Part 2: How to Beat LeBron James
My Story about Playing Against the GOAT (A 3 Part Series)
Oh damn, this isn’t good, LeBron just killed my brother.
Damon the Second (D2 we call him), my younger brother, is on the floor, and his eyes are closed. I move towards him in slow motion. His legs are twitching and his eyes are flinching underneath eyelids. LeBron James had just run his body over like a monster truck trampling a Mini Cooper.
D2 (a short, white Mini Cooper) went from standing vertical to laying horizontal in less than a millisecond.
Why did you do that, D2?
Why the hell did you step in front of LeBron James going full speed?
Use your Ivy League degree for something, damn.
I have a lot of stories about playing at Kent State University, but this is one of my favorites. “How to Beat LeBron James” is a story of two unlikely underdog brothers playing against the GOAT.
And fittingly, it happened in the gym of a college team I despised the most, Akron University.
I mean, it was a fluke I even ended up at Kent State and got to play against our rival, Akron. A fluke my brother got into Brown University. A fluke I got my jersey retired. A fluke we both played professionally in Europe. A fluke Gary Waters, Kent State’s coach, even signed me.
Thank God for my teammates — for Pope, Ed Norvell, Andrew Mitchell — all the guys that talked me out of quitting as a freshman when I couldn’t feel my legs. I wanted to quit the team so bad I could taste it. I felt depressed about how bad I was playing, about being the worst player, and Coach Waters constantly yelling at me to not be soft.
But I was soft, and I had to learn how not to be.
And thankfully, Coach D and Coach Heck, the coaches I saw the most before coming to Kent to try out in August allowed me to get in the run against the guys to show my mettle.
But even then, it’s hard to tell when you are 18, when these college coaches play mind games (by mind games, I mean, they tell you they’re waiting to sign a big Russian kid instead of you) and even after you show up at 6:00 am to shoot and get the nerves out, and then play lights out later against the guys — you still don’t know if they will offer you.
But I made the team, eventually, a week before school started.
And I’m glad I didn’t quit because I can still taste the stale popcorn air of the MAC center, hear the buzz of halogen orangish lights, feel the bounce of the light blue and gold painted wooden floor, and shut my eyes and feel the electricity of playing in front of our home crowd.
To me, in there, basketball was a spiritual place.
When I was a senior at Kent State, after the Elite Eight, and three NCAA runs, LeBron James used to come to a few of our home games and even at 16, he would have a line out the door for autographs.
I used to think, who is this kid?
Is he that good?
Then one day, I got the chance to play him, at the gym I was always told to never lose in.
That is this story.
HOW TO BEAT LEBRON JAMES
When the King, LeBron James, rips through and drives left, there is one thing that every basketball player should have.
“Help — “ I scream at my teammates. My younger brother, D2, a sophomore shooting guard at Brown University, is behind me on the weak side.
Nene Hilario steps over to slow him down, and I slip in front of Romeo Travis for the dump down pass. LeBron is already anticipating this, slowing his attack. He keeps his head up and glides a ball into the spot where I was moving out of — an overhead pass that flips out of his hand like a pebble from a trebuchet.
The ball ricochets off the Akron University bleachers and comes right back to me.
Hey, ball. Thanks, Bron-Bron.
My hands are tingling with adrenaline. My body is floating above me somewhere — is this actually happening, am I playing against the Chosen One — the GOAT?
BASKETBALL 101 WITH LEBRON JAMES:
Rule 1: LeBron James will find you so don’t move out of the spot you were in after he passes the ball.
Rule 2: If you don’t do Rule 1, tell LeBron, “My bad dawg.”
Rule 3: Double LeBron as much as possible, as early as possible.
Granted, I’m not an NBA player or coach (*unless you count that one Phoenix Suns free agent jersey with no court action) and I don’t really know what you should say or do to stop LeBron, but I know most of the best players in the world, when they hear, “My bad dawg,” will still pass it to you a few more times before icing you out.
When guys move out of the spot I’m passing too, it pisses me off. Just stay where you were. Move earlier, not later. And I’m just a short point guard that made most of his mediocre money in Europe winning small titles and cups playing for teams no one in America cares about.
Not that I’m complaining.
Hey, I mean, at this point, a LeBron turnover is still a turnover, and money is money and better, it’s our ball.
We come down and score again. Nene Hilario gets a baseline pass and tries to rip the entire basket to the floor.
“Force him right. Keep him in front. Help. Force him right! Go double, I got you. Go double now!”
I keep yelling this, but I don’t know if it is helping.
I get the sense our only chance is to rotate with Nene and hope these young guys miss shots.
The truth is, I love watching the one on one battle inside the five-man team war, the strategy of stopping someone from scoring, but also playing help-side defense. I love watching the ball and man move, being on an invisible string with my teammates, and being ready to drop down for a steal or deflection to help someone when they’re beaten.
The only way to beat LeBron is to make him earn and fight for every point, every pass, and always take his strengths away.
That means you double team him early and often. You make him give up the ball. He is the best player in the world with the ball in his hands, so try to take that away first. Then you make him fight through a line of early help and rotate early to take away the first easy shot and deny the ball back to him.
My coach in high school, Dennis Starkey, a Michigan Hall of Famer, used to call these weak side defensive movements: “The Championship Plays.”
“Just because you’re beat, doesn’t mean you’re out of the play,” Coach Starkey would yell.
To beat LeBron, you have to make championship plays over and over and over. That comes down to energy, communication, and effort. And the war of being there for your teammate always feels good, except when LeBron is coming at you.
Yet, it’s why I love sports so much. Maybe even business, when someone drops the ball, you can save them. You can step up. You can be selfless and sacrifice.
Like my brother that gets knocked out in a few plays.
But playing against LeBron reminded me of my childhood, when my dad would drop me off at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan to play against the Mateen Cleaves, the Charlie Bells, and the Morris Petersons of the world. It was in Flint that I felt that the first surge of anxiety, knowing I had to earn something.
Knowing I had to prove my basketball worth and sacrifice my body to get it.
Sure, I’ll never be a Flint Stone, just like I’ll never be on the records of scoring an NBA point, but I’ve had to sacrifice and find a way to play with the best players in the world. The only mindset to have is in knowing you can find redemption in playing the next play.
THE SCORE IS THREE TO ONE.
When LeBron starts coming at me like a Thalys speed train on its way to Paris, I find it very natural to question the validity of my athleticism. Granted, he is already a 20-year old savant that can get his head above the rim (without warming up) and has the skill set of a 12-year NBA veteran point guard.
There is something intangibly special about this man-child, about his I.Q., about his athletic dominance, and better, his competitive play-in-the-moment mindset.
LeBron made me nervous and it wasn’t because he talked trash to me.
It was because he made me question if I could do anything against him. I’ll try to explain. Guys in tennis don’t have to worry about getting their backhand off before Roger Federer takes their racket away on their side of the net. Golfers don’t have to shoot quickly before Tiger Woods steals their backswing. Baseball players see the pitch and swing, regardless of their height.
The difference is LeBron can magically appear out of thin air and take the ball from you, or pin your shot to the top of the backboard, or run you over like a monster truck (as D2 finds out).
That makes playing him nerve-racking, especially when you are young and don’t have any perspective.
Everything happens too quickly when you play against LeBron James.
The great thing about basketball is the game continues on with or without your confidence. D2 passes me the ball and I dribble it up into a drag screen with Nene. I realize Nene Hilario is a special NBA player and athlete too. I’m glad he is on our team. Nene slides to the hoop effortlessly, sucking in the help side like a vacuum. I skip it for a three in the corner.
We are winning, we are officially beating LeBron.
As I’m running back on defense, an epiphany hits me: Nene Hilario plays like the Brazilian dude Blanka from the video game Street Fighter. He is flying around, rotating, blocking shots, electrifying the rim with dunks, doubling and rotating to LeBron on the post, on his drives, and making the young guys miss shots.
I love the way Nene plays because he cares. He has a substantial white grin, speaks with bad English, and uses cuss words in Portuguese when he is mad. Every decision is a half second faster. Every loose ball is in danger of being stolen. Every offensive rebound is a possible tip dunk. Every fast break is a chance for complete and utter embarrassment.
On cue, LeBron takes a long rebound, sprints past me with the ball, and tomahawks the ball through the rim. I am chasing behind him, watching his head rise above the metal ring like a fighter jet taking off for flight.
I pass the ball into D2 and wonder if we can hold onto this game and beat the King.