When LeBron James plowed through a foul from Paul Millsap to finish a cutting layup late in the fourth quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks, observers on Twitter reacted as they had countless times before. “He’s too strong,” “He’s not human,” and “How does he do that” were common refrains among fans on Twitter, as the Cavaliers star managed to compose himself in midair to score the basket despite the contact and head to the free throw line for the first time in the game, putting the Cavs up by seven in a game they went on to win by 11.
I can’t speak to his humanity -- though there’s no evidence to suggest that he’s not a member of the human race -- but as for how he does that, that’s a slightly easier question to answer. It’s the product of hard work, and specific work, the kind of which few get to see, and even fewer have gotten to experience. I happen to be one of those few.
Now, to be clear, I am not LeBron James. I can slip on his size 50, +4 length jersey and lace up his signature LeBron XIII sneakers, but that doesn’t make me the Cavaliers star. And while I might tip the scales the same as the four-time MVP’s listed weight, he has a good 10 inches on me -- and his weight is mostly muscle, mine is decidedly not. So it's safe to say when I step onto a basketball court, no one is going to confuse me with the 12-time All-Star. But for one day at All-Star Weekend, I got a chance to feel what it was like to be LeBron James on a basketball court, thanks to Nike’s “Bring Your Game” workout program. It gave me incredible insight into how he gets his body and game ready for those powerful finishes at the basket that leave fans in awe.
James takes a lot of punishment during a game. He's averaging 6.5 free-throw attempts per game this season -- good for 15th in the league -- and that doesn't account for all the times he drives to the rim into contact without earning a whistle. Since he came into the league in 2003-04, no player has attempted more free-throws than James (8,221 in the regular season).
More than just getting to the line, James' ability to finish through contact is unparalleled, as he demonstrated again Monday night. But despite James' obvious natural talents, that kind of finishing ability doesn't come without hard work, much of which came in the form of resistance band training, the biggest focus of the LeBron-designed workout. It started with building upper-body strength in every direction by pushing or pulling against a resistance band.
I was skeptical of why this was part of the workout rather than more traditional weight lifting. Then, I started doing it. The side-to-side twists in particular mimicked the motion of creating space with a defender draped all over you, without the added physical stress of actually having an opponent hitting you during practice; a workout specifically designed to prepare you for a beating without actually making you take one. And for someone who has played more than 2,500 minutes more than any other player over the past six seasons, avoiding unnecessary added stress on his body is critical.
After finishing the core portion of the workout, I had to crossover dribble through a rope ladder for about 15 feet, then drive to the basket and finish a layup, all while having someone pulling against me with the band the entire time. The first time I went up for one of these layups, I knew exactly how it felt to do so with a defender pulling you down, doing anything he can to keep you from drawing an and-1. And as difficult as it was to do so from the right side, it was exponentially harder from the left. And the workout featured both sides equally -- which is why James is just as comfortable driving and finishing in either direction in crunch time. Doing this specific exercise time and time again showed me just how much work James puts into what looks like just a natural ability in a game -- and reminded me that I really need to work on my left hand.
James does this specific workout at a speed and intensity I couldn’t possibly match, just to prepare him for situations like the end of Game 1, where the difference between finishing a layup and just going to the line for two free throws -- where James is shooting just 73.1 percent for the season and 74.4 percent for his career -- can mean the difference between winning and losing.
I’m never going to win a game by finishing through a Paul Millsap foul, absorbing the contact while somehow juggling the ball in midair before putting it in the basket. But having been through that workout showed that even someone as talented as James needs to put in an incredible amount of work before stepping onto the court. And even when I put those sneakers on now, I still know I’m not LeBron James -- and not just because my size 11 feet would slide right out of his size 15 sneakers.