looks pretty ridiculous. LeBron goes from standing still to busting this move, and out of context it looks like something Business LeBron might do on the dance line on Soul Train.

But what the heck? Atiba takes a snap, then flips his camera around to check the digital screen and…what do you know, that awkward movement captured in mid-frame somehow looks almost exactly like the damn NBA logo. Bron has fun with it, incrementally changing the pose, adding some flavor to things, but his initial response to things was what was so impressive: In about 30 seconds, LeBron surveyed everything and figured out the perfect solution to a problem we’d been thinking about for weeks.

One of the secrets of the NBA is that in order for a team to be successful—more specifically, in order for the supporting players on a team to be successful—one of the members of the team has to be willing to sit back and take the attention.

You’ll hear coaches talk about getting the ball out of a player’s hands, which isn’t that hard to do if you send double or triple teams at your target. The rub is that the guy getting bum-rushed has to be willing to not only get double and triple teamed, but he has to be willing to protect the ball and take on that challenge, then wait…and wait…and wait. Not just for an opening to find a teammate, but the perfect opening, the chance to hit a cutter with a bounce pass or to zip an angled pass across the lane to an open post player. You see this all the time, but do you really see it?

Watch a Cavs game sometime. Focus in on number 23. Watch carefully and you’ll see it, every time down the floor.

Of all the little things that LeBron excels at, his patience is what makes him such a deadly team player. You may not realize it, but when he’s at his most dangerous is when LeBron is holding the rock, just waiting for defenses to focus on him.

“I’m waiting to make it harder for myself,” LeBron explains. “But I’m making it easier for my team.”

“LeBron really is a point guard,” says Hornets point guard Chris Paul, who’s known Bron since they played each other on the AAU circuit as teenagers. “I guess he’s a point forward, but he’s really a point guard. I mean, he can do anything with the ball that I can do.”

“He knows what to do in any situation,” CP3 continues. “Most bigger guys, I think they tend to panic when they have the ball and defenders are coming at them. But LeBron, he welcomes that, welcomes double teams. He knows when to sit back, when to attack the double team, when to split the defense. He just knows.”

“To me, what stands out about LeBron is more mental than anything,” says Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. “Usually the younger guys have the physical attributes, but they lack in the way they run the court, the way they see plays. Like, the way they read plays, they take some time. But from his first training camp, LeBron was always on top mentally. Young guys usually have a hard time remembering plays and stuff, but LeBron didn’t. That set him apart more than anything.”

For more on this story, check out SLAM issue #106.