Here’s the thing about LeBron James: You don’t actually have to see him on a basketball court to know he’s different than everyone else. All you really have to do is close your eyes and listen.
The Heat’s practice gym inside AmericanAirlines Arena, located on the second floor of the northeast side of the building, is a bandbox of sound during team workouts. Shoes chirp against the hardwood. Basketballs, dozens of them sometimes, pound the court and carom off backboards and rims in an unmetered symphony of percussion. The shrill cry of coach Erik Spoelstra’s whistle bounces from wall to floor and fills even the space between spaces.
Then there is James’ voice, a deep and constant backbeat for this basketball song. He shouts commands during practice like an officer commanding his troops. He instructs young players, corrects mistakes, positions the defense, praises effort and demands excellence.
You know how sometimes a person’s voice doesn’t exactly match their body? Mike Tyson, for example. That is not James. His booming vocals are every bit as big as his game. How he uses that gift, according to his teammates, is almost as important to the Heat’s success as his prodigious body, his unique blend of skills and his freakish blend of speed and power.
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“His voice challenges you to be louder,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “He sets the tone every day whether he knows it or not.
“If he’s quiet, guys are usually going to be quiet. If he’s loud, guys are going to be loud, and that’s important on defense.”
James’ ability as a communicator, bolstered by that powerful voice, is but one asset in the diverse portfolio of his leadership traits. His skills as a leader magnify his talents as a basketball player. It’s his combination of leadership and game — the mix of what is statistically quantifiable and what is intangibly just as important — that makes him the best basketball player on the planet. James now enters his 10th season in the NBA clutching the world in his powerful hands.
Much of the foundation of what makes James such a distinguished leader comes naturally — that voice, his charismatic personality, his compassionate heart, his love of family. Just look at his inner circle of friends. He has cared for them like brothers — given them jobs and purpose — ever since he joined the league as a teenager.
But just as James has developed his moves and skills on the court, and just as he has crafted his body with workouts and a healthy diet, so, too, has James cultivated his skills as a leader.
For instance, here’s James’ biggest take away from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:
“As a commander, and as a man that’s in control, a leader has to not only be prepared, but he has to make sure everyone else is prepared as well,” James said. “As a leader, sometimes you get so involved in what you need to do individually, sometimes you can misunderstand how important it is to have everyone else prepared as well — even to the highest standard that you’re at. Because when you’re going to war, when you’re going into combat, preparing everyone to the highest standard makes the cohesiveness and the togetherness much better.”
And, with that, good luck to the rest of the league. James has graduated to the rank of a four-star basketball general. For opponents of the defending champs, storming the beaches of Miami will take more than mere talent this season. James learned that the hard way in June of 2011, and he’s not about to forget it.
“You have to understand the big picture to be able to look outside yourself and see what’s best for the team, and LeBron does,” Spoelstra said. “He’s able to lead by his voice — and he has a powerful voice — but when you back it up with your actions it makes it that much more powerful.”
For Spoelstra, James’ willingness to alter his game — moving inside to power forward at times to exploit mismatches — has been the ultimate sign of James’ maturity as a player and growth as a man.
James came to the Heat primarily an inside-out player, a small forward. In 2010, that position clashed too often with Dwyane Wade’s role. After losing to the Mavericks, James reevaluated himself and his place among his teammates and began developing his inside game.
And now? Now James is working on a skyhook. He has come a long way from the player who too often settled for isolation plays and heat checks from behind the three-point line.
James’ development inside has allowed Spoelstra to shirk the conventional basketball standards of team building. He is calling his latest incantation “positionless” basketball, but it wouldn’t be possible if James wasn’t dedicated to providing the Heat with an inside presence beyond Bosh.
“There are many times when LeBron will think the game equivalent to a coach,” Spoelstra said. “And it never ceases to surprise me when he thinks the game at that level — that he understands the importance of leading by example to earn that trust.”
Of course, offense is secondary to Spoelstra. Defense is his game, and it’s on the defensive end where James’ role as a leader and his versatility as a “positionless” basketball player is most valued.
“You can only do it if you’ve got a guy who can guard five positions,” Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said of the Heat’s small-ball approach. “LeBron James is a unique freak.”
James is so good defensively, in fact, that Wade sometimes jokes all he has to do is sit back and protect the weak side of the rim from time to time.
Wade calls James the quarterback of the Heat’s defense.
“Offense is just flowing,” Wade said. “The offense runs itself. The defense is more effort in a sense. In offense you just got to move the ball. Defense you got to move your legs, move your body, move your voice box.
“You got to do a lot of different things more so on the defensive end.”
And James does them all.
It’s funny that Wade refers to James as the team’s quarterback. Some of James’ biggest role models include Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. James studies the way they command a huddle, how they lead their players. Ray Lewis is also one of James’ biggest influences. Basketball-wise, James considers Isaiah Thomas one of the greatest leaders to ever play the game.
“He didn’t back down from anyone,” James said of the leader of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys 20 years ago. “He was always the smallest guy on the floor, but everyone respected him. His teammates respected him and he was always a leader of that team, and he carried them to the biggest height they could get to.
“He never just let his game do the talking. He also let his voice command as well.”
Thomas reached out to James after the 2011 Finals. He wanted James to know he was on the right path, that he was not alone, that his decision to leave Cleveland was the right one.
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“The struggle and the journey that you’re on is a champion’s struggle and a champion’s journey,” Thomas told James. “And while you’re lonely in this journey and you’re lonely in this struggle, you’re not alone in terms of people who are rooting for you.”
Now, Thomas just sits back and enjoys the ride just like everyone else.
“He has reached the level of completeness in his game that now he’s never playing against the opponent, he’s now playing against the game itself,” Thomas said. “Right now, where he’s at in terms of his growth and maturity, it’s now about mastering the game. It’s not about the opponent anymore.”