LeBron James and the Quest for Excellence

The NBA’s Eastern Conference Semifinals match-up between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors promised to be a good one. Toronto was better than they had been in the previous two years when they lost to Cleveland; meanwhile, the Cavs had narrowly escaped first round elimination and seemed to be struggling with their identity more than ever. This looked like the year the Raptors would finally conquer the Cavs.

It wasn’t.

In fact, the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second time in three years, and they lost in every way imaginable. They led for almost the entirety of Game 1 and choked it away in overtime. They were thoroughly embarrassed at home in Game 2. They mounted a fearless comeback on the road in Game 3 only to lose on a buzzer beater. And in Game 4 they were truly defeated, getting blown out by thirty points. Despite their best efforts, despite the best record in the Eastern Conference, despite the undying support of Drake, the Raptors didn’t have an answer for the NBA’s most powerful force: LeBron James.

In 2003, at only eighteen years old, LeBron James came into the league christened the Chosen One, the Next GOAT, the King. And for the entirety of his career, he has sought to meet that heavy expectation of excellence with relentless perseverance. Most players aren’t even physically capable of staying in the league after fifteen years, yet in his fifteenth season LeBron is statistically improving. This year has been one of his best ever, and his performance against Toronto has left many shaking their heads in bewilderment.

The excellence of LeBron James is something all basketball fans ought to relish. We have never seen a player like him before, and we may never see another again. Standing at 6’8,” 250 pounds with a vertical jump well over three feet, LeBron’s renowned athleticism and physical ability are what have allowed him to put together the most prolific basketball career of all time. Few realize, however, the dedication this also requires off the court.

Many are tempted to assert that LeBron is just “a freak of nature” and simply hit “the genetic lottery,” but his freakish abilities are no accident. While his physique may be largely the product of nature and genetic grace, he is only able to apply his gifts through intense persistence and dedication.

It begins with his study of basketball—from individual match-ups to team playbooks to the history of the game itself. LeBron studies opposing players to know what shots they are likely to take, how they might guard him, and what their weaknesses are. He also observes the team’s style of play in order to close passing lanes, expose defensive gaps, and exploit favorable match-ups. Compounded with his study of older players and general basketball theory, this gives LeBron an unmatched basketball IQ and makes him one of the smartest players in the league.

When it comes to physical fitness, James is equally intense. Team trainer Mike Mancias has worked with him since his rookie season and is largely responsible for helping to maintain his excellent form, but LeBron also invests over a million of his own dollars annually in this endeavor. His home is outfitted with hot tubs, cold tubs, a hyperbaric chamber, and his own personal gym. He also regularly receives cryochamber treatments, using liquid nitrogen to prevent inflammation in his joints. To top it all off, he employs a plethora of his own trainers, massage therapists, private chefs, as well as a former Navy SEAL biomechanist.

The biomechanist, Donnie Ramon, was hired by James in 2015 after issues with the discs in his spine briefly threatened his physical immortality. His back had given him mild troubles on and off for years, but it had started to look like his kryptonite. Raimon worked with James to strengthen his core and back muscles in a way that revitalized the King. In fact, this year he played in all 82 regular season games for the first time in his fifteen-year career. Never satisfied, LeBron worked tirelessly to take his game to a higher level and continue improving as a basketball player.

In order to play at such a high intensity, James has employed his basketball IQ to master the art of optimizing energy usage. Metrics show that LeBron—arguably one of the fastest and most explosive players in the NBA—moves at one of the slowest average speeds of any player. This is because LeBron spends calculated moments walking and carefully prioritizing his offensive and defensive efforts to save energy for crucial possessions.

Much of this he was able to learn from studying the careers of his predecessors. Michael Jordan, for example, went hard every night: he played to near exhaustion and regularly smoked cigars, drank, and stayed out late after games. This limited Jordan physically—he retired (for the second time) after his thirteenth season, and though he returned three years later to play for two more seasons, he wasn’t the same player.

LeBron, on the other hand, is all business, staying out of trouble off the court by spending his time working on his fitness and study of the game. Clearly it has paid off given that—despite being “old” by NBA standards—he is still the greatest basketball player in the world. When he finally does decide to retire (and the other 29 NBA teams expel a long-awaited sigh of relief), he will go down as the greatest basketball player of all time.

This has only been made possible by LeBron’s unshakable resolve to achieve excellence. Every moment of every day he is concerned with being the best possible basketball player he can be. His constant, tireless pursuit of perfection is what will define his legacy. Provided he can maintain his health for only a few more seasons, he will retire in the NBA’s all-time top 25 in rebounds, top 5 in assists, and number 1 in points. He will be one of the best playoff performers ever and have put together the most well-rounded and statistically excellent career of anyone in NBA history. Because he is committed to achieving excellence, he will be the greatest of all time.