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LeBron James Returned To Cleveland With A Strict, Uncompromising Mentality

Photo via Mark Duncan/AP

During his first go-round in Cleveland, LeBron James was pilloried for all manner of sins—real or perceived—most stemming from the belief that he acted like a tyrant and ran roughshod over the Cavaliers organization. For instance, here is Brian Windhorst the day after The Decision:

Gilbert hired one of James’ friends and paid him more than some assistant coaches to hang out with the team so James would be comfortable. Gilbert allowed members of James’ management team to fly on the team jet. He spent $25 million to construct a practice facility that was located 20 minutes closer to James’ home than the old one. He rebuilt the locker room. He hired a masseur to travel on the road because James likes massages.


And with a little searching you can find even wilder accusations.

I bring this up because Windhorst dropped a fascinating piece today on James’s attempts to remake the Cavaliers’ culture, and it’s a 100-percent repudiation of the culture he created before leaving for Miami, and that persisted in the four listless years before he returned.

The basic thesis is that in Miami, which has been run as Pat Riley’s dictatorship for two decades, James learned about the hard work, routines, and professionalism needed to win an NBA title, and he has been frustrated by how difficult it’s been to implement a similar culture in Cleveland. He was frustrated at things like Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving not being in the gym enough, players (and former coach David Blatt) showing up late to meetings and flights, and players not “dressing appropriately,” among other things.

Owner Dan Gilbert is also making things more difficult:

But Gilbert is also mercurial. He makes instinctive and rapid changes, sometimes on a whim. All of which has made it a challenge for the Cavs to establish continuity. And while Arison is relaxed and enjoys the good life — he will sail his yacht into European ports where his players are vacationing in the summer and invite them over for dinner — he is not playful like Gilbert.

A lover of practical jokes, Gilbert once wanted to dummy up a fake news release that the Cavs were signing Dennis Rodman to a 10-day contract and put it out on April Fools’ Day; he was talked out of that one. After a playoff victory over the Washington Wizards 10 years ago, Gilbert had a remote-controlled fart machine installed under coach Mike Brown’s seat. When Brown went up to the dais for the postgame news conference, Gilbert stood in the back and worked the controls. Brown was flummoxed — although the microphones didn’t pick up the sounds.


While the arc of the piece and its timing suggests that a more professionalized culture is playing a large role in the Cavaliers making the Finals (an argument I’m pretty skeptical of, as culture isn’t nearly as important as having healthy stars), it is much more interesting as an explanation for all the weird, passive-aggressive shit that’s gone on in Cleveland over the past two years.


And no matter James’s attempts, some of the culture improvement came down to dumb luck:

And when Channing Frye arrived in a midseason trade, even he helped open communication within the team without even knowing it.

“Channing was that new kid in school that doesn’t know that there’s cliques and he just sits at the table with everyone,” Jefferson said. “He puts random people on text chains. All of a sudden I was just on a text chain with LeBron, Kev and [Jones]. You’re just like, ‘Why did you include us?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know, you guys are the ones I wanted to talk to.’ All of a sudden the four of us are texting through a game.”


Anyway, if you’re interested in the minutiae of process, the piece is a really interesting look at how the NBA as a workplace can be just as weird or broken as whatever is happening in your office.


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About the author

Kevin Draper

Reporter at the New York Times

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