By now, most people are aware of just how hard LeBron James is working to turn the Cleveland Cavaliers into a championship team, both on the court and off. He’s been to the top of the mountain with the Miami Heat, and now he’s trying to climb it again with a whole new crew. And to say there have been some growing pains would be more than fair.
But what most of us didn’t know was just how far the Cavs have had to come to shed their losing culture. Now, thanks to an incredibly in-depth column from Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins, we have more of an idea. Here’s a taste of how bad it was at the start:
Failure is a poison, and when James reentered the Cavs’ headquarters last fall, he found an organization infected. “Great young players but part-time pros,” says swingman James Jones, who followed James from the Heat. “They’d be locked in for an hour before practice, an hour after practice, but the discipline and commitment weren’t there.” Players rolled in late for treatment sessions, bagged extra shooting, left plates of food sitting around the cafeteria. “Leniency,” James says, “which was very different from the structure I’d grown accustomed to.”
Jenkins got LeBron on the record to confirm what many sports talk-radio callers assume about losing teams: They simply weren’t as committed, which was unacceptable to James. Jenkins tells a story about the Cavs tossing their dirty laundry on the floor after a shoot-around LeBron missed due to illness, a smack in the face to the equipment manager. It’s the sort of thing that prompted LeBron to (allegedly) ban Hovertrax at the Cavs’ arena — to reinforce that the Cavs had to take basketball seriously, and not just when playing it.
The toughest part of doing that was LeBron himself not performing up to his standards to start last season, prompting many to wonder if we’d seen the best of the King. That, according to Jenkins’ story, was the reason for LeBron to sit for two weeks.
James tried to demonstrate how he trains and recovers, but his knee and back wouldn’t let him. “That was the toughest thing,” he says. “I was teaching and preaching — telling them how hard I’m going to work, how I’m going to bust my ass — but I couldn’t really do it because I was hurting.”
Now, with an extra year (and a failed playoffs run) under all of their belts, the Cavaliers are hoping to make the same jump that the Heat did in LeBron’s second year in Miami. But they’re clearly still only going to go as far as LeBron pushes them — and even then, it still might not be enough, because the Warriors still exist.
There’s a ton of other great stuff in Jenkins’ column (seriously, it’s so long), so check it out in full here.