THE SMALLEST PLAYER on the 1993 Hornets of the Summit Lake Community Center in southwest Akron was a seven-year-old named Sonny. He could shoot the ball, but he could not always catch it, and every pass he fumbled seemed to get stolen before he could gather and fire. Frankie Walker, the Hornets' coach, believed that all kids were entitled to at least one shot per game, regardless of skill level. So he approached the boys with a task for the remainder of the season: "You've got to get looks for Sonny."
Walker drew up several unorthodox sets for his best player, nine-year-old LeBron James. In one, LeBron drove down the right wing and attracted a mob of defenders, then rolled the ball to Sonny on the left block. In another, the Hornets ran a one-man fast break, with Sonny sprinting ahead and LeBron launching him a long pass. When that didn't work, Sonny abandoned defense altogether and stood under the opposing hoop until LeBron could corral a rebound and bowl the ball from end to end. Sonny fielded it like a shortstop and let fly before anybody could race back.
LeBron did not understand why Walker went to such lengths to pair him with Sonny. LeBron could easily go one-on-five and score himself. Creating for Sonny was much harder. Even in practice, Walker halted drills when LeBron overdribbled, pointing out that Sonny or another player appeared open. "What he didn't know at the time," Walker says, "is I was doing all that for LeBron as much as I was doing it for Sonny. He had to learn how to put his teammates first."
Sonny finally cherry-picked a basket and then sank a couple of layups in traffic. The Hornets rejoiced like a college squad when a walk-on buries a three. "I remember those moments so clearly," James says. "It felt as if I made the shots myself. In some ways it felt better. I wanted to keep having that feeling."
He is sitting in a leather-backed chair at the wood-paneled Club Bar inside Beverly Hills's historic Peninsula Hotel, Sinatra on the stereo, reminding him to do things his way. It is the last day of summer and the last week of rest before James returns to northeast Ohio for real as a Cavalier. Awaiting him is a nine-month reunion tour unlike any an athlete has experienced since Michael Jordan hung up his spikes. James has spent nearly half his life in a basketball petri dish, steadily growing as the world watches. But even he cannot fathom the scrutiny that will accompany his first press conference, practice, scrimmage, preseason game, regular-season game, road game, Spurs game, Heat game, playoff game. He will be feted when he turns 30 on Dec. 30 and roasted whenever Cleveland loses three in a row.
James's individual performance will spawn a hundred story lines but, chances are, little suspense. Barring injury, he'll average about 27 points while hitting more than half his shots. He'll win MVP or finish second. He'll carry the Cavs through one playoff series and probably two. What will determine whether they simply contend for the championship or capture it is the impact James has on those around him. His new Big Three is nothing like his old one. When James arrived in Miami four years ago, sidekicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had already started a combined 77 playoff games. James's new wingmen, power forward Kevin Love and point guard Kyrie Irving, haven't appeared in any. (Then again, they've been on lottery teams, flanked by the likes of Wesley Johnson and Alonzo Gee.) How they respond to the league's strongest gravitational force will define this season and this era in the NBA.
James's influence on teammates transcends basic assist totals. When he was on the court last season, the Heat scored 104.4 points per 48 minutes, with a 57.0 effective field goal percentage. When he wasn't, they dropped to 92.5 points, with a 51.1 effective field goal percentage. Even after weeding out James's own contributions, the Heat were considerably more efficient, especially at the rim, when he was on the floor. His presence prompted significant spikes in free throws, assists and corner threes, and a dip in midrange shots. It is no wonder that Love followed James to Cleveland, along with forwards Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones. They can chase championships while enjoying how-did-they-get-so-open jumpers.
Love played next to James on the gold-medal-winning 2012 Olympic team, and Irving befriended him as far back as high school, but neither can predict the myriad ways James's specter will alter their careers. "The only thing you really know," Love says, "is what you've seen him do for guys before."
GREAT PLAYERS are not always great teammates, and great teammates are not always the ones who pick up the biggest tabs and pull off the best pranks. They leverage their greatness to elevate the group. They set up Sonny as well as D-Wade. "I saw early on that there were always going to be two, three, four—well, let's be honest, there were always going to be five defenders with their eyes on me," James says. "That allowed me to get everything I wanted on the court for everybody else."
As a senior at St. Vincent--St. Mary High in Akron, James drove and kicked to junior sniper Corey Jones, punctuating each pass with the exclamation, Shoot the ball! "Of course, everybody and their mother crashed the paint on him, so I was all alone in the corner," Jones says. "I remember one game, in a tournament at the University of Dayton, when I got really hot. Late in the second half I front-rimmed a three-pointer, and the ball bounced straight up. LeBron caught it in midair, threw it back to me and yelled, 'Shoot it again!'" Jones converted, and afterward James was presented with the tournament MVP award. "He thanked the P.A. announcer," Jones says. "Then he called me up and handed me the trophy."
James was an eager facilitator, though not a refined one. "When I first got to Cleveland, I knew how to play for myself, how to get myself a look," he says, "but I wasn't thinking strategically. I wasn't seeing the game for my teammates." He operated the same way he did at St. V, stampeding through the paint and dishing when the defense collapsed. "He was a pit bull in training," says Lakers forward Carlos Boozer, who played for the Cavaliers in 2003--04, when James was a rookie turning 19. "He couldn't shoot consistently yet, but he was 6'8", and when he turned the corner on the pick-and-roll everybody went to help. He'd just drop off the ball. He got me so many wide-open 15-footers from the baseline and the top of the key."
Cleveland surrounded James with veterans who helped him view the game from a teammate's perspective. "He was still just playing, being the person he was gifted to be, and you didn't want to take any of that away," says guard Eric Snow, who arrived in 2004--05 and is now an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic. "But at the same time, in order to win, he had to start thinking, Who are my shooters on this play? Who is setting the screen? Is he a pick-and-pop guy or a pick-and-roll guy? That's the stuff we talked about."
When the Cavs trailed by two points late in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, against the Pistons, James drove left on small forward Tayshaun Prince, but Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace rushed over to help. James passed to forward Donyell Marshall, stationed in his beloved right corner. "I missed, we lost, and everybody asked him why he gave it up," recalls Marshall, now an assistant coach at Rider. "But what I remember was the next day at practice when we went over late-game situations. We ran the same play, and LeBron passed it to me in the corner again. I knocked it down, and he jumped on me like we'd won."
Ten days later Cleveland ousted Detroit in Game 5, in which James scored 29 of the last 30 points to cap a double-overtime gem. "I was standing in that same corner the whole time, but the Pistons would not leave me again, so LeBron was able to keep driving down the middle," Marshall says. "Nuances like that, he was starting to figure out."
The Cavs of the mid-to late 2000s are regarded with mild disappointment because they never won a title, but they transformed James from performer to conductor. "I played in Utah with Karl Malone, and he once told me, 'You need to have 10 points by halftime,'" Marshall says. "I didn't understand why. He explained, 'If you have 10 points, the other team thinks you're clicking, and they're scared to double-team me in the post. So in the fourth quarter I can take over.' I told LeBron that story."
"You could see him defer in the first quarter and try to involve everyone else," says forward Wally Szczerbiak, who joined the Cavs in 2007--08 and is now a CBS Sports Network analyst. "He knew that if he could find someone else who was hot, it would put the other team in a precarious position. I think he also knew that if he got us going on offense, we'd play better defense." That season second-year point guard Daniel (Booby) Gibson scored 10.4 points per game, notable for an undersized player drafted 42nd who had produced little as a rookie. It was a breakthrough for him but also for James.
"I started really recognizing sets that could free guys for open looks," James says. "O.K., here's how I get Daniel Gibson a shot, but I've also got to get Damon Jones a shot, and now how do I get Donyell a shot?"
"He knew where you wanted the ball, where you'd be most successful, and the whole team was basically formed around that knowledge," Jones says. "He called the plays to make it happen. He and I ran a high pick-and-roll, and teams would obviously trap him, so I was open every time at the top of the key. All the attention was on him. You didn't have to do much. He just found you."
Jones noticed an easy way to earn James's trust. "It wasn't all about making shots," he says. "He'd come to you even if you missed 10 in a row. But he wanted to see you out there before practice. He wanted to know you were working and were ready."
When James was with Miami in 2012, he watched Wade go 2 for 13 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers, then visit former Marquette coach Tom Crean at Indiana to address his struggles. "Game 4 started pretty bad, too," James recalls, "but I felt like if I could just get him a layup or a dunk, it could free his mind. I ran a play where I dribbled down the left side and told him to cut backdoor." Wade made the cut, James made the pass, and a jam followed. Wade scored 30 points that day, James 40. A month later the Heat won the first of two championships with James when Miller drained seven of eight threes in a Game 5 drubbing of Oklahoma City.
"When you play with LeBron, as a shooter you wonder, How is this going to affect me?" Miller says. "The first thing you notice is his delivery. I don't really care if a pass is a little high or a little low, I just don't want a one-hopper. He is so big that he sees over the defense and throws these snap passes—cross-court into your pocket, with a lot of pace. Very few people pass that way." The velocity gave Miller an extra second to fire before the defense closed.
Last summer Miami waived Miller under the amnesty clause, and he signed with the Grizzlies. "We had an unbelievable team, we played inside-out, we were good in pick-and-roll," Miller says, "but it's just different with LeBron. You don't even have to run an offensive set, and you'll still wind up with an open shot somewhere on the floor. The game can be very easy. Yeah, you miss that when it's gone."
JAMES HAS BEEN a headliner since he was a Summit Lake Hornet, but this marks his first turn as undisputed team leader. He has read several books on management styles and believes he must carefully monitor his body language so as not to discourage young players. He compares his charges with his two sons, who have different personalities and therefore require different teaching methods.
The Cavs will follow him, but not because of his posture or his pep talks. "Let me tell you what he'll do," Boozer says. "He'll get a tape of each of [his teammates]. He'll go home and watch each one for half an hour. He's very smart about all this, so it won't take him long. He'll figure out some things he can do to get them going on the court." They'll follow him because he provides what everyone in the NBA wants, a little space and a clean look.
Boozer knows his old wingman well. More meaningful to James than the motivational tomes were the cut-ups he watched this summer of Love, Irving and others, which allowed him to see where they like the ball and how he can serve it to them. "I'll get a better feel through practice, conversations, bus rides," James explains. "But I do already know, let's say if Kevin is struggling, there are a couple of ways I can position the other three players on the floor and get him a look in his sweet spot."
The James experience is not necessarily a joyride for everyone. Fellow stars must play without the ball. Quality of shots improves, but quantity diminishes. Scoring totals inevitably dip. "You just get your entrée, and that's it," Bosh told Bleacher Report earlier this month. "It's like, Wait a minute. I need my appetizer and my dessert and my drink. What's going on? I'm hungry! It's a lot different. But if you can get through it, good things can happen." In Bosh's last season with the Raptors, 2009--10, he averaged 24.0 points and 10.8 rebounds. In Miami in '10--11 he fell to 18.7 and 8.3. But deeper numbers show he became more efficient. Last season, with James on the court, Bosh shot 54.3% overall and 36.3% from three-point range. Without James he shot 37.2% and 23.1%.
"Kevin Love might not get 20 and 20," Marshall says. "He might get 17 and 12. Kyrie might not average 25. He might average 18. But teams aren't going to be able to trap Kyrie anymore. They're not going to be able to chase Love into the corner. With the space that LeBron creates, those guys are going to see situations and lanes they've never seen before."
The Cavaliers are trying to temper expectations, but that's difficult in a city where James once won 66 games while leaning on Mo Williams and Delonte West. Now he has three All-Stars and a far more sophisticated approach to supporting them. James will discover on those bus rides that Love, 26, and Irving, 22, have similar profiles. Each learned from a father who played professionally, Stan Love in the NBA and Drederick Irving in Australia. Each spent one year with a historic college program, Love at UCLA and Irving at Duke. Each has scored a ton of points since then but lost a lot of games, with questionable defense. When James announced his homecoming in July, he knew he was joining Irving, the first marquee point guard he's ever partnered with. Love was still under contract for another year in Minnesota, and he appeared intent on moving to a major market such as Los Angeles, New York or Boston.
"I respected the whole Cleveland organization, but LeBron obviously changes a lot of things," Love says. "He called and asked, 'Are you ready? Are we doing this?' I told him, 'I'm in.' Within the first minute we were talking about why it would work, how we would overlap on the court, what we could accomplish together. It was an intersection in my career, the chance to do the one thing I haven't done."
Love hung up and read every article he could find about Cleveland's reaction to James's return. He wondered if there would be any season tickets left for his own friends and family. Six weeks later the Cavaliers acquired Love for a package built around No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins. James had executed his first play, designed for a sweet-shooting power forward.
It is 102¬∫ in Hollywood, and Love is wearing a UCLA warmup jacket over a dress shirt and undone bowtie. He sits in a Lucite chair on a white seamless floor inside a second-story studio, preparing for a Starter photo shoot and considering how one call in July changed his life. He is going from half-empty arenas and lottery forecasts to packed houses and Finals projections. He doesn't need a major market anymore. Cleveland will be home to the biggest serial spectacle in sports. Love reflects on his court time with James in the 2012 Olympics and the information he gleaned from the articles he read, but he still can't conceive of what it will be like to spend nine months stationed alongside James.
He will have to sacrifice touches, buckets and plaudits, and at times that will be challenging. But it shouldn't be nearly as painful as sitting at home every spring and watching his peers in the playoffs. Love is at the point all players eventually reach: willing to exchange glory in December for jewelry in June. "I'm going to be a sponge," he says. "I know I can get a lot better."
Love slides off the powder-blue UCLA warmup and slips on the wine-and-gold Cavaliers version. He runs his fingers over the shiny fabric. "There are questions," he says, "but we want the pressure. We want the focus." The superteam that's forming in Cleveland sounds a lot like the one that just wrapped in Miami. On the surface, Love will reprise Bosh's role and Irving will play Wade's, although Love will probably score more than Bosh and Irving will certainly handle more than Wade. The three-four pick-and-roll, always difficult to guard, might be impossible to stop when operated by James and Love (the "two smartest superstars in the NBA," a rival coach calls them). The Cavs should lead the league in points per possession, and while their defense won't be as frenetic as Miami's, their rebounding will be far superior, with Love, Anderson Varej√£o and Tristan Thompson cleaning the glass.
Love rises from the chair and walks across the white studio floor. A makeup artist fusses with his trimmed beard. Nineties hip-hop fills the room. Love turns toward the spotlight and peers at the camera. "O.K.," he says. "Let's go."
AWAITING JAMES AS A CAVALIER IS A NINE-MONTH REUNION TOUR UNLIKE ANY AN ATHLETE HAS EXPERIENCED SINCE MICHAEL JORDAN HUNG UP HIS SPIKES.
IT IS NO WONDER THAT LOVE FOLLOWED JAMES TO CLEVELAND, ALONG WITH MARION, MILLER AND JONES. THEY CAN CHASE TITLES WHILE ENJOYING HOW-DID-THEY-GET-SO-OPEN JUMPERS.
LOVE IS WILLING TO EXCHANGE GLORY IN DECEMBER FOR JEWELRY IN JUNE. "I'M GOING TO BE A SPONGE," HE SAYS. "I KNOW I CAN GET A LOT BETTER."
Photograph by Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated
Photo Illustration by SI Premedia
GETTY IMAGES (FLOOR)
DYNAMIC TRIO With Love (0) and Irving (2), James will form a Big Three far different from the one that reached four NBA Finals in Miami.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
DRIVE, DRAW THE D, DISH James always got his teammates involved in the offense, but now he's more adept at seeing the game from their perspective.
MANNY MILLAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
RETURN OF THE NATIVE The Cavs are trying to keep fans' expectations down, but with LeBron and his new supporting cast in the house, that's a tall order.
FRED VUICH (IRVING, JAMES)
ALL-STAR REUNION James returned to northeast Ohio intent on teaming up with one 2014 All-Star, Irving (near right), and luring another, former Olympic teammate Love (below left).
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (OLYMPICS)
[See caption above]
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TOP DOG James has been a dominant player since high school (below), but this season will be his first as an undisputed team leader.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BROTHERS IN ARMS James has already begun to bond with Love and Irving, but the real good times won't come until Cleveland makes a deep run in the postseason.