Down the Road
Guided by legends from way back in the day, Lebron James ponders how far he and the game he loves have come
When the Cavs' history buff said he wanted to see Glory Road, the soon-to-be-released Disney movie about the 1966 NCAA championship run by Texas Western's all-black starting five, the Mag pulled some strings with its parent company to get him a private screening-and a sit-down with several players from the game. We took the opportunity to get LeBron to talk about his game, too.
I think it's important to know the history of the game. That comes from knowing that I'm not going to help its evolution just by playing. You can't be successful in this game if you don't know who got you to this point. Unfortunately, a lot of people my age and younger don't know the history of basketball. If a kid comes up to me and asks me a question about it, I want to be prepared to answer with some knowledge. I want to be able to tie together the past, present and future. That's why I was interested in the Texas Western team. I knew about their story long before I watched Glory Road.
I'll admit that watching that film and seeing the importance of winning the NCAA Tournament makes me wander off sometimes and think of what it would have been like if I had gone to college. But I don't have any regrets. I know I made the right decision. In fact, Jerry Bruckheimer told me one of the things he hoped to accomplish with the movie was to get guys to understand the abuse those Texas Western players fought through to blaze a trail for guys in the NBA today. He understands they made it possible for more guys to play professionally instead of just on the playground. He said Pat Riley told him Magic Johnson once said, "If David Lattin hadn't dunked on you, I wouldn't be standing here running your offense." It's funny, but there's some truth to that. So I realize the guys on that team are the reason I'm where I am today.
I get to do things like help create commercials. I love my new Nike commercials; my favorite is the one about the quadruple-double. I had a lot of input into The LeBrons. I wanted to show more of my personality, and those are the four ways I act: the player, the kid, the businessman and the wise old man. I act like him a lot when I'm home. I just kind of ad-libbed everything. The acting was fun. And for the record, that is me dancing.
But to see all the things I get to do and the recognition I get because of basketball, and to know that those guys had to wait 40 years for people to notice them, is just crazy. It's almost like some people didn't know black people were on the face of the earth. It's disappointing that they had to wait 40 years to be recognized, but I guess better late than never. To see the way they approached the game and the way they were able to carry themselves through terrible times definitely affects the way I carry myself. I take the game seriously because I'm trying to carry on the legacy that great players before me left.
I don't try to pattern my game after anybody's, but if I had to talk about similarities, I'd look at Penny Hardaway when he was in Orlando. He was a 6'7" point guard. He had flair, he could pass, he'd dunk on you and he could shoot jumpers. Then I'd look at Oscar Robertson and Magic and the way they were able to dominate games. I don't say I'm going to try to be those guys, but I can see a little bit of my game in each of them. And I'm not really concerned about surpassing them in history. I just hope that one day people will think I was one of the best players to ever play in this league. Ever.
I know that'll take titles, though. When I think about the best players in the league, I think of the guys who've won championships, guys like Tim Duncan, Kobe and Shaq. Of all of them, I like Kobe. His knowledge of the game and his killer instinct are what make him so tough. He's great with the ball and without the ball, and the things he can do offensively are kind of unbelievable. I don't think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody. But I do want to be the best player on the court every time I step out there. It's all about competing, about trying to be the best. It's also important to me to make the team I'm on now the best. I don't want to go ringchasing, as I call it; you know, going to a team that's already pretty established and trying to win a ring with them. I want to stay with the Cavs and build a champion. And I feel like we're on our way.
Part of being considered the best is having rivalries. I don't have any at this point. Rivalries start in the playoffs. I tell you what, I'll be happy for it to start. I haven't been a part of the playoffs yet, but I will be this year. Then we'll see if a rivalry develops. People try to make rivals out of me and Dwyane Wade, but D-Wade is one of my best friends in the league. I've got the utmost respect for the way he handles himself, the way he plays and the way he's become a leader for his franchise.
Right now it's important I establish my credentials as our leader. When you come into the league, you think it's all basketball, but basketball is only about 10% to 20% of what it takes to be in the NBA. You've got the off-the-court obligations and distractions, you've got the on-the-court things, you've got the media. Now that I understand that, I'm 10 times the leader I was the past two seasons. I'm the type who can lead by example and I can also lead by speaking up. When I need to get vocal, I get vocal. I have no problem speaking up and letting my teammates know what the deal is.
But for them to listen, I can't just talk. I have to show them I'm dedicated to improving as a player. I feel like if I improve certain aspects of my game, our team automatically will improve, so I was extremely motivated last summer to get better. I knew I couldn't come back the same player I was last year, and I put in a ton of time on my outside shooting. Last year, I felt defenders were slacking off me too much, just playing me to drive. I shot jumpers over the summer until my shoulders started to hurt. Now my jump shot's a lot better. I also worked on my lateral quickness to help my D.
Missing the playoffs the past two seasons was the motivation. I've been used to being an automatic winner, just going onto the court knowing no team could beat us. But my first year in the league, I didn't feel that way. Now I'm at a point where I feel like every time we play, we're going to win. I'm not saying I know we're going to win a championship this year. That takes time. It took Jordan seven years, Shaq eight. If we keep getting better, I don't think I'll have to wait eight years.
It's funny: the years fly by so fast that you can get to Year 3 and be like, wow, it seems like my rookie year. But you know what they say: great things come to those who are patient.
Mining The Past
Lebron gets schooled by the real-life heroes of Glory Road
LEBRON JAMES: Seeing how Texas Western overcame racism was very inspiring. Man, it must have seemed like the whole world was against you guys.
WILLIE WORSLEY: Remember, we were just 18 and 19 years old. For us, it was just a game. But obviously, as things continued to happen in the 1960s, the game became more meaningful. It opened doors for people to get jobs, like Tubby Smith at Kentucky. It was a good thing.
Hopefully, with the movie coming out, it'll be a better thing.
LOUIE DAMPIER: It was just another game to us too. You didn't hear anything about race until the next day, when we read in the paper that the black team beat the white team. We didn't look at it as anything except a championship game. It wasn't like it was the first time we'd played against blacks. In the regional finals, we beat Cazzie Russell and a Michigan team that I think started two black players.
DAVID LATTIN: How can you possibly be thinking about black and white when the rebound is coming off the board? You're not looking to see if the guy is black or white; you just go after the ball.
The only time race came into the equation was when Coach Haskins came to my room before the game, called together the seven black players who were going to play and said that in a press conference Adolph Rupp had mentioned that five black guys couldn't defeat his five white guys. We all looked at each other, and Coach Haskins said, "It's up to you." Then, he walked out of the room.
WW: We may not have seen race, but some of the crowd did. They called us names that weren't what our mothers and fathers gave us. The N-word, monkey, stuff like that. They spit on us, pulled on our jerseys and shorts. But we couldn't respond. If we'd responded, we'd have had to fight right there.
LJ: While I was watching some of the things that happened to you guys, I wondered what I'd have done in those situations. Honestly, I don't know.
WW: Well, I don't think any of us would have gone into the stands like Ron Artest.
LD: You know, my first thought about Detroit last year was of the fan who walked out on the floor and got hit a couple of times by a player. When I was playing in the ABA that person would have been fair game. He's a threat.
WW: One particular incident happened to me the next year when we were in Provo, Utah, playing BYU. I tried to dunk on two seven-footers and they knocked me to the floor. Well, David snapped at one of them and wanted to fight. My point is, once you've played with a person, you become close. You become like family.
DL: We supported each other because we believed in each other. I remember the bus ride to the championship game. I was the last one off. The white bus driver asked me, "Why are you guys playing this game? You can't win. Why don't you get your teammates, get back on the bus, go back to the hotel and forget this game. You're wasting your time." I just looked at the guy, and he looked at me and said, "Remember, I told you so. You can't win."
LD: Was he your driver after the game?
DL: Yes, he was, as a matter of fact.
LD: What'd he have to say then?
DL: He didn't say anything. He just looked straight ahead. He didn't help anybody with their bags. He just sat there.
LJ: It is strange to me that people then didn't think black athletes were good enough to play basketball.
DL: That's one of the things I want kids to learn from our story, how things have changed. Hopefully, young guys like you, LeBron, will understand how what we did made it better now.
LD: You know, David, one of the key plays in the game was your dunk on Pat Riley in the first minute.
DL: Haskins never told me to dunk, like he does in the movie. Some things you can't coach. Any
coach ever tell you when to dunk, LeBron?
DL: Just between you, me and the chickens, it never happened.
LJ: The great thing about dunking on somebody is they know not to jump the next time. When you
dunk on somebody, it seems like the lane opens up for the rest of the game.
WW: One thing you didn't see in those days was a guy LeBron's size playing guard. That's crazy. JoJo White was about the biggest guard who was any good back then, and he was only 6'3".
DL: Guys are bigger today. Bigger, stronger, faster. They're better.
LD: LeBron, you would've been a center on our team.
LJ: Hey, I would've done anything I had to do to win.
WW: You would've liked being our center. We used to throw the ball inside all the time.
LD: Shoot, even Rupp may have gone inside to King James.
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