03.10.11

King James Can't Handle the Pressure

In his defining NBA season, the Miami Heat superstar keeps missing game-winning shots and failing to step up as a team leader. A lifetime of being idolized has made LeBron James psychologically soft, writes Buzz Bissinger.

The biggest problem facing LeBron James isn’t whether or not he cried in the Miami Heat’s loss Sunday to the Chicago Bulls after missing a game-winning layup. It isn’t that the supposedly seamless mesh between James and Dwyane Wade has become a confusing mush in which the only solution may be to let the Heat play offense with two balls so both can shoot whenever they want. It isn’t the fact that the Heat are shooting 1-for-18 in the final 10 seconds to win or tie a game.

James’ problem is far more overreaching than all of that.

For the first time in his life he is under true pressure to perform. But James doesn’t know pressure. And there is no reason he would, given the way he has been treated, a lifetime of idolization now routinely resulting in last-second self-immolation.

Ever since he first touched a basketball as a kid, virtually everyone around him has been terrified—terrified to coach him because of his gifts, terrified to get in his face, terrified to get him to work on aspects of his game that still need work.

The result is a player who is psychologically soft, not a leader, still a cut-up kid masked by the physical maturity of his body, always placed on a pedestal by his coaches and teammates even when he deserves to be knocked off and dressed down and told that he has the stuff of a loser, not a winner.

The evidence of that is glaring this season: in a recent span of 11 days he has missed four game-winning shots in the final seconds. He can still own a game unlike anyone else, and in the final five minutes of close contests had the best statistics in the league last year, according to 82games.com. But when it comes to final-second game winners, this year in particular has been a disaster because more is at stake for James than ever before. If James was crying after the loss to the Bulls, it may well stem from a creeping fear that he cannot be counted on when it counts the most.

It is what happens when you are ordained with immortality from the time you are 9 years old. It is what happens when you land on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. It is what happens when up until this season, all you ever basically hear about yourself in the National Basketball Association is your brilliance.

If James was crying after the loss to the Bulls, it may well stem from a creeping fear that he cannot be counted on when it counts the most.

He is the byproduct of too many men on tippy-toes on the sidelines watching him with their mouths agape. By bypassing college to go directly into the NBA, he made hundreds of millions of dollars when he was still 18. That was his right. But by not going to college he not only stunted his emotional maturity, but also missed the opportunity to play under the tutelage of a Mike Krzyzewski at Duke or a Roy Williams, then of Kansas. They had coached great players in their lifetimes and they would not have coddled or cooed at him.

In the entirety of his basketball career, spanning the age of 9 to the current age of 26, James has had only one person to actually coach him. His name was Keith Dambrot, who came to James’ high school after being disgraced out of a job at the Division 1 college program of Central Michigan. As was related to me in the book I co-wrote with James in 2009, Shooting Stars about his formative years through high school, Dambrot was profane, a prick, and refused to praise James even when he was doing everything right. Dambrot knew James could play in the NBA, and he felt it was his responsibility to draw every ounce of talent out of him, not simply for James’ sake but also his own.

Dambrot coached for only two years at St. Vincent-St. Mary before leaving for an assistant’s job at the University of Akron. When he departed, so did any real challenge to James as a player.

As for being a team leader, the very notion is a joke. James doesn’t have the presence; his affect is flat and dull, eager to avoid confrontation because of a difficult childhood in the Akron projects in which his only goal was to stay away from trouble. For all the endless hype, he wasn’t even a leader on his high school team. The role belonged to a fiery point guard name Dru Joyce III, who routinely got into fights with teammates during practice. James was a silly kid, fond of passing gas with booming impact.

In going to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was the prodigal son playing in his homeland. The team was lousy when he got there in 2003. There were no expectations upon him; even as the team got better and better there were still no expectations upon him. It was a perfect situation for him, an excuse in every pocket of his finely tailored trousers—“I don’t have the right teammates,” “I don’t have the right coach,” “I can’t do it all by myself.” The only moment of grumbling came last season after the Cavaliers’ loss to the Boston Celtics in the fifth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. James literally quit that night, delivering perhaps the worst playoff performance ever turned in by a superstar. There were some boos, but desperate fans of Cleveland quickly resumed praying at his feet.

Then came the much-hyped free agency, where James made a decision he may well live to regret. Instead of staying in Cleveland where he always would have been nurtured and beloved, or going to the Chicago Bulls where the fit would have been instantly better, he went to the superstarland of the Heat with Wade and Chris Bosh. Now he could not avoid pressure. It only intensified, too, because of the ridiculous way in which his free agency was handled, with James allowing himself—because of intellectual insecurity—to be pushed around by his manager and master puppeteer, Maverick Carter.

The free agency saga, culminating in the single worst hour in the history of television, The Decision on ESPN in which James announced he was going to Miami, caused me to go cold on him. He showed an arrogance I had not seen during the writing of the book, and I felt duped. I was not the only one. I felt he had no obligation to stay in Cleveland, but at least he could have thanked the folks there without appearing catatonic.

For someone who had spent his life hating to be alone and desperate to be liked, he suddenly became one of the most disliked players in the league. It has worn on him. So has the woefully inconsistent play of the Heat, great against teams with sub-.500 records but as of this week, 1 and 9 against teams with a winning percentage of .700 or better. And anyone expecting James to be the spark plug and catalyst of the Heat is woefully mistaken. He doesn’t have the innards.

This is the defining season of LeBron James. He must deliver an NBA championship. It is his eighth year and his career pivots on a pyramid. Jordan won in his eighth season. Magic Johnson won in his first. Larry Bird won in his second. They had the cast they needed and so does James. The trouser pockets are empty of excuses.

The more game-winning shots he misses, the more he gives way to the pressure, the more it seems likely that King James will never be the king of anything except the court and castle of adulation.

It makes him great. Which isn’t remotely close to greatness.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.