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LeBron James and the Eternal Quest for Control

At 38 years old and in the midst of his most unlikely deep playoff run, LeBron has to pick his spots now more than ever. But it’s something he’s been preparing for since he first touched a basketball.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“He needs things his way.” —Phil Jackson

The game is tied, and a man is tired. He took his hand off the wheel, and them boys have been champing at the bit. Gritting and grinding. Behind-the-back passing. Think they have him, think he’s “old,” think Bron is weak. But down two with 6.7 and the ball at half court, that’s too much time. Enough for four dribbles and two looping steps to the right, enough for a lay-in, off the glass, that peaks by Banner 17.

So old head’s gassed, but he’s revving hot. Never really been one to let things go. Final minute of OT, and there’s a bear poker wedged up in his grill. Bron pivots and starts his dribble, this time to the left. There’s a jump stop, and he crouches like a spring, rising up with both arms, shifting the ball to his right, kissing a finish off the center of the backboard. The net billows. He screams to the crowd. The veins on his forehead pop, and the sweat glistens as if he’s fought foreign legions. And his mouth hangs open while his chest grows—which happens when a bear is pressed against a wall.

It ain’t tied a week later, but he’s still looking fried. Just spent the first three quarters of Game 3 toying with pump fakes, hunting for charges, unfurling skyhooks, and biting on poke-outs against Golden State. Some of it’s worked, some of it hasn’t. The Lakers are up 12 halfway through the third, but his greatest rivals are clawing. Steph forces a turnover and starts a fast break. Klay floats on the right, fanning to the wing, and Wiggins flanks Steph on the opposite side. A pass slices through the air, but Bron matches Wiggins stride for stride, lunges, flicks the ball into the first row like it’s a gnat, then hops clear over the seats and up the mezzanine. In an hour we’ll know that the game will never truly be closer than this. Courtside, Jeff Van Gundy says into a microphone, “You don’t get this from him on an every-possession basis,” which is true. It happens only when Bron feels things slipping—there’s a place and there’s a time.

These are tales of conservation. When to get going so you don’t get got. It’s what makes watching LeBron—on perhaps the unlikeliest conference final run of his career—feel both as unnerving and as enchanting as ever: It’s the breadth of the gap between his determination of when to empty the clip and our best hunch. He’s competing in two games on two different planes. The more he wins in one, the longer he’ll last in the other. Every time he graces a court in this final epoch of his career presents a chance to see the gravitational center of the modern game collide with his most essential obstacle and the source of his greatest successes: control.

It started before his chin bore peach fuzz, when he was thin, with curls atop his head. That was when the papers first picked up on him, in the summer before he turned 13. Even as a child, LeBron built a cult following in Akron. He started playing in rec leagues as an 8-year-old, having conquered every height setting on his Nerf basketball hoop at the age of 4. He moved and looked apart from his peers. Dig through his origins, and you’ll find stories of officials asking him to provide a birth certificate at tournaments, of his teammates standing in the huddle and him trying to hunch his way to uniformity.

This uneasiness was not rooted in a lack of ambition. In elementary school LeBron responded to a teacher’s request for a ranking of possible career choices by coolly jotting “NBA” on a sheet of paper. When the instructor reminded him that the request was for three choices, he wrote “NBA” two more times. By 12 he was making waves on the national AAU circuit. The first time he made it into the sports section in the local paper was in 1997: He’d led his team to victory in a 12-and-under tournament, winning MVP against a field of 31 other squads. In high school he enrolled at St. Vincent–St. Mary—a majority-white private school funded and operated by the Cleveland diocese—mostly because he liked its head basketball coach.

By the end of his freshman season, there were Naismith Hall of Famers attending his games. By his sophomore year he was 6-foot-6, was regarded as a surefire pro, and had refs taking pictures with him after the final buzzer. By the time he was a junior, he’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and received more than 100 college scholarship offers from the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, and Ohio State. By 2002, the start of his senior year, he’d trained more than once with Michael Jordan and had been televised nationally more often than some pro teams. (“I don’t know how he can handle it,” observed a rival teen named Carmelo Anthony.) Even as his games sold on pay-per-view—even as his presence nearly quadrupled his high school’s athletic revenue—he received no payment for his services. He was the most valuable teenager in the country. He lived in public housing.

If your Spidey sense is tingling, so was his. “You’ve got tennis players competing professionally when they’re 14,” he noted shortly after his 16th birthday. “Why not basketball players?” Of course, if you have to ask that kind of question, the safe money is on you already knowing the answer. The only thing more American than capitalism is squeezing Black talent for money. And there are few things more perceptibly Black in America than basketball.

He was regarded, in this way, as a product: gossiped over and consumed. The same company that sold ad space off his crossovers described his mother as a woman who’d “seen her share of trouble” and—in case the subtext was too subliminal—noted that she “spent a total of seven days in county jail.” When she took out a loan toward the beginning of 2003 to get LeBron a new Hummer, the Ohio High School Athletic Association demanded her bank records. A few months before he was drafted, the governing body declared him ineligible to play for the crime of receiving a couple of throwback jerseys. (His lawyers eventually got the decision rescinded in court.) “You can do a thousand or a million good things,” LeBron said at the time, “but as soon as you do one bad thing, they try to bring you up under.” And again, not unlike last time, if you must ask who “they” are that he’s referring to, the safe money’s on the question being fake and the answer being “you.”

The thing to remember about LeBron, to never forget if you want to understand how a child can become—as Jack McCallum once wrote—an economic system as much as an athlete, isn’t just that even as a teen he wasn’t here for all of this bullshit. It’s that he took everything he saw as confirmation of his place in the world and used that knowledge to ensure that that place would be as much a reflection of his will as humanly possible.

That’s chiseled into the arc of his career. It’s why he owns his own media company, appears on his own TV shows, and every so often cuts off a press conference by telling reporters to “be better” (before strutting out in a suit jacket and shorts and carrying a satchel). It’s how he came into the league getting paid 10 times more off the court than on it and will leave it a billionaire who works with the folks who were with him in high school and—not inconsequentially—a former deputy chief of staff to a Republican governor. It’s “taking my talents” and “I’m coming home.” It’s More Than a Vote after shut up and dribble. It’s protecting your priorities, your career, and yourself, knowing the truth is that “they” know no love true enough not to pull you under.

“You ready to go? LeBron, where’s the powder?” Jim Gray asks the stone-faced 25-year-old.

“I left it at home,” LeBron says through a grin that never really arrives.

On the evening of July 8, 2010, in a gym in Connecticut, the King is wobbling. He’s lost his feel. He moves tentatively. He can’t see the other side. Stare long enough at the scene, and what comes through isn’t the awkwardness, it’s not even the pageantry—it’s watching someone who performs for a living walk onto a stage and, out of fear, accidentally become something else entirely. Even a decade later, it is the gap in the image, the moment that he spins by dint of platitudes or declines to talk about.

In the background there’s a fridge stocked with Vitamin Water, kids in Boys and Girls Club apparel, and lights colder than the moment itself. In chairs by the free throw line, Gray prods Bron, who answers, “The process was everything I expected and more,” and, “I just thank all those teams to come to Cleveland.” Neither one of them quite fits. LeBron smiles, but his eyes aren’t fully open. A sheen of sweat covers his forehead and neck. He’s wearing purple and white to what feels like a funeral. And it’s called The Decision even though there’s nothing left to decide.

Between the lines, he’ll rip a pass to where a teammate is going before they even know where—or that—they’re going to arrive. His memory is photographic in nature, a fact that was, until his later years, often minimized to focus on his physical traits. “They can put the ball in the hoop,” he observed as a high schooler, “but I see things before they even happen.” Years will pass, and he will recall the exact details of minuscule plays. He commits the responsibilities of all five positions to memory and is a maestro in film study. He knows when to take over, when to fall back, where there is leverage, and where there is risk. LeBron makes a living off of premonitions, and yet losing control is the one thing he couldn’t see.

The chaos started onstage the night of “The Decision,” but it followed him through his first year in Miami. Before the team had even stepped on a court together, they rallied with marching bands and liquid nitrogen, fireworks and confetti. They began the year with a record of 9-8. (LeBron having shoulder bumped the same coach he’d allegedly floated the idea of replacing.) They rebounded and captured the 2-seed in the East, but LeBron lost the MVP to an inferior player. In the Finals he scored eight points in a game, shot fadeaways over a man who may not have been 5-foot-10, and generally melted like a candle for all to see. He was asked, at a press conference after the series ended, whether it bothered him “that so many people are happy to see you fail.” He responded by basically calling his haters broke, with a venomous grin. “I’m going to continue to live the way that I want to live,” he said, having for the first time in his adult life failed to do so.

In hindsight, his career is best understood by considering who he was before this moment and who he was after it. On the court, this was the time that supercharged his game, unlocked his most ruthless efficiencies, forced him to cull any weaknesses. We know the stories associated with the aftermath of this period—the Olajuwon workouts, the two-a-days with David Fizdale, the weeks he spent in isolation—partly because they furnish his legend, but even more because they help us make sense of the leap he’d make. Off the court, this moment represents something slightly different, though: It was the last time we would ever see him visibly broken. In both cases, LeBron has existed on his own terms. He will never cede the grip again.

He was born nine years after the highway opened and the homes in its path were stripped and plowed. He arrived as recessions thundered, employment vanished, and the bells of urban renewal rang. He wasn’t supposed to get out. Nobody was.

He was nursed in a house with goats and horses in the backyard and a porch and poplar trees in the front. It was his mother’s and his grandmother’s and his great-grandmother’s before him, and in a better world, it would have been his. Their family came north in the 1910s and ’20s, from a mill town in Georgia and a county in Tennessee. They arrived in Cleveland but spread to Akron and eventually made their home on the banks of the Little Cuyahoga River. They were not the only ones starting anew. From 1910 to 1940, Akron’s Black population grew by 12.5 percentage points, thanks to a flood of migrants looking for jobs in the city’s famed tire factories.

White folks responded with violence, and then, when that didn’t work, most of them left. That’s why the highway was built, why the city picked a tract through the newly Black neighborhoods, and why the world around the Jameses’ home began to fall apart. “Enough blighted housing and substandard conditions to warrant either total clearance or almost total clearance” was how the city explained it in 1963. Within 20 years, more than 3,000 households had been relocated through eminent domain. The highway, which never fully opened, saved suburban drivers an average of 1.25 minutes of commuting time.

Their kids went to schools as integrated as the ones down south, while the jobs dried up year after year. By the time the riots started in the late ’60s, the James family still occupied their four-bedroom house on Hickory Street. The studies that cropped up after kept using words like “oppressed,” “ghetto,” “segregation,” and “a menace to the public.” His ancestors stayed because they had already fled. This place, for a people stripped of choice, was the space that they claimed—the kind of love that nestles deep enough to blur where it starts and you begin.

He was a toddler when his grandmother died. A heart attack on Christmas Day in a hospital named after a saint who needed to see the resurrection to believe it. Ms. Freda was 42 when she passed and missed her grandson’s third birthday by five days. He was known, even back then, as just LeBron. It was what he got called in the papers: the words “survived by,” next to his mother, “Gloria James,” and then a few clauses later, simply “grandson, LeBron.”

He was 5 when the city condemned the home and he moved to a brick project building with windows that opened like doors. In the fourth grade, he missed half the school year, shuttling back and forth between new homes. He moved in with his football coach on the weekdays and saw his mother at the end of every week. He didn’t have a steady residence until the sixth grade, when they found a $22-a-month two-bedroom built on the grounds of a shuttered women’s home.

At 17 he was a millionaire.

At 37 he was a billionaire.

Even when he went away, he never really left. He still lived in Akron when he went to Miami. He spent millions on a new public school for underperforming and disadvantaged students in the city. He renovated a 22-unit apartment building and offered it to families in crisis for free. He partnered with a local college to secure scholarships for all the kids who made it through his family’s program. He hired his teammate as his manager and his friend as his agent.

He brought his people with him.​​ That’s the miracle, the one that started in the house with the goats. Bron gets himself so free that he comes back and gives little pieces of that freedom to anyone who sprouts from the same place, to all the other versions of him that can’t catch flight.

He’s in the air now. Floating, 5,000 feet above sea level and one foot off the hardwood. He’s in the middle of a corkscrew layup where the rim blocks the blocker. He slithers in, patiently, and converts through the trees.

Denver is trying to maul the Lakers with size, and it’s working. L.A.’s down 12 at the end of the first quarter of Game 1, and Jokic’s outrebounding the team. Bron can feel it all cascading. No one in purple boxes out. He takes a few swings: some bully ball, a J off the glass, a no-look pass that’d make Magic giggle. He’s still mostly cruising on defense until the end of the half.

He can run but only sometimes jump, so he scrounges for alternatives. A couple of long, aching finishes that a phone book would trip. By the fourth he’s working Denver over, throwing his shoulders like bags of industrial cement; on defense, he’s low and active, his knees bent to the floor. There’s the battle on the court and the battle beyond it. Even at 38, the man is still not the type to simply let things go. On a fast break, he lowers his head, winds his legs into another gear, and jumps from the mid-post for a chase-down block, but whiffs and topples over into the crowd.

At 50 seconds they’re down three with the ball at half court. He takes a few dribbles and points to the wing, directing traffic at the top of the arc. Then slowly, slyly, he shifts his dribble—right to left—between his legs, masks the ball for a millisecond, rises up, and launches. The game is where he wants it, meshed between his hands. The ball hits the back iron, a rotation long. He looks to his bench and whistles aloud. In a minute we’ll know the game will never be closer than this. The Lakers fail to score another basket.

He leaves the court before the buzzer. LeBron tilts his head slightly down. Through a tunnel he closes his eyes with a grimace, bends his neck to the heavens, and growls, “Oh my God.”

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