LeBron James sinks into a restaurant booth on the first floor of the Westin in Jersey City, N.J., and orders a chamomile tea. The sun is setting on a Saturday in the middle of April, and through the windows he can see cars snaking toward the Holland Tunnel, beckoned by the lights of New York City. "For me," says James, "this is chillin' time." It is the travel day between two back-to-backs, four games in four cities, and he is swaddled in black sweats and a red Heat baseball cap with a flat black brim. His voice is hoarse but he says he doesn't have a sore throat. He prepares the tea as if it is a science project, lifting a small jar of honey and slowly pouring it into a teaspoon he holds over the mug, until the honey is about to overflow. He lowers the spoon and gently stirs, then squeezes three lemon wedges into the tea and sucks the rinds. It is suggested that lemons are bad for his teeth. "That's O.K.," James says, easing his massive shoulders against the back of the booth. "My teeth are already terrible." He smiles wide enough to reveal almost every one.
Tranquil moments are few in the chaotic life of LeBron James. He steals them when he can, sitting on his patio in Coconut Grove, Fla., and admiring the waves on Biscayne Bay, biking across Rickenbacker Causeway with friends to Key Biscayne, watching basketball on television and flipping the channel when the announcers utter his name. Forward Shane Battier, in his first year with Miami, sounds as if he could lead a seminar at Duke deconstructing the James phenomenon. "He is a global icon, a basketball monolith, the most prevalent and recognizable athlete of our generation," says Battier. "And he's one of a kind, because he's the first to rise to prominence in the Information Age, which is why he's such a fascinating sociological observation. He's accountable every single day for every single thing, from how he plays to what he tweets to what he says in the pre- and the postgame interviews. He has a camera and a microphone on him wherever he goes, and then when he [goes out to] dinner, there's a camera phone on him. This is what he signed up for. There is a price to pay. He understands that. But I don't think a lot of guys could handle it."
James isn't just coping, he is completing one of the finest all-around seasons in the NBA's modern era. At week's end he was averaging 27.1 points with 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 53.1%. Larry Bird never shot 53.1%. His player efficiency rating of 30.6 leads the league by more than four points, and he is holding opposing small forwards to an anemic efficiency rating of 10.4, according to 82games.com. The 6'8" James is the Heat's best ball handler, passer and post scorer, but he also covers everyone from point guards to centers, sometimes in the same game. "We are asking him to play at an MVP level," says coach Erik Spoelstra, "and at a Defensive Player of the Year level." James is attempting fewer three-pointers than ever while making them at a higher clip (36.2%). He is grabbing more rebounds in part because he is spending more time inside. His game log is a litany of near triple doubles. The NBA has not witnessed such a balanced and prolific individual assault since Michael Jordan in 1988--89, two years before his first title.
Of course, James did not move to Miami and incur a nation's wrath so he could enhance his efficiency rating. He went for rings, presumably fistfuls of them. "No, not a fistful," James says. "I don't need a fistful. But I need one. I need to get one first. I have short goals—to get better every day, to help my teammates every day—but my only ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship. It's all that matters. I dream about it. I dream about it all the time, how it would look, how it would feel. It would be so amazing." As the 27-year-old James leans forward in the booth, the playoffs are two weeks away and still he is logging 35 minutes a night, even though it's clear the Heat will likely be the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and many of his peers are resting. "It's my choice," James says. "I'm looking for opportunities to get better, and if I sit out, I can't get better. This is a no-excuse season for me. I've put everything into this season."
On the night last June when the Mavericks beat the Heat in Miami for the NBA championship, James drove to his house in Coconut Grove and did not come out for two weeks. "I couldn't watch TV because every channel—doesn't matter if it was the Cartoon Channel—was talking about me and the Heat," James says. "On the Cooking Channel it was like, 'So we're going to make a turkey burger gourmet today, and LeBron James failed!'" He wanted to listen to music, but hip-hop didn't feel appropriate, so he queued up the old-school playlist on his iPod and set it in the dock in his bedroom. He wallowed to the strains of Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack. Every once in a while his mother, Gloria James, or his longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, ducked in for a pep talk. "I didn't hear what they wanted to say," James says. "I didn't care what they were talking about."
James quietly reflected on his season in the crosshairs, which started with the television special at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., and will forever be remembered for the words Take my talents. He was not the first basketball player to use that line. In 1996, in suburban Philadelphia, a precocious 17-year-old sporting a suit and sunglasses said in a press conference that he would "take my talents to the NBA." His name was Kobe Bryant. But the rancor that followed James to South Beach was unique in sports history. "As long as you act in accordance with public perception, there are no problems," says Battier. "Like if Charles Barkley gets arrested for speeding, that's not cool, but everyone seems to understand because, Hey, that's Charles. People felt like they really knew LeBron, and when he did something that went against the grain, it shocked everybody, and the public didn't really know how to deal with that."
"I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person," James says. "I got caught up in everything that was going on around me, and I felt like I had to prove something to people, and I don't know why. Everything was tight, stressed." In Cleveland, where he played seven seasons, James had the loudest laugh in the locker room. He used to bellow "Waffles!" from the back of the bus when he was hungry. He amused himself by simply transposing someone's initials. He was JeBron Lames. But in Miami, he adopted what he calls "the villain mind-set," stacking his anger on top of everyone else's. He skulked across the court, stone-faced, a glower replacing the familiar grin. Former Cavaliers coaches watched him on TV and flashed back to Game 1 of the 2007 NBA Finals in San Antonio, when they saw him seething during introductions. "That's not good," they told one another. The Spurs swept, and James sputtered for much of the series. Jubilance has always been a staple of his game.
There was only one person who could talk James out of the house. "This is what you love to do and you've been doing it at a high level for a long time, and you don't really need to change anything," James told himself. "Just get back to what you do and how you play, smiling all the time and trying to dominate at the highest level. Do it with joy and do it with fun and remember that not too long ago this was a dream for you. Playing in the NBA was the dream. Don't forget that again. Just go out and improve."
The first thing he did was get a haircut. "You think my beard is long now, it was up to here," says James, pointing to the top of his cheekbones. "I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway." He flew home to Ohio—yes, his home is still in Ohio—where he biked on his favorite off-road trail, as many as 70 miles through the hills between his house in Bath and Cleveland. He trained with his first coach at St. Vincent--St. Mary High, Keith Dambrot, who had barely worked with him since he was a rookie. "A lot of people are intimidated by LeBron, but he wants the truth," says Dambrot, now the coach at Akron. "He's not too big to take criticism. I told him, 'You have to do more things you don't want to do. You have to do more offensive and defensive rebounding, moving without the ball, all the basics that made you great going back to the beginning.'"
After the Heat acquired Cleveland State point guard Norris Cole on draft night, James invited him to Bath to work out. On a table in James's living room was a book about leadership called The Ant and the Elephant, a gift from a friend. James is not much of a reader, but he opted for the book over TV. "It's about an ant who is trying to find his way to this great place, this oasis, but the only way to get there is to train an elephant who wants to get there too," James says. "At one point the ant is on the elephant's back and they are walking through the sand and there is a pack of lions, and the elephant scares the lions off. The ant is like, I have the toughest friend in the world. But later that day the elephant sees a mouse, and he gets scared and runs away. The ant can't understand how this big creature could be so dominant over a pack of lions but so scared of a mouse. The ant has to train the elephant to let him know, You are the biggest, baddest thing out here." James pauses for a moment. As a member of a supposed juggernaut, he can relate to the ant. And as a 250-pound force of nature, he can relate to the elephant. "I took a lot from that," he says.