After Game 3 of the NBA Finals, reporters surrounded Kevin Love in the Cavaliers’ locker room. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst stood at the group’s outer edge. This is an advantage of working for the Worldwide Leader; Windhorst can tap into the company’s boom mics and hear the interviews from afar. But on this night, Windhorst was also working an angle. He wanted to see whether LeBron James was limping.
James had turned his ankle during Game 3, and Windhorst figured he’d make for the shower when reporters had their backs turned. So Windhorst positioned his body in such a way that he seemed to be listening to Love but was really surveilling James.
If you talk to the people who cover James, they’ll tell you he uses court vision on a roomful of reporters the same way he uses it on an NBA defense. As James walked by, he glanced at Windhorst and said, “You’re looking to see if I’m limping, aren’t you?”
Windhorst didn’t say anything. He just shook his head yes.
“As if I’d let you see it anyway,” James said, walking to the shower unimpeded.
“Which is funny,” Windhorst told me later. “Because he was dealing with a hand injury I didn’t know about.”
James flashed that kind of extrasensory perception with the media throughout the playoffs. With the exception of his head-butting with Mark Schwarz, James carefully controlled what he was saying and yet left most reporters satisfied, even as his season ended in humiliating fashion.
Windhorst thought the press conference James gave on the off-day between games 3 and 4 was one of his best. James’s eyes were lit up like they were in the season-opening session when he talked about Donald Trump. With the Finals all but over, James was loose. He said everybody knew Kevin Durant would be great “besides Portland”; that the people who thought he should drive to the rim on every play were imagining a video game LeBron with fatigue and injuries turned “all the way down to zero.” For a guy who usually insists on talking about the present, he was willing to offer perspective.
Other times during the Finals, James smiled as he batted away “trick” questions from the Cavs’ beat writers; he held up the brace on his right wrist and chuckled as cameras clicked away; and he addressed reporters by first names like “Marc” and “Rachel.”
Rachel—Nichols—got the James treatment when she interviewed him on camera for ESPN before the Finals began. The NBA mandates that such interviews last only 10 minutes. But when the league’s press minder stepped in, James said, “I’m good, I’m good. You know when Rachel and I get together, it’s like 60 Minutes or something. We got a lot to talk about.”
Eight years ago, after The Decision, it was common to hear reporters call James a choker and a traitor. In the strange calculus where reporters grade players on how well they spin them, it was also common to hear that James was unsophisticated about the NBA media game—“self-absorbed, shameless, and out of touch,” as one of the nicer reviews put it.
Now, reporters call James the model of a press-savvy and press-friendly megastar. “When you get those golden moments, he is the most engaging interview subject you could ever find in the sports world,” Windhorst said.
Three things have allowed James to master the media game. First, he won titles. Then James got religion—or, at least, better advice—about feeding reporters. But the final factor has little to do with James. It turns out what the NBA media thinks about the world’s best player depends entirely on who the “media” is.
“Where are my three wives?” James shouted across the locker room after a game this spring. That’s his nickname for The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd, Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, and ESPN’s Dave McMenamin—the reporters who are around him the most. Calling them “wives” is an acknowledgment of both an intimate relationship and journalistic polygamy: James may favor one beat writer one day and another the next. The nickname is one of “at least semi-endearment,” Vardon told me. It could be worse. When McMenamin and Chris Haynes covered the Cavs beat for ESPN, James called them “salt and pepper.”
To hear the “wives” tell it, the relationship they have with James hearkens back to the halcyon days of ’80s NBA locker rooms. “We can get him anytime we want to,” Lloyd said. There are plenty of off-the-record conversations, including postgame chats before James goes to meet the press. By skipping some optional availabilities, James talked less this year than he had previously in the four years since he returned to Cleveland. “But we don’t complain about it,” Vardon said. “Because the veteran reporters who have been around him every day for the last four years were able to get conversations with him and time with him when he was not available to others.”
The talks James has with his beat writers often sprawl beyond basketball. “We’ve literally had conversations on, ‘Do you believe in fate?’” McMenamin said. “How often does that occur on the NBA beat?”
Because players are so inaccessible, NBA writing tends to be irritatingly GM-centric. In Cleveland, according to one person who has covered the team, it was nearly the opposite. James was often more accessible than Koby Altman.
Asked whether James likes the media, writer Chris Sheridan said, “‘Like’ is such a broad word. I think LeBron understands the media.” Indeed, the beat writers feel James is aware of just about every interaction in the Cavs’ locker room, even the interviews his teammates are giving. “When you walk into a locker room with LeBron, you feel his presence,” said Haynes, who now covers the Warriors. “It’s almost like you got to feel him out before you can even begin talking with anybody.”
James understands how beat writers can be friends but also compete for scoops. He knows the value of giving a reporter personal attention. In 2015, James caught McMenamin’s eye when the ESPN reporter was interviewing Joe Harris. James knew McMenamin had worked in L.A. and asked whether he was still commuting back and forth. No, McMenamin said, I moved here to cover you.
James pointed at his chest and said, “Miami.” He pointed at J.R. Smith, who was sitting at his right, and said, “New York.” He pointed at McMenamin and said, “Los Angeles.” Then James said, “I guess we’re all in this together.”
McMenamin was touched. It was the rare instance when a superstar bothers to understand how and why a reporter came to cover him. “I always appreciated that moment,” McMenamin said, “because he was trying to put himself in my shoes.”
The downside of covering such a generous subject is that you have to guard against losing your edge. James’s first season back in Cleveland was chaotic: He wasn’t in peak form at times and he reported to camp underweight. McMenamin told me: “I kind of made a decision at that point. Do I want to be the guy destroying LeBron six months into the relationship? Or do I want to see where this goes? I certainly gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Was that totally fair to David Blatt, who hoped he could have a totally bought-in, functioning superstar night in and night out for his maiden voyage in the NBA? Probably not. I cop to that. You can call it bias or whatever. But I had a wealth of experience from afar with LeBron versus a relative stranger in David Blatt.”
James doesn’t give many one-on-one interviews, at least on the record. Among superstars, Kevin Durant probably gives more. But James gives some of the most content-rich press conferences in the NBA. Fox’s Chris Broussard, who interviewed James several times in the ’00s for ESPN, told me the James he used to see in private is the James the world now sees at the podium.
In his first year back in Cleveland, James was delivering his postgame spiel to the media one night when Windhorst noticed he was also watching the end of a close game on a nearby TV. Just like when he plundered his photographic memory to recall fourth-quarter possessions during the Eastern Conference finals, James morphed into a color analyst. “He correctly predicted the inbounds play the team was about to run to win the game,” Windhorst said, “which he saw out of the corner of his eye in the middle of an interview.”
James isn’t all smiles in the press room. He doesn’t like “legacy” questions. He doesn’t like the insinuation that he’s the shadow GM of the Cavs or that he got Blatt fired in 2016.
If James gets a curveball from a reporter he doesn’t know, he’ll tell the reporter he hasn’t seen him before and might ask others about his agenda. But among his beat writers, James rarely balks at tough questions. The flip side of the intimacy McMenamin talks about is that the writers feel they can ask James whatever they want.
Vardon—who got the honor of asking James why he unfollowed the Cavs on Twitter in 2016—will often approach James after a presser to explain a tough question. James will inevitably wave him off. “He goes into almost any room thinking people want things from him,” Vardon said. “He appreciates people who are there to do their job.”
“It’s never about, Oh, you’re the one who’s going to protect me,” said Nichols, who has been interviewing James one-on-one since he was 17. “It’s understanding those questions are going to come and that he’d rather do it in an environment where he can actually answer.”
None of the three Cavs beat writers imagines they have fully plumbed the depths of James’s soul. Like any celebrity, much of James remains off-limits; it’s clear that in opening himself up, even a little, James has made a strategic decision. “It’s very simple,” Vardon said. “If a reporter has access to a person, if this person’s willing to talk to them, it’s easier for their viewpoint to show up in the writing. LeBron has always understood that.”
James began to understand the media when his relationship with it hit rock bottom. In 2010, the ridicule for The Decision sent James into his shell. “Going through my first seven years in the NBA, I was always the liked one,” James told Nichols the following year. “To be on the other side—they call it the dark side, or the villain … it was a situation I’d never been in before.”
Part of James’s metamorphosis was directed by the Miami Heat. The Heat organization doesn’t radiate warmth. As Windhorst described it, the franchise has a regimented, almost military quality. But the Heat’s idea of keeping the trains running on time was to make James available after every practice, without exception—a ritual he hadn’t always observed in Cleveland. “From a media standpoint, they got him in the habit of talking every single day,” Windhorst said.
When the Heat put James and Dwyane Wade on the postgame podium together, rather than having them talk separately, the team snuffed out any chance the two superstars would get off-message. “We hated it, but it was brilliant,” said Windhorst. “It prevented us in the media from taking quotes back to the players.”
After The Decision, James also switched media advisers, hiring Adam Mendelsohn, a crisis-PR pro whom Arnold Schwarzenegger had recruited to help his floundering gubernatorial administration. I’m not sure there’s much moral difference between talking to Jim Gray for The Decision in 2010 or Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated in 2014. But the trappings were different as, of course, was the reception. That is a feat of PR.
As he charmed the media, James was also trying to own it. Uninterrupted, the company James and Bleacher Report created in 2014, has produced podcasts hosted by Draymond Green and Richard Jefferson along with James’s own videos. (In its early days, Uninterrupted’s mission was so pure that the Cavs writers had to ask James to install a pause button; they had to replay his videos constantly to transcribe them.) Mendelsohn has insisted that Uninterrupted isn’t trying to replace mainstream journalism—and some of the reporters I talked to agreed. James is an example of the dissonance contained in a modern NBA player, who gives reporters the ball and hogs it in the same motion.
In 2014, when James returned to the Cavs, he was far more playful. Partly, this was because James had won two titles and was about to win a third. Playing in eight straight Finals has helped because James talked endlessly in the postseason every year. When Larry Bird inched past age 30, Bob Ryan observed a “blooming” in which the formerly taciturn star started asking reporters, “OK, boys, what do you want to know?” The same thing happened to James.
But just as James was figuring out the basketball media, the face of the media was changing, too. The Decision can now be seen as the final moments in which a particular kind of sports-page veteran controlled the national dialogue about the NBA. “There’s a continued culture shift in who’s doing the sportswriting,” Nichols said. “Is it older white males and how they see younger black athletes? Or has there been a more diverse group of people in media who bring more diversity of thought?
“That is not to say every older white male has the same opinion,” Nichols continued. “But a diversity of thought in sportswriting creates a different cauldron of reaction than if you have the same drumbeat.”
If the new NBA media is hipper and more diverse, it’s also more national, Windhorst noted. Without attachment to a city, writers are more likely to see free agency as bloodless transactions rather than a test of loyalty or betrayal.
NBA writers also just realized James was giving them a gift. With each “decision,” they weren’t being held hostage by a mega-star. The star was feeding quarters into a content machine that reporters themselves owned a stake in. Everybody wins—even if Decision 3.0, as Maverick Carter hinted to the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen, is going to be an Uninterrupted joint.
During the Finals, James had a single hiccup with the press. After losing Game 1, James walked into the Cavs’ locker room and injured his hand by punching a whiteboard. A few minutes later, ESPN’s Mark Schwarz questioned him in the media room about what he thought of the J.R. Smith mistake that cost the Cavs a chance to win.
As James pushed back, Schwarz asked the questions again and again. “Be better tomorrow,” James barked after standing up in his shorts suit, picking up his alligator bag, and cutting the session short.
Later, Windhorst couldn’t help but smile. “Here’s what’s so great about that statement and here’s why I loved it so much,” he said. “It’s LeBron acknowledging that we’re going to talk tomorrow.”