LeBron, Kareem, and the Secrets to Greatness

The newbie needed a nickname. It was the summer of 2003, during LeBron James’ first week as an NBA player, when one of his Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coaches, Bob Donewald Jr., insisted they come up with one.

Of course, James necessity nickname. Everyone already knew who he was and how good he could become. The talent of a generation hit the league straight out of high school at 18, with a $90 million Nike ad contract in one hand and astronomical expectations in the other.

“Well, my nickname is The King,” Donevald recalls LeBron’s words.

“I can not call you king. Fuck it“.

“Why not?”

“Well, Elvis Presley was king.”

James smiled. “Maybe I’m the reincarnation of Elvis.”

“Okay, dude,” Donewald said. “It’s Elvis.”

Veteran players of the Cavaliers began calling him Elvis. The rest of the crew and staff soon followed. And while Elvis still had to carry his teammates’ bags, which was a typical rook duty, there was something undeniable about his maturity, poise and work ethic. How early he came to practice. The point is how hard he trained, increasing the speed of the game with each repetition. He worked out six days a week. On most days he cycled 25-30 miles. Whenever he noticed a weakness in his game, he would tell his coaches, “We need to look into it.”

“People say, ‘He’s talented.’ They have no idea, no idea how many hours a person spent in the gym.,says Donewald, now an assistant coach at the University of Texas. “Elvis have worked. He worked like no other.”

Once Donevald flirted with James, scolding him for something. Maybe his shot failed. Afterwards, Donewald asked James how he felt about speaking that day.

“Not good. My legs were a little heavy,” he recalls James saying, before the rookie quickly added, “That’s no excuse.”

“It’s good,” said Donewald, “that when I got to you, you continued to resist.”

“Coach, you won’t have a problem with me. You can train me. It will never be a problem.”

“That’s good, because I want you to be great.”

James paused, his carefree gaze slowly fading into a frown.

“I am damn good,” James said. “Now if you want me to be the greatest? It is my goal. Be greatest“.

Twenty years later, James is on the cusp of bridging the gap between who he thought he was and who he aspired to be. Entering the game on Tuesday night, he is only 36 points short of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s top scoring player. Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) set the previous mark on April 5, 1984, overtaking Wilt Chamberlain.

The prospect of James passing this milestone is a breathtaking moment that makes us wonder what it took for his body, mind and spirit to work at such a high level for so long. James, who is averaging 30 points per game this season at 38, has striven all these years not only to meet the expectations of others, but also to meet his own. He never stopped working, year after year improving his skills.

Many will compare James to Abdul-Jabbar when discussing who was better, who will dominate each other’s era and who is truly the greatest of all time and delving into their differences, which are huge: Abdul-Jabbar is considered the greatest college player of all time, while James didn’t go to college. Abdul-Jabbar was a strong center and James played all five positions. Abdul-Jabbar, who began his professional career in Milwaukee in 1969, has won six titles; James, who also played for the Cavaliers and the Heat, won four. The 3-point line did not exist for most of Abdul-Jabbar’s heyday, nor did the vast amount of medical advances and educational resources that James and his generation now have easy access to.

But what if we look at what these two phenomenal athletes have in common? What exists within each of them that allowed them to reach such a milestone? One of the most important coincidences is their lifelong passion for learning. They were true learners of the game. They never gave in to the hype; they always thought they could get better. They listened. They taught. They were never too big or too old to learn something new. They understood that their bodies would age, but they could always hone their minds by developing their skills over time. As domineering and self-confident as they were, they retained a certain humility that ultimately contributed to their longevity.

Bill Bertka saw it up close. The 95-year-old former Lakers assistant coach, who has won 10 championships with the organization, is now the team’s basketball consultant. He is one of the few raters who had a front row seat for both players to climb. Bertka started out as a scout, then worked as an assistant coach with the Lakers from 1968 to 1974, and then returned as an assistant from 1981 to 2001 before taking over as director of scouting until 2012.

He saw how seriously Abdul-Jabbar took his craft. His concentration was evident as soon as he arrived in the Lakers locker room. “People sometimes took it as an insult, but that was because he was very focused,” says Bertka.

The more Bertka trained Abdul-Jabbar, the more he noticed not only the competitiveness of the center, but also his curiosity. His willingness to train. At one training session, Bertka took Abdul-Jabbar aside: “I want you to read the scouting report that people have made about you.” Bertka explained that the teams knew how to double-team him as he sat on the left side of the basket, straddling his left leg and preventing him from taking the step needed to execute his signature skyhook as easily as he did on the right side. his sweet spot. As a result, sometimes Abdul-Jabbar had to settle for jumpers or hard transitions.

“We’re going to work on a couple of return moves on the left block,” Bertka said. By this point, Abdul-Jabbar had already won two championships, one with Milwaukee in 1971 and one with Los Angeles in ’80, and was the NBA’s MVP six times. But instead of setting up his coach or giving the floor, Abdul-Jabbar began to work on the return moves in the case of a double team: a power move on the base line and a fall move.

“I work with the greatest player in the game. He is 35 years old and he listened and made adjustments,” says Bertka. “It’s pretty damn impressive when you’ve set all the records, dominated the game and are ready to work on new skills.”

Bertka sees the same drive in James. He sees how much James wants to win. And while he sees a natural resemblance between the two men — “They’re both extremely smart and both very dedicated” — he pauses before describing James individually.

“God created only one of his models.”

Although Abdul-Jabbar and James are not reportedly Having no personal relationship of any kind, James benefited from the plan that Abdul-Jabbar laid out before him from James’ early days in the Cavs.

Towards the end of one of these sessions with the Cavs, Donevald asked James, “Did you ever work on Kareem’s skyhook?”

James didn’t really have an answer.

“Try it,” said Donewald. “You can get to this place. Magic used it as a great defense. He went in there.”

James dribbled the ball down the center of the floor, planted one foot, and slowly rose higher, throwing the ball over an imaginary defender in one smooth motion.


Over the past few weeks, as James has come close to surpassing Abdul-Jabbar’s record, commentators have been speculating about when and where that might happen. The same sense of inevitability arose when Abdul-Jabbar approached the Chamberlain mark in 1984.

“It was taken for granted that this would happen,” says Josh Rosenfeld, director of public relations for the Lakers from 1982 to 1989. Rosenfeld received so many phone calls about the game in which Abdul-Jabbar was supposed to reach the milestone that the Las Vegas hotel where he was staying sent security to his room to make sure nothing suspicious was going on.

Thomas Bonk, covering the Lakers Los Angeles Times, recalls calling Chamberlain to get a comment for his preview the day before the big game. “Wilt was mad at Karim,” says Bonk. “Not because he broke the record,” explains Bonk, “but because Chamberlain thought Abdul-Jabbar should be more aggressive on the board.

“How many rebounds did he average, mate?” Bonk remembers Chamberlain asking.

“I don’t know. Eight? Nine?” Bonk said. (was 7.4.)

“He should be an average of 20.”

The next day, Bonk told Abdul-Jabbar what Chamberlain had said while seeking comment. “[Kareem] I didn’t like hearing that,” says Bonk. He just competed as hard as ever. However, his miraculous achievement later that night wasn’t necessarily considered as big a deal at the time as it is in today’s social media age.

Then the NBA was in a different place. The games were still running late on the tape. Magic and Larry Bird had appeared only five years earlier. Bonk remembers David Stern attending Abdul-Jabbar’s record breaking game and sitting alone. “[The NBA] was still something like a little traveling circus,” says Bonk.

Bertka recalls a timeout called in the fourth quarter right before the deciding moment: “We knew the next shot would set the record and the Magic said to everyone, ‘Just make sure I have the ball and I’ll do my best.’ passage.'”

Indeed, with just under nine minutes remaining in regulation time, teammates passed the ball to the Magic, who brought the ball to the right half of the court before…


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