Photo: Eric Gay (AP)

In a revealing piece about LeBron James’s too-good-to-be-believed body and injury prevention, this anecdote from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst stands out:

And the topper: the time James gained seven pounds during an Eastern Conference finals game.

Some Miami Heat teammates saw the scale and attest to it in amazement. James himself just shrugs and calls it “weird as hell.” The truly wild part is that it was from 271 pounds to 278 pounds, though James is much lighter these days.

That seems nuts. How could a guy who plays as hard and as long as LeBron James does possibly gain weight during a punishing playoff game? Seeking more clarification on how something like that could have happened, we reached out to Windhorst and James’s agency, but neither have returned a request for comment. Miami Heat spokesman Tim Donovan told Deadspin, “I don’t [know when this happened] and I asked my guys and they don’t know either. Sorry.”

So we asked South African sports science and hydration expert Ross Tucker if such a thing were even possible. Here’s what he sent back:

That is very interesting. If not impossible! LeBron must have been drinking Gatorade/Water like a trooper to gain weight during a basketball match. Even then I don’t think it’s possible.

We know that in marathons, it is possible to gain weight because they take so long, and because people got so indoctrinated about the danger of dehydration that they formulated these “fail safe” strategies to drink as much as they sweat.

Problem was, they didn’t know their sweat rate and so would thus take generic advice from magazines and/or race organisers instead. That advice would typically say something like “Your body needs 40 Oz of fluid per hour”, because that’s what some studies in labs had found was a typical or average sweat rate.

Now, the problem is that most of the people following this advice were NOWHERE near that kind of sweat loss. They were slower runners, back of the pack, and because they were moving so slowly, their sweat rates were maybe 20 to 30 Oz per hour. That means that they were following this instruction to drink 40 fluid ounces per hour, but only losing say 30 ounces, and the result is that every hour, they’d end up heavier by 10 fluid ounces (which is about 300 g per hour). Run a marathon in 5 hours and you’re finishing it 1.5 kg or just over 3 lbs heavier than you began!.

Little wonder that many got hyponatremia as a result, which happens, as I’m sure you know, when you over consume fluid and dilute the sodium content of your plasma.

Is that what happened to LeBron? I doubt it. For a few reasons. One is that he probably didn’t do anything different compared to normal. Had he changed his usual routine he would’ve been able to explain it, not describe it as “weird”. Whereas if he was in the regular habit of drinking too much fluid, then he would have seen it often and it also wouldn’t have been weird.

It’s borderline impossible to gain that much mass in a basketball match. Even if it’s 2 hours start to finish (if you include warmups and half time and so forth), he’s had a net gain of 3.5 lbs per hour, despite playing say 40 minutes of high intensity basketball. In those 40 minutes, I would expect that he could lose 2kg.

There’s a study, but the way, on elite young basketball players showing that their sweat rate was 2.7 L/hour, which would give you 1.8 L in 40 minutes of play (by the way, in this study, it was hot - 30 degrees celsius, which I think is a lot warmer than in an air-conditioned arena). So I think 1.8 to 2 L of sweat loss is a pretty aggressive estimate. Maybe it’s more likely 1.5 L of total sweat loss

Anyway, it would mean that he’s had to drink (or eat, maybe he had a big halftime meal, haha) about 8 to 9 lbs worth of fluid or food to end up 7 lbs heavier after the match.

No way. Not a chance. I just can’t see it. Unless he really ate something and drank quite a lot. Or he’s retaining water on the day, for whatever reason. As an yet unconfirmed theory for some marathon runners is that they actually fail to excrete the water they’re taking in. The reason we think this is that quite a lot of people over drink during marathons, but not all of them develop this hyponatremia. That’s because the body is smart enough to know it’s being loaded with water, and it just gets rid of it. So the ‘unlucky” ones are the ones who not only overdrink, but who also retain the fluid rather than excrete it.

Did that happen to LeBron? I doubt it - gaining that much, you’d know about it.

I’m more inclined to blame the scale for being faulty, or maybe he’s weighed himself in his playing kit and it’s absorbed the sweat, or something else. I just can’t see how anyone can gain that much weight in so short a time period.

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The short of it: Tucker doesn’t believe such a thing is possible, and suggests what seems like the obvious likeliest culprit: one hinky or two different scales. But why would Windhorst—normally a fair and rigorous reporter—include an anecdote like this without exploring the possibility that it didn’t really happen? If he did somehow confirm that the scales were accurate, then what the fuck happened here? Did LeBron eat this eight-pound sandwich at halftime?

The likeliest scenario—if this somehow actually happened, and Tucker’s informed opinion says it almost definitely didn’t—is that LeBron massively over-hydrated in a blowout where he barely played. In 25 Eastern Conference Finals games with the Heat, LeBron played more than 30 minutes in 24 of them. (He played 40 or more in 21 of them.) In Game 5 in 2014 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, James played just 24:21 while struggling with foul trouble. If there was ever a Conference Finals game in which LeBron could have possibly gained seven pounds, it would have been that one. It almost definitely didn’t happen, though, despite the immutable fact that LeBron James is above the law.