by Lang Whitaker

Last night I ended up watching a lot of that Cavs/Nets game on TNT, because I wanted to see how Cleveland was looking heading into the Playoffs. After all, the LeBron cover story I wrote in SLAM 106 was largely about how LeBron felt the Cavs were going to have a big postseason, like they were sort of coasting through the regular season. The more I thought about it, I started recalling how that story had come together and how’d I’d discovered that angle. I thought what follows might be an interesting look behind the scenes at how a SLAM story comes together. And if it’s not interesting, too bad.

When we were planning out SLAM 106, we’d talked about the angle the cover story should take on LeBron. Khalid suggested a great take on Bron, but we agreed that it was probably better suited to the next time we do an off-season LeBron story. I wanted to do something that was focused on LeBron the basketball player — what is it about him exactly that makes him so damn good, basically. Also, I’d never written a LeBron story, and I was curious what it would be like to focus in on him for a while. Whenever I’m writing a story on a guy for SLAM, I end up watching him intently for the month I’m working on the story. I’ll tape games, take copious notes, read up him each morning. I’d seen LeBron play plenty of times, but I’d never zeroed in him for a few weeks.

I think we settled on this cover in early December, so I had about two weeks to scout out the Cavs before going to Cleveland for the photo shoot.

A few nights before the photo shoot, the Denver Nuggets came to New York City to play the Knicks. I had dinner plans I couldn’t escape from, so I went down to the Garden for the pregame media time to try and catch up with Carmelo Anthony. I was running late and got there around 6:30 p.m., fifteen minutes before the locker rooms close. I walked down a back hallway toward the court and bumped into Melo, who was taking a long way around to avoid the media. We hadn’t seen each other since Vegas, so we stood there for a while chatting. He asked what I was working on and I was telling him about the Bron story, and I told him how weird it was to me that LeBron had been getting hammered in the Cleveland papers.

“Can’t nobody say nothing about that man,” Carmelo said, shaking his head. “Can’t nobody say nothing about that man.”

I told him I wanted to quote him on that, and he said fine. A few minutes later we split up. I left the Garden and went out to dinner. Melo played, and ended up punching Mardy Collins and earning a ten-game suspension.

Early the morning of December 18, I caught a little commuter plane from New York to Cleveland, and landed about two hours before we were supposed to set up for our shoot. To kill time I went to this big mall in downtown Cleveland, got a table in a Panera Bread Company (free wireless at every location, kids), got some breakfast and worked online for about an hour, then spent time thinking about what I was going to ask LeBron.

The Cavs had a day off and a morning practice. When practice broke up I went into the arena with all the local Cleveland media. Before I could get introduced to LeBron, I bumped into my man Drew Gooden, who I hadn’t seen in a while. We ended up sitting off to the side to catch up. Drew invited me out to dinner that night, but I was going to try and get back to NYC right away to try and get to the SLAM holiday party.

The first part of this conversation went down during our photo shoot. Atiba Jefferson was taking some stills of Bron and the King was looking bored. I was standing by, so I asked Bron if I could go ahead and ask him some questions. He said sure, so I went right in about the Cleveland offense.

ME: Tell me about the terminology of some of the plays you guys run. Just from watching on TV you can see Coach Brown is calling out entire sentences.

BRON: (laughs) He got a lot of football calls. A lot of people, especially opponents, they’ll be like, “Damn, you guys got football plays.” It’s kind of funny because they are real long. So he’s got like, Thumbs Down 34 Slash C, there’s Thumbs Up 25 Ice. It’s tough to scout, it’s tough.

ME: I know Coach Brown has talked broadly about the changes in your basic offense, but what exactly has changed?

BRON: We didn’t change our whole offense, we just extended things a little bit, just added more to it so that down the stretch, down in the playoffs, it won’t be so easy to take away a lot of our options.

ME: You guys seem to run a lot of that 1-4 set where the point guard is up top and everyone else is spaced out along the free throw line extended.

BRON: (nods) The main set is the 1-4 high.

ME: And you seem to always end up catching on the left side of the floor.

BRON: I think coach likes me playing the left side because he knows I’m good with my left hand. Doesn’t matter for me. I can play the right, left, middle, baseline.

ME: I don’t see you bringing the ball up the floor very much anymore.

BRON: We’re trying to cut down on that from last year. There was more of that last year where I was bringing the ball up in the third and fourth quarters. This year we try to keep the ball out of my hands early in the clock, and let me get down towards the end of the clock.

ME: That sounds like you’re already thinking about the playoffs, where you have to grind it out in the fourth. Did you guys change stuff up so you’re already looking for the postseason?

BRON: I think we’re a team that’s gearing more toward the playoffs. That’s the first time for me that we’re geared more toward the playoffs instead of gearing towards the regular season. I think we’ve got a good enough team now that we know we can make the playoffs. We’re not…we’re not going to write it in right now, but we know we’re a good enough team where we can go out there and win enough games and make the playoffs. But we have to win down the stretch in the playoffs and win on the road. So we’re pretty much geared toward the playoffs, just like some of the better teams in the league.

LeBron just kind of blurted all that out. I wasn’t expecting him to say anything like that, because you rarely hear guys admit that they’re already thinking about the Playoffs, especially in December. But in a way it made sense: the East sucks, the Cavs are an above-average team, they still had about 60 games to play — why not sort of coast through the regular season and then put the pedal to the floor in April?

ME: I read a critical column in one of the local papers about you the other day because your numbers are down across the board and you guys aren’t scoring a lot of points.

BRON: I mean, we’re winning ballgames, man. That’s all that matters to me. We’re 14-9, we’re second in our division, we’re third in the Eastern Conference.

Atiba finished up shooting LeBron, and Bron was going to go change into his clothes and head home. He motioned for me to walk with him to the locker room, so the rest of this stuff came while walking through the empty hallways of the arena and in a freight elevator. He’s a pretty good talker when he’s walking. I decided to change the subject up a bit.

ME: You’ve been here four years now. Is this your team? Are you the leader?

BRON: I’m the leader of this team. When you want to become a real leader, you can’t just lead by example. You have to be able to voice your opinion, you have to be able to say things to your teammates and they have to be able to say things back to you. So I can’t be quiet. My rookie year I wasn’t the leader of the team. My second year I was still trying to learn, and last year towards the end of the season I started to become more of a leader.

I decide to ask a tougher question to see if he’ll say something interesting. Check out the purely political answer LeBron gives me.

ME: If it was up to you, what would be the perfect kind of players to have playing around you?

BRON: I think the players that we have now. The team that I have now is the best fit for me. It’s guys who compliment my game and guys who have a reason to be on the court. We have guys that can play defense, we got guys that can shoot, guys that can rebound. We got guys for all situations. And I just try to bring them all together and try to win ballgames.

ME: Why didn’t the Cavs make a lot of moves this summer?

BRON: We didn’t do much this summer because we wanted to get another year of experience with this same team. Every year since my rookie year we’ve made a couple of trades. We sent Ricky D. to Boston, sent Jeff MacInnis from Portland, and then my second year we brought some more guys in, last year we brought in Larry, Donyell, D-Jones, so it was a whole ‘nother team again. This year by just keeping the same guys we have a little bit more experience.

And then he disappeared into the locker room. So, that was what I had to start with. I’d already studied the Cavs schedule and knew that I was going to see them in person twice more in the upcoming weeks, and LeBron had agreed to give me interview time at each game.

I left LeBron, went out to my rental car, drove to the airport, got an earlier flight, and was back in New York City by 9:00 p.m., but I was too worn out to even bother with the holiday party.

Two days later, the Cavs played out in Jersey. I went to the game with Ryan and Ben. When we arrived, Cavs coach Mike Brown was starting his press conference. I squeezed into the group of reporters, and when the group broke up Coach Brown agreed to give me a few questions one-on-one.

ME: Regarding your offense, you guys seem to run a lot of stuff out of that 1-4 set.

BROWN: A lot of what we runs depends on what other teams are doing. We like to put Bron in pick and roll. We’ll put him in middle pick and roll, we’ll put him in side pick and roll, and we’ll do it out of that 1-4 look. We also have movement out of that 1-4, we also have post-ups out of the 1-4, we just want to put in a system that we can live off of. Understand, it’s going to be a process, it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve seen times and had games where we’ve looked pretty good offensively. The two games before Orlando, we had 104, 105 points in both games. Then we go down to Orlando and we struggled a little bit. So it’s definitely a work in progress. I think as the season goes along we’ll get better.

ME: Have you seen any improvement yet?

BROWN: It’s kind of been happening with our numbers. Number-wise, we started at 26th and 28th in two top categories — in our points and our field goal percentage, and it steadily has gone up. We’re steadily climbing up that ladder in terms of being one of the better offensive teams in the League, and hopefully that will continue.

ME: What’s your favorite place on the floor to use LeBron?

BROWN: I know he’s going to get double-teamed, so any time we put him in a middle pick and roll he usually makes the right pass, so I like him in middle pick and roll.

Remember that play the other night against Miami when LeBron dribbled out the clock, got double-teamed, didn’t make the pass and instead missed at the buzzer for the loss? That was out of the set Brown just talked about. So I guess it doesn’t always work quite right.

ME: I think his passing is pretty underrated.

BROWN: With him being 6-8, it helps because he can pass over the top of a lot of defenses, so putting him in pick and roll, and then if you double him, that gives him the opportunity to make plays for a lot of other guys. Then if you don’t, he’s quick and explosive enough to see that little seam and get right through it.

ME: What part of his game is the most impressive to you?

BROWN: A lot of the tools he has there, but he continues to work on it and continues to get better. He still has a lot of room in a lot of different areas that he can get better on, and he knows it, so the work for him is not done, which is a blessing and bonus to him and whoever else is involved with him. The sky’s the limit for this guy.

Bor-ring. I went into the Cavs locker room and was immediately approached by Zydrunis Ilgauskas, who said, “Do you work for the Nets?”

No, I told him, but I asked why he was asking.

“I was just wondering what had happened here with Jeff MacInnis?”

I told Z that as best as I knew, MacInnis hadn’t been a Lawrence Frank favorite, he hadn’t reacted well and had been sent home by the Nets.

And then I told Z that since I’d helped him out, I had a few questions for him.

ME: What stands out about playing with LeBron?

Z: More mental than anything. Usually the younger guys have the physical attributes, but they lack in the way they run the court, the way they see plays, the way they read plays, they always take some time. But LeBron was always, from the first training camp, he 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.

ME: How has he improved himself and the team this season?

Z: I think the playoffs helped us. His performance there, he really grew. This core’s been together for a while, so it’s easier each year. Instead of guys leaving after six months, we have a bunch of guys who are understanding each other.

After the game, which the Cavs lost 113-111, LeBron emerged from the showers and answered questions from a bunch of the media. Someone asked him about Iverson being traded to Denver to play with Melo, and LeBron joked, “I’m very, very, very excited and very, very, very happy…that Iverson’s out of the East.”

After he finished with the reporters who were on deadline, Bron walked over to his locker to get dressed. He passed a tray of food laid out for the postgame meal, which included a huge bowl of mayonnaise. LeBron looked at it as if it was a turd in a bowl.

One of the Cavs trainers said, “Did you order extra mayonnaise?”

“Damn that’s disgusting!” said Bron.

While Bron got dressed, I sat in the locker next to him and asked him about a few things…

ME: There were a few plays tonight where you waited and waited and waited for the double-team to come. Have you always had that patience?

BRON: It’s just growing up. My Mom always said, The good things come to those who wait, and stuff like, Don’t grow up too fast. I was never a guy that jumped the gun. I’ve always kind of thought about things, then made my decision and ran with it. When you jump the gun, that’s when you start regretting shit. Then you’re like, Maybe I should have thought about it a little bit more, maybe I didn’t think about it.

ME: Did somebody sit you down and explain it all to you?

BRON: Nah, nah. Just instincts. I’m not sure how or why, but I’ve just always been a team player. I think fundamentals was taught to me early by my little league basketball coach. Big Frankie was the first person to teach me how to make a left-handed layup, and now I use it even more than my right hand, so that’s kind of funny. He taught me the fundamentals of the game but he also showed me how to dribble behind my back, things like that, without putting in too much flair. When I was growing up, he wouldn’t let me make flair passes. Like, he wouldn’t let me make no-look passes, even though I could make them.

ME: He called them flair passes?

BRON: Yeah, Frankie called them flair passes. It made me structure my game a little bit different. And you know, fundamentals are the easiest play to make. It’s easy to make the more fundamental than going out there and having flair all the time.

ME: What gets me is the poise you have to play with, because so often you’re holding the ball, waiting on the defense, asking to be double-teamed to make the game harder on yourself.

BRON: I’m waiting to make it harder for myself, but I’m making it easier for my team.

ME: (eyeing the horde of media still hoping LeBron is going talk more) Don’t you get sick of this stuff?

BRON: I wouldn’t agree to it if it wasn’t fun. I do a lot of that stuff. My son sees me on TV and my son sees me on magazines. So that stuff is fun for me.

Two days later, and I was in the SLAM Dome working away. That quote about waiting and making it harder on himself to make it easier for his teammates was stuck in my head.

I hadn’t really talked to anyone who knew LeBron well off the court, a teammate or a competitor. So I two-wayed Hornets point guard Chris Paul, who’s known and played with/against LeBron forever. CP called me one afternoon after leaving a hospital for x-rays on a badly sprained ankle…

ME: When did you and Bron meet?

CP: We’ve known each other since AAU, but we really talked a lot our senior years in high school. We played together in the McDonald’s Game.

ME: You as a point guard, when you see Bron handling the ball as much as he does and making plays, what comes to mind?

CP: He really is a point guard. 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 except that he can dunk on guys inside.

ME: As a ballhandler, you often have to deal with guys hacking at you and the ball and pressuring you for 48 minutes. But you don’t see a lot of forwards able to deal with the same thing. Bron does.

CP: He knows what to do in any situation. 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.

ME: You’ve become the leader of the Hornets in your second year. What does it take to lead an NBA team as a younger player?

CP: Being a leader is not about having the ball, it’s about talking to guys and telling them where to go and what to do. It’s really about credibility, and when you’ve been with a team for a while you build that credibility.

ME: Do you think LeBron will get that title eventually?

CP: That man holds his own destination in his hands. He has personality, charisma, everything. Anything he wants to do, he can do.

I was finally starting to feel good about the story, like I was finally getting enough stuff to write the thing. I’d started to focus in on LeBron’s patience, which was always impressive whenever I watched the Cavs play.

I went home to Atlanta for Christmas, and the Cavs happened to be in The A to play the Hawks two days after Christmas. So I went to the game to continue collecting quotes.

After blowing a big lead, the Cavs hung on to beat the Hawks. After the game, Mike Brown faced the media…

BROWN: Just good enough to hang on, and again, their field goal percentage looks like its terrific at 39 percent, but if they go from 31 to 39, they must have shot the ball fairly well in that second half. So that has to be our focus, especially on the road. We’ve got to get stops and everything else will fall into place.

REPORTER: Any satisfaction winning on the road?

BROWN: Yes sir. Yes sir. Whether it’s on the road or at home, but especially on the road because they’ve been struggling. I’m happy. I’m taking this win and I’m not giving it back. I hugged all my guys in there, I gave them five and I told them, Heck of a win. Heck, heck — I can say heck, right? — heck of a win. Alright, kids?

REPORTER: Can you explain your team’s struggles on the road so far?

BROWN: It’s part of the growing pains of the season in my opinion. We won 50 games last year and we made it to the second round, and everybody has annointed us as the Eastern Conference champs. And if you tend to believe the hype, sometimes you can lose focus. I thought as an organization — not just as a team but as an organization — we believed the hype. We’ve got to keep doing exactly what got us to this point, in terms of teams thinking we’re a good team, and that is take it one day at a time, one game at a time, and we can’t afford to waste a day. We’ve got to get better every day. And if that’s our focus during this season, because it’s too long of a season, then we’ll have a chance come our second season to go on that run. So it’s just gonna take some time for our guys to have a great understanding of what our task is at hand. They’re doing a great job of it.

It got quiet for a second here, so I decided to pipe up with a question. I’d been thinking about what LeBron said about the team thinking ahead to the playoffs, and that sounded pretty diametrically opposed to what Brown had just said.

ME: Coach, you’re talking about improving game by game but are you able to go ahead and look toward the postseason at all?

BROWN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We don’t have an eye toward the second season. What I’m trying to say is, we need to focus on TODAY. Whenever that comes, whenever it gets here, then we’ll go ahead and deal with it, but our focus needs to be on today and the Atlanta Hawks. Now, let’s enjoy this victory, but our next focus, not even necessarily on the Milwaukee Bucks, but we’ve got to get better tomorrow in practice. OK? And whatever comes after that, hey, we’ll figure it out when it comes across our path. But that has to be our mindset. Everybody. From the top of the organization on down. To my youngest son. Cameron.

Interesting. Was LeBron making up what he’d said to me? Was he telling me something his coach didn’t know about? Was Coach Brown lying? Either way, I suddenly had something else to focus on.

I went into the locker room and sat down with Drew Gooden and asked him a few questions about LeBron.

DREW: Being with him for three years, I think him being able to go out night out and night in and perform up to the expectations set for him each game is remarkable. If he has one bad game, I think everyone looks down upon him. The whole world is watching him, and for him to perform night in and night out, play every game of the season and be where he is right now is very, very, um, infatuating.

ME: Z was saying that it’s LeBron’s mental ability that’s so impressive.

DREW: He has a good intellectual skill of the game, and that helps him out a lot scoring and making plays, like on some of the fancy passes he makes, because he knows where everybody is supposed to be. But more than anything, he has god-given talent. He’s a physical specimen. He’s 6-8 and he’s the fastest guy on our team.

After talking to the big group of media, Bron went over to a corner locker to get dressed. I assumed my now-regular spot in the locker next to him…

ME: I asked Coach Brown about the looking toward the postseason thing you’d talked about and he was pretty adamant that you guys aren’t doing that, that you’re focusing game by game and the postseason isn’t even a consideration.

BRON: As professionals, you have to look forward to playing today—you can’t look forward to playing in the future when you know you have to play today. But at the end of the day, we know we’ve got to be ready to play in the playoffs, because, I mean, shit…

ME: If you don’t make it it’ll be a disappointment?

BRON: Of course. A disaster if we don’t make the playoffs. Come on, man. All this talent we have here? There’s no reason we shouldn’t make the Playoffs.

ME: Do you honestly think you guys can win the title this year?

BRON: Yeah! That’s the only reason I’m playing. If I don’t believe we can win the title, then it’s time for me to get out of this game. I think we got enough pieces around here that can execute offensively and defensively that we can get wins.

ME: Did you honestly believe that you guys had a shot to win it all two years ago?

BRON: Two years ago? My second year? No. Totally different. This is a totally different team.

ME: One of the Cleveland papers said that you’re really tired, you just won’t admit it. So are you tired?

BRON: Yeah, we’re 16-11, I’m averaging 28 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists…yeah, I must be exhausted. I’m really killing the team out there.

And that was that. To see what I ended up writing about, you can flip back to this post. Or go out and buy SLAM each month. Hey, maybe that’s not such a bad idea after all.