Pluto-Windhorst Book Details LeBron's Formative Years
In LeBron James: The Making of an MVP (Gray & Company Publishers, 156 pages, $15.95), co-authors Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst explain how both LeBron James' playing style and his overall personality traits were powerfully shaped by the timely mentoring that LeBron received during his youth from his mother Gloria, his de facto stepparents Frank and Pam Walker and several of his basketball and football coaches. Gloria James has been rightfully praised for how well she raised LeBron but Pluto and Windhorst point out that she had a good support system to help her when times were tough.
LeBron's Formative Years
Gloria James was 16 years old when she had LeBron; she and LeBron lived with her mother Freda until Freda died of a heart attack just before LeBron turned three. In the next five years, Gloria James moved approximately 10 different times according to Pluto and Windhorst. During that difficult period, Frank Walker--the coach of LeBron's peewee football team--offered to give LeBron a place to stay to ease the burden on Gloria. For the next few years, LeBron lived with the Walkers during the week and stayed with Gloria on weekends. That arrangement lasted until Gloria settled into an apartment just prior to LeBron entering the sixth grade; after that, LeBron lived with Gloria during the week but still spent some weekends with the Walkers. Thus, during a crucial stage in LeBron's development Frank Walker served as a positive adult male role model--and, just as significantly, the Walker household provided LeBron with a glimpse of a different kind of life than he otherwise would have seen, a stable environment where the kids (the Walkers had three children of their own) expected to go to college. Pluto and Windhorst note that LeBron and the Walkers speak delicately about LeBron's early years because they don't even want to appear to be saying anything negative about Gloria, who by all accounts did a tremendous job raising LeBron in very tough circumstances (the identity of LeBron's biological father has never been publicly revealed and he played no role in LeBron's upbringing).
LeBron James is certainly a highly competitive and highly driven individual but he seems to have a fundamentally different psychological makeup than Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, two NBA greats whose personalities have sharp edges and who appear to derive a lot of motivation from real or imagined slights; in contrast, LeBron has always been someone who, in the words of the Walkers, "likes to please." The Walkers provided LeBron with a steady daily routine that included chores and he willingly complied with their house rules. Frank Walker said, "LeBron has the knack of fitting in anywhere. He liked the routine of our house. He learns things quick." LeBron thrived in the classroom once he had stability in his home life, graduating from high school with a solid B average; Pluto and Windhorst write (p. 8, LeBron James: The Making of an MVP) that LeBron "was a real student athlete, one who was recruited by universities such as Duke, North Carolina and Stanford." Of course, as LeBron blossomed into the top basketball prospect in the nation it rapidly became apparent that he would forgo college to jump straight to the NBA, a decision that LeBron and Gloria made as early as when LeBron was 16, according to Pluto and Windhorst.
LeBron not only values his relationships with his mother, the Walkers and his coaches but he also treasures the bonds that he formed with teammates Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Romeo Travis; that quintet dubbed themselves the Fab 5 and after playing summer basketball together for several years on a team called the Shooting Stars they decided to attend the same high school together. It seemed likely that the then-5-2 Joyce would not receive much playing time at Buchtel High--the public high school in Akron--so the Fab 5 arrived as a package deal at private Catholic School St. Vincent-St. Mary. LeBron led the school to three state championships in basketball while also becoming a First Team All-State performer at wide receiver. LeBron feels such a loyalty to St. Vincent-St. Mary that he requested that his 2009 NBA regular season MVP award ceremony be held at the school instead of at a facility owned by the Cavs or the league.
LeBron Exceeds the Hype
I'll never forget the first time that I heard about LeBron James; one of my recreational basketball league teammates was raving about LeBron--he had just seen LeBron play in person in a high school game--but I was skeptical: my default position about high school phenoms in any sport is that it is one thing to excel versus future accountants, lawyers and businessmen but quite another thing entirely to perform at a high level against grown men who are professional athletes. There are countless examples of athletes who have failed to live up to the hype but LeBron is unique because his high school career generated almost unprecedented expectations that he has not only met but exceeded; if anyone had been set up to fail by the grinding media machine it was LeBron and yet every step of the way he has performed at a very high level on the court while conducting himself with remarkable poise off of the court. It did not take long after LeBron entered the NBA for him to erase any doubts that I had about him; after he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007 I wrote about The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James, asserting, "LeBron James is on a fast track to greatness that is unparalleled in NBA history."
Keith Dambrot, LeBron's first high school coach, offers an interesting insight about why LeBron has been so successful; it is easy to see that LeBron has an abundance of physical gifts but Dambrot says (p.61), "LeBron is a freak of nature mentally...as good as LeBron is physically, he's even better mentally. He has unbelievable knowledge of the game and instincts for the game. He would throw balls behind his head because he knew where a teammate was. He didn't have to see the guy. He knew where every kid on every play was supposed to be on the court. When he played football one year, he was the scout team quarterback in practice, running the offense for the team that his team would play that week--because LeBron could learn their offense in football so fast. When it comes to this stuff, he's just a genius."
Although LeBron won the 2005 Rookie of the Year award after joining Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as just the third first year player to average at least 20 ppg, five apg and five rpg, LeBron had to face some challenges that season; even though he helped the Cavs to more than double their win total (jumping from 17 wins to 35), he had to learn to deal with more losing than he had ever experienced before in his life: the Cavs started the season 0-5, which was quite a jolt for LeBron because, as Pluto and Windhorst explain (p. 77), "LeBron had never lost five games in a row in his life, not even in summer basketball or peewee football." At the start of the season, Coach Paul Silas shifted LeBron from small forward to point guard simply because the Cavs did not have a starting quality point guard on the roster; many players in LeBron's situation would chafe at such a move and/or struggle to adapt but Silas notes (p. 76) that LeBron "never complained. He listened. He learned the plays. He kept saying he just wanted to win."
Initially, several of the veteran players on the team gave LeBron the cold shoulder because they were jealous of his fame and concerned that his presence on the team would lessen their opportunities to pad their scoring averages. Silas and General Manager Jim Paxson realized that they had to get rid of some of the team's knuckleheads as quickly as possible in order to provide the best possible environment to nourish LeBron's talent and ultimately build a winning program. Early in the season, Paxson dumped Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, Chris Mihm and Michael Stewart in order to acquire solid, no nonsense veteran frontcourt players Eric Williams and Tony Battie plus point guard Jeff McInnis. Williams and Battie vastly increased the maturity level of the team, while McInnis took over the starting point guard spot, enabling Silas to put LeBron at shooting guard in place of the departed Davis.
LeBron did not make the All-Star team as a rookie but his rapid ascent to the NBA's elite since that time has been well documented, so Pluto and Windhorst do not provide in depth recaps of each season; they instead focus on some key situations, moments and accomplishments--including LeBron's two All-Star Game MVPs, LeBron's stunning 48 point game versus the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs and the Cavs' 4-0 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. LeBron's reaction to leading a team to the NBA Finals at just 22 years of age speaks volumes about his character and work ethic: LeBron declared, "I have to be 10 times better. Our team has to be 10 times better. We have to be better...I think it starts with me first and then it will trickle down to everybody else." Far from being satisfied, LeBron understood that the Spurs had exposed weaknesses and deficiencies in his game, most importantly his lack of a dependable outside shot; in the Finals LeBron shot just shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs collapsed into the paint defensively, resulting in LeBron either missing open jumpers or forcing passes into traffic. LeBron was already one of the top five players in the NBA and yet he knew better than anyone that to reach his maximum potential--and ultimately lead the Cavs to a championship--he had a lot of work to do.
Pluto and Windhorst do an excellent job of explaining how LeBron's Team USA experiences helped him mature as a player. Coach Larry Brown hardly played LeBron and several other young players during the 2004 Olympics; LeBron considered not joining Team USA again but when Jerry Colangelo took charge of USA Basketball he convinced LeBron that things would be a lot different moving forward: each player would sign on for a three year commitment and Mike Krzyzewski would be the coach. LeBron had a much larger role on the team this time and Team USA cruised through their first six games in the 2006 FIBA World Championship before everything fell apart versus Greece. That loss relegated Team USA to the bronze medal game but Coach Krzyzewski implored James and the other players to win that contest as a building block for future success. LeBron volunteered to play point guard and he produced 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists as Team USA beat Argentina--the reigning Olympic champions--96-81. Failing to capture gold in the World Championship meant that Team USA would have to compete in the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship in order to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Colangelo added Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd to the roster. Bryant and Kidd provided exactly what Team USA had been missing: veteran leadership, a professional attitude and a defensive-minded focus. With Bryant and Kidd as the starting guards, Team USA swept through the FIBA Americas Championship before winning the Olympic gold medal in 2008. Pluto and Windhorst write (p. 132) that Bryant and Kidd had "a significant impact on LeBron." Colangelo explains (p.132), "Kobe served as an impetus for LeBron, whether LeBron knew that or not. Just by him being there, Kobe raised the bar for everyone--but especially LeBron. Over the last 40 years I've spent working in the NBA, I learned that sometimes players aren't totally aware of what they have left to give. LeBron had a lot more to give and Kobe helped bring that out in him. When Kidd and Kobe got there, it helped considerably." I fervently believe that the best thing that happened to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh since they entered the NBA was playing with--and practicing with--Kobe Bryant on Team USA. Bryant set an example about what it takes to maximize your potential as an NBA superstar and it is obvious that each of those players has markedly improved as a result of that experience.
Pluto and Windhorst devote an entire chapter to LeBron's ups and downs at the free throw line. LeBron shot .797 from the free throw line as a high school freshman but that number plunged to .593 by his junior year before bouncing up to .678 when he was a senior. Similarly, LeBron shot .754 from the free throw line as an NBA rookie but that percentage steadily dropped to .698 in his fourth season before improving to .712 in 2007-08 and .780 in 2008-09. Pluto and Windhorst suggest that LeBron's ambidexterity--he is left handed but plays basketball right handed--contributed to his free throw line inconsistency in previous years but that is a weak excuse; Larry Bird writes with his left hand and shoots with his right hand just like LeBron does and Bird ranks as one of the greatest free throw shooters of all-time. Pluto and Windhorst get a lot closer to the truth when they note that LeBron has "cleaned up" his shot since he started working intensively with Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent; LeBron has developed a consistent, simple free throw routine, something that he did not have at first, and as a result he has made progress toward his goal of becoming an .800 free throw shooter.
Comparing LeBron to his Great Predecessors
Ironically for a book about the reigning NBA regular season MVP, the weakest chapter is the one in which Pluto and Windhorst compare LeBron to other great NBA players past and present. Pluto and Windhorst suggest that LeBron is a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan; Johnson is the archetypal pass first player, while Jordan is the greatest scoring machine in the history of the sport other than Wilt Chamberlain. Pluto and Windhorst are not the first people to say that LeBron is similar to Magic but I don't find this comparison to be particularly convincing.
During his NBA career, LeBron has averaged 20.8 field goal attempts per regular season game, so it simply makes no sense to call him a pass first player. Magic Johnson averaged 13.2 field goal attempts per game; even in the 1986-87 season--when he scored a career-high 23.9 ppg and replaced a declining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the focal point of the Lakers' offense--Johnson averaged just 16.4 field goal attempts per game, a career high for him that would easily be a career low for James. It is true that LeBron is an unselfish player, a willing passer who has great court vision, but he is a shoot first player because of the simple fact that he shoots a lot more frequently than he passes. LeBron ranks third in career regular season scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. LeBron is also third in career playoff scoring average behind Jordan and Allen Iverson; LeBron's 35.3 ppg average in the 2009 playoffs is the 11th best single season mark in NBA playoff history (it ranks 13th if ABA statistics are included). LeBron has the highest career scoring average in All-Star Game history, besting Oscar Robertson by nearly three ppg.
Not only is LeBron's game vastly different from Magic's game statistically, it is also different stylistically; LeBron is a powerfully built athletic marvel who bulls his way to the hoop. The defensive-minded Cavs do not emphasize the fast break, so a lot of LeBron's assists come in the half court set after he draws double teams and then kicks the ball to open shooters. LeBron has already won one scoring title and after averaging 20.9 ppg in his rookie season he has never scored less than 27.2 ppg. In contrast, Magic is slightly taller than LeBron but during Magic's prime he was at least 30 pounds lighter than LeBron and thus Magic relied on finesse and deft ballhandling to orchestrate a deadly fastbreak attack. For nine straight years Magic averaged between 10.5 and 13.1 apg but he only scored more than 20 ppg three times.
While we are discussing assists, it is important to note that the assist could be termed a "semi-factual" statistic; points scored is a tangible number but assists are extremely subjective and are, at best, a very rough indicator of passing ability/unselfishness. Stephon Marbury ranks 15th in NBA history in apg (7.6) but no one would suggest that he is a model point guard or a paragon of unselfishness. LeBron is a great passer not merely because of his assist totals but because his combination of court vision, strength and touch enable him to dissect defenses with a variety of passes, including cross court lasers to open three point shooters, deft bounce passes in tight quarters and on time/on target feeds to post players. You don't need to look at assist numbers to appreciate LeBron's passing skills, nor should passers be ranked purely on the basis of their assist averages. Case in point: Pluto and Windhorst bluntly say about Kobe Bryant (p. 138) "the guy doesn't pass--a career average of 4.6 assists." There are two problems with Pluto and Windhorst's characterization of Bryant: (1) Bryant did not become a full-time starter until his third season, so his career averages are dragged down by by the games when he was a reserve; (2) Bryant has spent most of his career playing in the Triangle Offense, a system in which the playmaking duties are spread around. Bryant's career apg average jumps to over 5.1--just slightly less than Jordan's--if you take out Bryant's first two seasons. More significantly, Bryant was the leading playmaker on each of his four championship teams; in fact, during most of his career Bryant has been forced to perform both the Michael Jordan scoring role and the Scottie Pippen playmaking role in the Triangle--and the fact that Bryant has filled the Pippen "push" role (i.e., bringing the ball up the court to initiate the offense) is a vastly more important consideration than his assist totals, though it is worth mentioning that Bryant has already amassed six "25-5-5" seasons, the third most all-time behind Oscar Robertson (nine) and Michael Jordan (seven). LeBron already has posted five such seasons, is a lock to accomplish the feat for a sixth time in 2009-10 and will likely break Robertson's record.
Comparing LeBron to Jordan makes a lot more sense than comparing LeBron to Magic but--as noted above--Jordan had both a different personality and a different role on his team than LeBron. As Sam Smith famously noted in The Jordan Rules, Jordan was very tough on his teammates--he challenged them mentally and physically because he felt that if they could not survive such ordeals in practice then he could not trust them to perform in games; whether by accident or design, Jordan was the "bad cop" while Pippen was the "good cop" for the Bulls. Like all great players, LeBron certainly has high expectations for his teammates but all indications are that he is much more easygoing in his interactions with them than Jordan was. After Pippen arrived on the scene and emerged as an elite player, Jordan was free to be a pure scorer--Jordan could race down court and establish offensive position while Pippen played the "push" role, putting pressure on the defense and surveying the court before deciding how to attack. Although Mo Williams and Delonte West can assume some of the ballhandling duties, LeBron is generally his team's dominant ballhandler; he averages more assists than Jordan did not necessarily because LeBron is a better passer but simply because LeBron has a different role (don't forget that Jordan ran off an impressive string of triple doubles in the latter part of the 1989 season when Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan to point guard).
The player whose role most closely matches LeBron's is Oscar Robertson; Robertson not only averaged a triple double for an entire season (1961-62) but he averaged an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his NBA career! Moreover, Robertson averaged at least 30 ppg in six of his first seven NBA seasons: he was a top notch scorer who also did most of his team's ballhandling. That said, LeBron and Robertson put up their somewhat similar numbers in vastly different ways: LeBron's game is based on exploding to the hoop; Robertson was certainly capable of powerful drives but in general he played a more methodical game: if he had a 15 foot shot then he would back his defender down to 12 feet, 10 feet, eight feet before either finally shooting his trademark one hand shot or else passing to an open teammate if the opposing team trapped him.
In many ways, the most natural comparison with LeBron is Julius Erving; as I noted two years ago, there are many similarities between the Larry Bird-Julius Erving rivalry and the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James rivalry. Robertson is brought up because of his impressive triple double feats, while Johnson and Jordan live on through their highlights from the 1980s and 1990s but Erving's career exists in a kind of twilight, dreamlike state: he spent his first five years in the ABA (which did not have a national TV contract) and by the time the NBA's TV deals really took off he was no longer the top player in the game. However, the ABA Dr. J--particularly during his three years as a New York Net--is an intriguing match with LeBron both in terms of role and style: Erving won scoring titles in 1974 and 1976 while ranking sixth and seventh respectively in assists (in 1975 he ranked second in scoring and seventh in assists), much like LeBron has often ranked in the top ten in scoring and assists. While Robertson, Johnson and Jordan played guard, Erving--like LeBron--operated from the forward position and his best play was very similar to the "nail" play that LeBron hammered the Orlando Magic with in game five of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.
Here are some other similarities between Erving and LeBron:
1) LeBron shares Erving's easygoing personality. Erving is almost universally liked and respected by teammates and opponents alike. As Bobby Jones once told me about Erving, "He was a great teammate, was a great encourager of his teammates. He never put anybody down because they couldn’t rise to his level. He would always just encourage everybody to do what they could do and wouldn’t get on them because they couldn’t do what he could do. I remember that at the end of games guys might throw the ball away or miss the last shot or whatever and feel like they lost the game. He would be the first one in the locker room to put an arm around a guy and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them next time.’ I always really appreciated that about him." Erving carries himself with a certain grace, dignity and poise, qualities that LeBron displayed very early in his NBA career; I remember one of the first times I encountered James in the Cavs' locker room during his rookie season: his media availability session had just ended but a late arriving writer had a question, so as the media horde dispersed LeBron made a welcoming hand gesture to that person, listened to his question and answered it. I was just standing around observing at that point but LeBron gestured to me as well, indicating that he was not leaving me out.
It just seems like there is a certain "goodness" to LeBron, much like there is to Erving. Let's be clear about this, though: I am not for one second suggesting that Erving or LeBron are perfect, because no person is without flaws, but I see similarities in the way that they interact with people.
2) Although Erving was much more slightly built in his playing days (6-7, 210) than LeBron is (6-8, 250-plus), if you made silhouettes of Erving's dunks and LeBron's dunks the images would be very similar: Erving soared high above the hoop and delivered an assortment of one handed jams with his arm fully extended, buggywhipping the ball over hapless defenders, much like James does now. The full extension of Erving's arm--made possible by the fact that his hands are so huge that he palmed the ball effortlessly--during his driving dunks is quite distinctive but James does something very similar.
3) LeBron has received a lot of attention during the past couple years for his "chase down blocks" but that was actually first a trademark play for Erving more than three decades ago, though at that time no one came up with a catchy name for it and ESPN did not exist to provide countless replays from various angles. I wish there were some way to go back and figure out exactly how many "chase down blocks" Erving executed; if you don't remember or know about this aspect of Erving's game, check out this video around the 42 second mark and see if it does not remind you of LeBron's "chase down blocks":
After a 37 year old Erving chased down Ricky Pierce and swatted his shot during the 1987 playoffs, CBS analyst Billy Cunningham exclaimed that such a play made one wonder why Erving was retiring after that season. Erving did that kind of thing frequently throughout his entire career; although there may not be a specific record of how many "chase down blocks" he registered, Erving blocked at least 100 shots in 12 of the 15 seasons of his career during which that statistic was officially tracked--and he had 97 blocks in just 60 games in his final NBA season at the age of 37! Oddly, despite how much James' "chase down blocks" are mentioned James' career-high for blocked shots in a season is just 93, five fewer than Larry Bird's career high in that category (I suspect that one could win a lot of bar bets with that statistical nugget).
The book makes an excellent impression aesthetically with a large, easy to read typeface and numerous attractive, full color photographs. Unfortunately, there are several typographical and/or statistical errors:
1) On page 81 the text states that LeBron won his first All-Star MVP in 2005, breaking Kobe Bryant's record for being the youngest player to win that award--but on page 83 it is said that Oscar Robertson had held that record; in fact, James won his first All-Star MVP in 2006 (not 2005) at the age of 21, while Robertson was 22 when he won his first All-Star MVP in 1961 and Bryant was 23 when he won his first All-Star MVP in 2002. There are two other 22 year old All-Star MVPs not mentioned in the book: Ed Macauley (1951, the first year that the award was presented) and Isiah Thomas (1984).
2) On page 127 LeBron's point total versus Argentina in the 2006 FIBA World Championship is incorrectly listed as 22 (he scored 20 points).
3) On page 137 it is asserted that Magic Johnson had "a few" games in which he grabbed at least 20 rebounds; Johnson's NBA regular season career high for rebounds is 18, matching his playoff career high in that category.
Pluto has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and his engaging storytelling style is on display in the many sports books that he has written on subjects ranging from the NBA to the NFL to Major League Baseball. Windhorst is a well respected NBA beat writer who has covered the Cavaliers throughout LeBron's career, first for the Akron Beacon Journal and currently for the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (Pluto, a mentor figure for Windhorst, also wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal before being hired by the Plain Dealer in 2007). I own copies of several of Pluto's books and have found them all to be entertaining and informative, though in the interests of full disclosure I must mention that several ABA players who I interviewed told me that they disagree with how certain players and events were described in Pluto's popular oral history of the ABA titled Loose Balls.
While it is understandable why the publisher touts this book as the "definitive" LeBron James biography, it should be evident that the "definitive" LeBron James biography cannot be written until his NBA career is over. That said, LeBron James: The Making of an MVP provides an interesting and detailed account of James' formative years and an insider's viewpoint of how he developed from a high school phenom to an NBA MVP.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:12 AM