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LeBron James sinks into a restaurant booth on the first floor of the Westin in Jersey City, N.J., and orders a chamomile tea. The sun is setting on a Saturday in the middle of April, and through the windows he can see cars snaking toward the Holland Tunnel, beckoned by the lights of New York City. “For me,” says James, “this is chillin’ time.” It is the travel day between two back-to-backs, four games in four cities, and he is swaddled in black sweats and a red Heat baseball cap with a flat black brim. His voice is hoarse but he says he doesn’t have a sore throat. He prepares the tea as if it is a science project, lifting a small jar of honey and slowly pouring it into a teaspoon he holds over the mug, until the honey is about to overflow. He lowers the spoon and gently stirs, then squeezes three lemon wedges into the tea and sucks the rinds. It is suggested that lemons are bad for his teeth. “That’s OK,” James says, easing his massive shoulders against the back of the booth. “My teeth are already terrible.” He smiles wide enough to reveal almost every one.
Tranquil moments are few in the chaotic life of LeBron James. He steals them when he can, sitting on his patio in Coconut Grove, Fla., and admiring the waves on Biscayne Bay, biking across Rickenbacker Causeway with friends to Key Biscayne, watching basketball on television and flipping the channel when the announcers utter his name. Forward Shane Battier, in his first year with Miami, sounds as if he could lead a seminar at Duke deconstructing the James phenomenon. “He is a global icon, a basket-ball monolith, the most prevalent and recognizable athlete of our generation,” says Battier. “And he’s one of a kind, because he’s the first to rise to prominence in the Information Age, which is why he’s such a fascinating sociological observation. He’s accountable every single day for every single thing, from how he plays to what he tweets to what he says in the pre- and the postgame interviews. He has a camera and a microphone on him wherever he goes, and then when he [goes out to] dinner, there’s a camera phone on him. This is what he signed up for. There is a price to pay. He understands that. But I don’t think a lot of guys could handle it.”
James isn’t just coping, he is completing one of the finest all-around seasons in the NBA’s modern era. At week’s end he was averaging 27.1 points with 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 53.1 percent. Larry Bird never shot 53.1 percent. His player efficiency rating of 30.6 leads the league by more than four points, and he is holding opposing small forwards to an anemic efficiency rating of 10.4, according to 82games.com. The 6-foot-8 James is the Heat’s best ball handler, passer and post scorer, but he also covers everyone from point guards to centers, sometimes in the same game. “We are asking him to play at an MVP level,” says coach Erik Spoelstra, “and at a Defensive Player of the Year level.” James is attempting fewer three-pointers than ever while making them at a higher clip (36.2 percent). He is grabbing more rebounds in part because he is spending more time inside. His game log is a litany of near triple doubles. The NBA has not witnessed such a balanced and prolific individual assault since Michael Jordan in 1988–89, two years before his first title.