He can imagine, he says, playing for Cleveland again one day.
Did I hear him right? Cleveland?
"If there was an opportunity for me to return," he says, "and those fans welcome me back, that'd be a great story."
Cleveland... Ohio? Where fans at this very moment are burning his jerseys? Where fans are selling toilet paper made from his jerseys?
"Maybe the ones burning my jersey," he says, "were never LeBron fans anyway."
It's six days after The Decision, his accidental mockumentary, his one-man job fair. I'm speaking with him by phone, the third time I've interviewed him in the past nineteen days. Two face-to-face meetings, now this postmortem. Though the world is still booing him, he sounds relaxed, at peace. When I ask what he'd change, what he'd do differently, he says cheerily: "Nothing at all." He reminds me that $2.5 million from The Decision went to the Boys & Girls Clubs, one of his favorite causes: "When I found out I had an opportunity to do that for those kids, it was a no-brainer for me."
I believe him. I know what it sounds like when he's bullshitting me—he's done plenty of that in the past nineteen days—and this sounds real. Still, I press. The backlash, the firestorm, surely he'd change something. What about his shirt, a Ralph Lauren lavender gingham that many didn't care for? Maybe the host, Jim Gray? He laughs. "I might let you host the next one."
We both laugh. Now he's laughing louder, from the gut, and he sounds like a big kid, which is how he struck me the first time we met. Maybe that's why it all unfolded this way. Kids get into all kinds of trouble. Especially during the summer.
Especially this summer, when everyone was in trouble, beginning with a four-star general who fell on his sword on the solstice. This was a summer of rash statements and harsh consequences, of creeping anomie and Ovidian metamorphoses. A formerly despised Cleveland native fell, then somehow ascended to heaven as a saint. George Steinbrenner, that is. The other Clevelander who underwent a complete reversal this summer, who nearly swallowed the summer whole, was LeBron James. Despite all that can be said about summer 2010, despite all that will yet be said, this will be remembered by many as the Summer of LeBron, the summer of his breathtaking swan dive down the likability index, landing him somewhere between Tiger Woods and Tony Hayward.
In modern parlance the most popular way to describe a fuckup—PR gaffe, celebrity addict, war without exit strategy—is "train wreck." But as America waited for James to make his decision, as fans and nonfans debated the metrics and vectors involved, as 13 million tuned in to watch James slooowly decide on Miami, you could actually see the cow wander onto the tracks, hear the brakes screeching, feel the cars decoupling and the caboose go flying.
Why? The mystery that preceded The Decision (Where will he go?) is now replaced by a deeper mystery: Why is everyone so mad? The Decision was seen as self-regard run amok, a tone-deaf celebration of Me Me Me. But if self-regard were a crime, every other actor and athlete would be in jail. Why did James, so compelling, so coveted in the days leading up to his decision, become so radioactive after? His handlers were said to be trying to build his brand. He's branded all right. He's Hester Prynne in a headband.
Again, how come? One ESPN exec sees it as mass displacement and projection. Everyone reacted badly because they saw Cleveland as a cross between Sandra Bullock, Elin Nordegren, and Elizabeth Edwards. "People really loved this guy. But he basically drove to Greenwich, Connecticut, and broke up with his girlfriend on live TV, and that didn't sit well."
In fact, he broke up with many girlfriends. Millions. Fans saw James—handsome, talented, rich—as the ultimate prize. A real catch. They wanted to get with him. They called him, friended him, texted him, showed up on his doorstep. When he chose that bitch from South Beach, they lost it, as jilted contestants on reality shows usually do. Pulling away in the limo, hair askew, mascara running, America wailed and said a bunch of stuff that had to be bleeped.
That's the kind of summer it was.
I'm in Manhattan, deep inside a warehouse on the Hudson, walking toward a thumping bass that makes my clavicle vibrate. I open a large metal door and enter a kind of airplane hangar where thirty people are dancing around one man as if he's a Maypole. They're posing him, dressing him, covering him with special powders and spritzing him with love. They're the pros, the people who specialize in making celebrities feel celebrated, and today, June 25, they're going all out, because this is the man of the hour, the talk of the nation, the most coveted free agent in the history of the NBA.
Clearly James enjoys this moment, this attention. Watching him, I think of a line from Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth-century intellectual: For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life. James is the glaring exception to this rule. The self-crowned King is cashing in on his precocity, big-time, and he hasn't yet paid a single karmic piper. Suddenly his publicist whirls into my line of vision. A trim, well-dressed man in his early fifties who keeps his hair and his answers short, he says the shoot is running long. The interview will be delayed.
I buy a cup of coffee and wait with James's book, Shooting Stars, a memoir of his fierce bond with four friends—his fellow starters on his high school basketball team back in Akron, his hometown. Before their freshman year, James and his friends decided not to attend Buchtel, where every African-American student in the neighborhood went. Instead they enrolled at St. Vincent—St. Mary, a predominantly white Catholic school. They liked the basketball coach at St. Vincent better.
For this brazen defection the boys endured vicious taunts and abuse. People called them traitors, said they were betraying their own kind. James and his friends didn't care. They wanted to win, they wanted to be together. The chapter of James's book that chronicles this difficult, unpopular decision is called "The Decision."
Written with Buzz Bissinger, Shooting Stars skirts the most painful parts of James's early years. As the only child of a single mother—Gloria, who gave birth at 16—James grew up poor, alone, never knowing his father. At first he and his mother lived with his grandmother in a big, roomy house, but when James was almost 3, his grandmother died. Heart attack. Christmas Day. (When I ask him later to pick the angriest he's ever been, he picks that day.)
With little education and scant work, Gloria couldn't hang on to the house. She and James hit the streets, moving constantly, and when James was in the fourth grade he essentially stopped attending school. He also spent many nights by himself, praying for his mother to come home. Sometimes she disappeared for days. "I became afraid that one day I would wake up and she would be gone forever," James writes. "It's all I really cared about when I was growing up, waking up and knowing that my mom was still alive and still by my side."
One day Gloria came home and delivered hard news. Until she could right herself, she was sending James to live with the family of his peewee football coach. The change was traumatic but stabilizing. With a permanent home, James reconnected in school and excelled at sports. It can't be coincidence that this was the moment he discovered basketball, finding his way into a traveling league.
In time James's mother reclaimed him. They moved into the projects and managed to stay put until James graduated from high school. Today James lives minutes from those projects, in an eleven-bedroom, 35,000-square-foot house with its own bowling alley. His mother lives nearby in a house he bought her. "He's utterly, totally devoted to her," Bissinger says.
I'm summoned back to the airplane hangar. James is almost ready. The publicist asks if it would be okay to do the interview here. He points to a couch at the epicenter of all the action. Here? With all these people running around? No, I say, apologetic, that won't work. We need privacy, a room with two chairs, maybe even a door. The publicist looks pained, as if I'm asking for a weeklong hiking trip with James in the woods of Maine.
We go around the warehouse, inspecting rooms. We look at one room that's like a crypt, only more confining. We look at another that's airier but reeks of paint fumes. I vote for the paint-fume room. The publicist says no, but not because of the fumes. It's too private, he says. Before I can process this odd remark, he suggests a patio outside the warehouse. There are two sofas, or divans—they might even be beds. Fine, I say.
James appears. He wears shorts, a sleeveless formfitting shirt, and extra-large black sunglasses. In his right hand he holds a jeroboam of Vitaminwater, the largest bottle of Vitaminwater I've ever seen, which makes sense, since he's six feet eight, north of 260 pounds. But numbers alone can't convey his synthesis of dense mass and lithe movement, of pinpoint balance and dormant power. They can't convey the size of his delts, each one like an overinflated football. He eases himself down onto one of the sofa/divan/beds. I take the other. So, I say, are you feeling stressed-out about your pending decision?
Oh no, he says. "It's a very exciting time for me." It feels great to be in full control of his future, he says. And being in control, he adds, means keeping heart and head separate. "My emotions won't be involved and will not affect what my decision will ultimately be."
His circle of friends includes some heavyweights. Warren Buffett, Michael Jordan, Jay-Z. What do they say about his decision? What recommendations have they made?
I look at him, dubious.
"I respect them for that," he says. "You know, my family and friends have never been yes-men: 'Yes, you're doing the right thing, you're always right.' No, they tell me when I'm wrong, and that's why I've been able to stay who I am and stay humble."
Lately he's come in for some humbling flak. Fans have questioned his will to win. His Cavs were favored to make the Finals this year; instead they bowed to the Celtics, with James just not looking like himself. He had a bad elbow, of course, which caused flashes of numbness and pain. But some fans diagnosed a more sinister disorder. They thought James looked distracted, as if he'd already left Cleveland in his mind.
James didn't make it easy on himself at the time by snapping to reporters, "I spoil a lot of people with my play." I ask him about the remark. He doesn't back off it. "I love our fans. Cleveland fans are awesome. But I mean, even my family gets spoiled at times watching me doing things that I do, on and off the court."
Spoiled people—he doesn't understand them. He was raised to suck it up, do without, be quiet about disappointment. "That's what keeps me humble, because I know my background, know what my mother went through. I never get too high on my stardom or what I can do. My mom always says, and my friends say, 'You're just a very low-maintenance guy.' "
Low maintenance? A quality not associated with too many NBA stars. I mention Kobe Bryant, who flies to home games in a private helicopter. No one can accuse Kobe of being low-maintenance, and yet—
James interrupts me by pulling down his enormous sunglasses and giving me a look that says: No one is less low-maintenance than Kobe. He slides his glasses back up his nose and doesn't elaborate.
The greatest players use anger as fuel. Michael Jordan played every night with something like road rage. Bryant resented Shaquille O'Neal, then resented the world for persecuting him about Colorado. The greats have chips on their shoulders, whereas James seems to have nothing on his but those football-sized delts. Maybe he doesn't have enough anger? Maybe he's too good at repressing his anger?
"Are you a sports psychologist?" he asks.
No. But he's conceded in the past that he might not have the killer instinct of Kobe. That still true?
"I hope not," he says. "I don't think so. I think I've gotten to a point now in my career where I do feel like I have a killer instinct."
Just a theory, I say. In his line of work, it seems like anger equals success.
"That's an awesome theory," he says.
Some truth to it?
All right, I say, suddenly feeling very much like a psychologist. Maybe we'll revisit this topic during our next session, in Akron....
I ask about his mother. He smiles. "She doesn't hold her tongue. If she sees something that she believes isn't right or is right, she's going to speak about it."
There's no telling Gloria what to do, he adds. James has been begging her not to get a tattoo, and just the other day she got one.
What does it say?
Whoa. I want to ask how his girlfriend, Savannah, feels about that. If Mom is queen, what does that make the mother of James's two sons, LeBron junior, 5, and Bryce, 3? I also want to ask how Savannah feels about his pending decision, and dozens more questions, but here comes the publicist. Time.
Logically, it doesn't add up, this hysteria. We're supposed to judge athletes the way we age trees, by counting their rings. James has none, and yet we still call him King. Kobe has five rings, half the Spurs have three, but every fan and GM is ready to donate a kidney if the ringless James will wear their jersey next year.
Maybe it's all about potential. Nothing thrills us—gold rushes, IPOs, door number 3—like potential, and James has been a big bundle of latency since he was 12. As the best high school player anyone ever saw, he was the first pick of the 2003 draft, and quickly legitimized all the hullabaloo by leading the hapless Cavs back to the playoffs, then to their first-ever Finals. The league's MVP last season and the one before, he's more than valuable, he's a basketball polymath: a shooter who defends, a scorer who passes, a big who moves. He can dance around the arc like a pre-propofol Michael Jackson, or rumble down the lane like a lumberjack in a monster truck. His game has flaws, of course, but they only make his potential more exciting. Imperfect as he is, he posts triple doubles with ease. Once he matures—he's only 25—who knows? Double triples?
In 2006, Cleveland did the obvious, offering James a max deal, five years, $80 million. James, preferring to keep his options open, asked for a shorter deal, and thus tipped over the LeBron Free Agency Hourglass, which has been losing sand, and causing hysteria, ever since. Only a few grains are left as I arrive in Cleveland at the start of July.
James's decision hovers in the humid air. Poland must have felt this way in the summer of 1939. Except it's not an invasion Cleveland fears, but a departure.
My second interview with James is at the University of Akron basketball arena. The publicist meets me in the lobby and says the interview will take place in the gym while James watches his NBA friends scrimmage with some high schoolers. Other than the median on I-40, I can't think of a more ridiculous place for an interview.
Okay, the publicist says wearily, I get it.
We begin looking at rooms. I wonder if the publicist feels the irony: While James can't decide on a team, we can't decide on a room. Then, eureka, we walk into a quiet room where the A/C is on full blast and the windows look onto the lovely campus. Perfect.
No, the publicist says. This won't work. LeBron's never been in this room before.
He doesn't like rooms he's never been in before.
You can't be—
He doesn't like to be in a strange room with a stranger.
But I'm not a—
It's not you, that's just how he is. And another thing: This room is too big. I've known him for five years; he will not be comfortable in this room.
I remember a story about Napoleon: He agreed to a portrait, then wouldn't sit still for the painter.
The publicist takes me to the locker room, which smells of old jockstraps. Actually, it smells like one giant jockstrap the size of a hammock. But James has been here before, so he'll be comfortable. And there's a TV, so he can watch the World Cup while we talk.
The publicist lowers his voice confidentially: Ask about Chicago.
And New York.
He's going to play for three teams next year?
LeBron has said that his decision will be a basketball decision.
Ask him about that. But don't tell him I told you.
Told me what? Did I miss something?
It's futile to ask the publicist straight out for the inside dope on James's decision. So I play coy, tell him I have a feeling James is going to the Knicks. His eyes widen.
The Knicks, then?
He shakes his head. The whole Dwyane Wade—Chris Bosh thing, he says—it's not going to happen.
I'm getting dizzy.
In walks James, looking beat. He's an inveterate napper, takes one before every game, and he looks as if he's skipped a few siestas lately. He flops onto a black leather couch, checks his BlackBerry. I tell him I appreciate him making time. I know he'd rather be out in the gym with his friends. I wait for him to say, "Don't worry about it." He doesn't.
In the past week he's been courted by delegations from six teams: Miami, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland. Someone close to James says every team talked about winning—except Cleveland, which talked about home, even employing photos of James's family. I ask about the process.
"Tiring," he says. "A lot of information. You know, you go from one team that tells you this, and you go to another team that tells you that, so it's a lot of information that's built up into your hard drive."
And still, he insists, the hard drive hasn't spit out an answer. He also repeats that he's making this decision alone, without recommendations from anyone. I don't believe him.
I ask about his physical health. He played basketball yesterday for the first time in seven weeks and looked good. But he iced down his elbow afterward. Should people read anything into that?
"No, it's more about proactive than reactive. I go out there and get a hard workout, and I know the elbow is not 100 percent healthy. It feels great, but I'm not going to wait until it hurts to start icing it." (Mike Mancias, his trainer, won't discuss the elbow's status: "We're kind of keeping that under wraps.")
More than his elbow, people continue to question his will. Again, the playoffs. Why did he stand around? "I've never been standing around," he says. "That's not me. Even if I tried, I couldn't do it. The fact that me and you are sitting here right now by ourselves is an uncomfortable feeling."
Standing around in the playoffs, sitting with me in a locker room—I don't get the connection. And yet I still feel compelled to apologize. "No, it's okay," he says, and now he's the one sounding apologetic. He murmurs, "I like being around people."
I know, I say, taken aback by his downcast face. The fatherless boy who sat alone nights, listening to sirens and gunfire, wondering if his mother would come home, grows up to be a man who doesn't like to be alone. Worse, he can't bear to be alone in a room with some random stranger firing questions. Questions like the one I'm building up to: Do you ever think about your father?
Before I can ask it, his sons burst in. They leap onto the couch with James, who brightens and says if they want to stay through this interview, they need to be quiet. The 5-year-old doesn't like the sound of that one bit. Nor does his 3-year-old brother. "Stay and be quiet," James says, "or go outside and be loud. Which is it?"
"Loud," LeBron junior says.
"All right. Go."
Quick as they appeared, they scamper away.
Does being a father make him think about his old man?
"No," he says dully. He stares at the soccer game. When the subject is delicate, difficult, his voice becomes vacant. A flat effect, Bissinger calls it. "I'm not downgrading my father or blasting him," he says, "because I don't know what he may have been going through at the time. I'm not one of those to judge without knowing. I was too young to understand."
He feels no anger, he adds. "Without him, first of all, I wouldn't be here in this world. And then, secondly, I may have got a lot of genes from him, and that's part of the reason why I am who I am today.... I mean, it's not all anger. It's not all anger at all."
Would he like to meet his father?
"Right now? At 25? No."
In some ways the one true patriarch of James's boyhood was Jordan. James grew up worshipping Jordan. Not admiring, not emulating—worshipping. Photos of Jordan covered one entire wall of his cell-like bedroom. But, loyalty-wise, how did it work? How could a kid from around here worship Jordan, who stuck a knife in Cleveland's carotid every year?
James explains that he's not from Cleveland, he's from Akron, thirty minutes south. "It's not far, but it is far. And Clevelanders, because they were the bigger-city kids when we were growing up, looked down on us.... So we didn't actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There's a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day."
I go into the gym and sit on a folding chair with some NBA scouts. James's sons appear, carrying a basketball between them. They begin playing one-on-one in the half-court nearest me. The game is lopsided. And dangerous. LeBron junior repeatedly fouls his little brother, Bryce. Hard fouls. Flagrant fouls. When he wants the ball, he throws Bryce onto the floor, rips it away, then looks around to see if there are any witnesses.
In matching outfits of camouflage shorts and white tank tops, the boys might be the most exquisitely beautiful children I've ever seen. Each glows, shines with health, and each is an obvious, incipient basketball prodigy. The rim stands several stories above their heads, but their aim is true.
Bryce catches my eye and freezes. He sprints toward me. In a flash he's against my leg, laughing up into my face. He takes my forearm in his soft little hand.
What's your name?
That your brother over there?
Which of you is the better basketball player?
He aims a thumb the size of a baby carrot at himself.
I start to ask another question, but he fast-breaks away. Like father...
I step outside the gym and talk with Romeo Travis, who played forward on James's national-championship-winning high school team. Travis and the team's other three standouts remain James's closest friends. Most had father issues as boys—distant father, absent father, bullying father—but Travis learned from James to play through the pain. "I was angry all the time," he says, "and [LeBron] definitely showed me there's no point in just being angry. Anger is only hurting you."
James staved off his anger, Travis says, by using coaches and teammates as surrogates. "It was like a mesh that really kind of helped him—not really resolve not having a father, but kind of eased the pain a little."
Whatever pain is left over, Travis says, they don't talk about it. The bond among the high school crew has always been largely nonverbal. "Everything doesn't need to be discussed. We know we have problems.... We just want to share. 'Hey, man, you want to come over and watch a game? Let's go see a movie.' You know, just anything, just so you're not alone and you don't have to sit there with that."
Back in the gym, I bump into the publicist. He leans toward me. James is going to announce his decision the day after tomorrow, he says. July 8.
I'd like to be there when it happens, I say.
He looks around to make sure no one is listening. Fly to New York, he whispers, and await further instructions.
Fly to New York and—what?
He says again: Await further instructions.
New York? So it is the Knicks?
The publicist somehow manages to shake his head no and nod yes at the same time.
Is something happening in New York?
He shakes his head.
Then why am I going there? And what am I supposed to do once I get there? Exchange briefcases with a Russian operative?
Call me when you land, the publicist whispers, and I'll tell you where to go next.
Next? You mean, another city?
I can't say, he whispers. And don't tell anyone what I've just told you.
Not a problem.
The next morning, I turn on the TV and learn that James will announce his decision in a live one-hour special on ESPN. I e-mail the publicist to ask if I should fly to Connecticut, where ESPN is based. He instantly shoots back an e-mail: No! LaGuardia.
I stare at the e-mail. Why would he specify which airport? Is that significant? Why not JFK? Or Newark? Is there some hidden clue in his two-word message? A LeBronci Code? No! LaGuardia. I rearrange the letters. Lunar Adagio! Again, Our Lad! I decide to just do as I'm told.
I land in New York. An e-mail is waiting from the publicist. James will make his announcement at the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich at 9 P.M. I hire a car and leave in the early afternoon, by which time everyone is reporting that James will sign with Miami.
Which makes sense. In fact, perfect sense. James has told me repeatedly that he won't base his decision on emotions, but it appears he's based it on the deepest emotions of all, the emotions of adolescence, of being among trusted friends on a "superteam" that couldn't lose. High school might have been the only time in James's life that he felt wholly safe, and his hunger to rekindle that time has clearly trumped other considerations.
James has done everything possible to carry his high school experience forward. His St. Vincent's teammates travel with him, party with him, and always have his back. At some point, however, he must have realized that wasn't enough. His high school teammates couldn't take the floor with him every night, couldn't help him win a championship as they once did. He needed to clone them, create surrogates on the NBA level. It wasn't possible with anyone on Cleveland's roster, apparently, or any other team's. Only Wade and Bosh—who came into the league with James, bonded with him at All-Star Games, won gold with him in Beijing—provided that special combination of chemistry and talent.
Though I take James at his word that he wants to win championships, what he also wants is friends. Family. He can't be alone.
He certainly won't be alone at the Boys & Girls Club. Inside are scores of VIPs, ESPN employees, and kids, most of whom are wolfing down pizzas in a rec room. A few shy ones are hiding in a small gym, shooting baskets. I ask if they want to play H-O-R-S-E. They stare. They've never heard of the game.
The sharpshooter in the group is Gabby Laccona, 11, a girl with big brown eyes and thick brown hair wrestled into a ponytail. She has an unerring midrange jumper, of which she tries to pretend she's not proud. She says softly that, yes, she's the best player on her youth-league team and, no, the boys don't tease her. "Girls," she says, "are much meaner."
During the summer months, Gabby spends all day, every day, at the Boys & Girls Club near her house in Stamford. The club saved her life, she says, because until she found it, she was forced to spend every day with Grandma. She loves Grandma, "but all we'd do is watch TV." Now she can play sports, which are her reason for existence. "If there was no sports," she says, "I would be, like, nowhere."
Blake Guerrieri, 10, agrees. "If sports weren't invented," he says, "I'd spend all my time daydreaming about if there were sports."
I ask them and half a dozen of their friends if they like James. No. They love him. They have his jersey, shoes, etc., and they're not worried about needing to buy new ones. Gabby predicts with supreme confidence that James will stay with the Cavs. It's the only decision that makes sense to her.
Gradually the building fills with more kids and reps from James's many sponsors, including Vitaminwater. A man sets up enormous drums of iced Vitaminwater and urges the kids to help themselves. Once the kids have had their fill, an official from the Boys & Girls Club herds them into the main gym and arranges them on some bleachers as background for the night's drama. In the foreground are two director's chairs.
Minutes before nine, James arrives. With him are his advisers; his girlfriend, Savannah; and Kanye West. Kanye West? While James is dressed casually—gingham shirt, dark jeans, beige basketball shoes—West is a hip-hop Hef. Black blazer, black pants, multihued bedroom slippers. His black sunglasses are so dark he can't possibly see the person to whom he's talking. He aims a Ray Charles smile at a spot just beside them.
The entourage stands just outside the gym, waiting to be called. James begins jumping in place, shaking his limbs, like a prizefighter before being led into the ring. He sees me and points. I point back. He jokes with Savannah, then playfully chases her around the room. When someone from ESPN says it's time, he grabs Savannah, gives her a hug and kiss, and tells her: "Wish me luck." She does. Then he shows her his teeth and asks her to make sure he doesn't have food caught between his incisors. She gives him the all clear and pushes him into the gym.
He takes one of the director's chairs, and Jim Gray, whom he's known for years, climbs into the other. A makeup artist blots the sweat from each man's forehead. It's boiling hot in the gym. Someone should blot the kids.
The show starts. Without needing to be told, everyone falls silent. James and his decision are being discussed by analysts in the ESPN main studio, but neither audio nor video are piped into the gym, so for one minute, three minutes, ten, it's cathedral quiet. Finally the stage manager cues Gray, who asks James a series of icebreaker questions, which no one in the gym can hear.
Then Gray throws it back to the studio.
The break stretches on and on. Twenty-two minutes after the hour, we're back, and Gray comes to the Question. What's your decision? James frowns, waits. "In this fall," he says, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."
The kids groan. Gabby's mouth falls open. Huh? Blake looks confused. Miami? Did he say Miami? The mob outside starts booing.
James seems to be speaking from the heart, off the cuff, and that's not a good thing. He should have rehearsed. There were so many other, better ways to put his announcement. The same goes for what he says next, and next, about the fans and his future—and especially about Cleveland. ("It's hard to explain. My heart in the seven years that I gave to that franchise, to that city, was everything.") The people close to him should have run lines with him. Maybe there wasn't time. But if half the energy put into protecting James, into keeping his decision a secret, had been put into prepping him, the whole thing might have played better.
I sneak out of the gym and find the publicist in the office of the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. He's eating chocolates, looking as if he's just passed a kidney stone. I ask why they chose to stage The Decision in Greenwich.
Neutral location, he says.
Neutral? In the heart of Knicks country? Half the people in that gym wanted him to play for the Knicks.
I have many more questions, but a man comes rushing into the office, somewhat breathless, and says something needs to be done. Right now.
What's the matter?
The kids, he says. They've been trapped in that hot gym for an hour, unable to move, and they're full of Vitaminwater.
They need to pee. Bad.
Freud said we're all narcissists at heart. We're hardwired at birth for narcissism, but we fight it, repress it. That's why we're fascinated by outward displays of it. Children, criminals, humorists, and cats, he said, possess a shameless self-regard that compels our attention, "as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind."
Had he witnessed the aftermath of The Decision, Freud would have eaten his cigar. Americans fascinated by narcissism? They have a funny way of showing it. Within seconds of The Decision comes a landslide of derision. Sportswriters, bloggers, tweeters, pundits, comedians, cabdrivers—half the world accuses James of showing insufferable self-importance, though at least half his critics sound equally self-important.
Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cavs, issues a screed written in blood, which reads like a page from the shooting script of Fatal Attraction. John Mayer weighs in from wherever he's been hiding since making racially and sexually offensive remarks and extolling the wonders of his penis in an interview last February. (When John Mayer is on you for being a narcissist, you've got problems.) If he's not being called a narcissist, James is being mocked for having too little ego, for abdicating his monarchy to become a Miami oligarch. Jordan says it. Reggie Miller says it. Charles Barkley says it. "If I was 25," Barkley says, "I would want to make sure I was the Guy.... LeBron is never going to be the Guy."
James says the criticism from former players was expected. "Charles was probably trying to be funny," he says. Then he adds darkly: "It wasn't funny to me."
I call Maverick Carter, James's longtime friend and manager, days after The Decision. He sounds baffled and woozy, like a science buff who was mixing chemicals in the garage and accidentally blew up the neighborhood. "How did it get so big?" he asks plaintively. "I've been thinking in my mind of the Malcolm Gladwell book—what was the tipping point?"
Carter says the whole thing started with Gray, who wasn't paid a penny, all of which Gray confirms. The idea, Gray says, first occurred to him when he saw Carter and Ari Emanuel, head of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, courtside at Game 2 of the NBA Finals. "I asked, 'Could I do the first interview with LeBron once he's signed with his new team? Better yet,' I said, 'we go buy an hour of network TV time and have your announcement of where LeBron's going to play on live TV.' As soon as I got that out of my mouth, Ari said, 'Brilliant idea.' And Maverick said, 'We won't take any of the money. We'll make a big contribution to charity.' Then it took on a life of its own."
Carter and Emanuel went to ABC, Gray says, "and it went from there to ESPN." (ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney.)
James doesn't really care how it happened, or what's happened since. He made the right decision, he says. He knows it, and the people around him know it. "They're happy to see me happy," he says. "That's what they can see in my face. They say: 'It's been a while since we've seen you look like that.' "
In fact, anyone can see it. It's right there, on the video, as he's being presented to Miami, amid strobe lights and pink smoke. He and Wade and Bosh come onstage, smiling, strutting, and no one notices that James is doing a very specific strut, a crouched-over duckwalk he used to do years ago—when he took the court with his high school teammates.
Even James isn't aware. When I point it out, he sounds stunned.
Bissinger studied those first images from Miami, and he watched the first news conference. "When I saw the look on his face sitting there with Wade and Bosh, for all the anger everyone has, it was clear LeBron had died and gone to heaven," he says. "Pop psychology is always dangerous, but he really is replicating his high school experience."
The one sad thing in this otherwise euphoric moment, James says, is the ugly stuff being said about his game. "People questioning how much I love the game. That's never been something I haven't cherished. Every night on the court I give my all, and if I'm not giving 100 percent, I criticize myself."
Though he can imagine one day returning to play for the Cavs, he's thinking more about facing them next year. He wants to play well—really well. "I do have motivation," he says ominously. "A lot of motivation."
It's not the fans he wants to show, but that man in the owner's box. "I don't think he ever cared about LeBron. My mother always told me: 'You will see the light of people when they hit adversity. You'll get a good sense of their character.' Me and my family have seen the character of that man."
The decision to leave Cleveland was painful, he says again. "It touched my heart. I understood that a lot of people would be hurt." Then he read Gilbert's letter and it worked like Novocain. "It made me feel more comfortable that I made the right decision."
Given the bad blood, the bitterness, can he possibly continue to live in Ohio?
"I'm in Akron as we speak!" he says cheerfully. "I'm going to spend a lot of the summer here. This is my home. Akron, Ohio, is my home. I will always be here. I'm still working out at my old high school."
He worked out this morning, in fact.
And how did they receive him at his beloved alma mater?
"Awesome," he says. "They love me. They're going to support me no matter what."
J. R. MOEHRINGER, author of the memoir The Tender Bar, profiled Kobe Bryant in the March 2010 issue.