Close enough to taste it

This article originally appears in the May 4th issue of ESPN The Magazine.

No words were spoken, but the volume was louder than a roar. Moments after scoring 45 points in last year's winner-take-all Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Celtics, LeBron James hustled off the court in a huff. Chin buried in his chest, he stormed into the locker room -- blowing by security guards, bumping past teammates -- never once taking his eyes off the floor.

He was ticked.

And that was a good thing.

If you want to know what drove the Cavaliers to their 66-16 record this season; if you want to understand why they protected their home court (39-2) like a SWAT unit, where they shellacked opponents by more than 15 points a game; if you want to understand why James suddenly looked like the NBA's most fearsome defender, well, your answers start with that angry walk through the bowels of the Garden last year.

How do I know? Because I've seen versions of that walk a few times since I started covering the NBA 20 years ago. And so I can tell you that for the first time on a basketball court, James was probably experiencing real pain. Hunger pain, you might call it, but it has nothing to do with food. It's the kind of ache that Michael Jordan felt after losing in the playoffs year after year to the Pistons, what Isiah endured when his Pistons kept falling to the Celtics, what Magic and Bird went through each time they lost to one another. Stomach-churning losses make ravenous competitors hungrier. It's why the postseason brings out the best in the best. "The playoffs are all about having hunger to the point where you're never satisfied," James explains.

Hunger is not an emotion, not quite a mentality and certainly not a skill. What it is, though, is as vital as anything drawn up on a whiteboard or honed in a gymnasium. Coaches come up with syrupy speeches and perform wild pregame stunts in an effort to generate it, and moderately talented players -- "energy guys" -- earn millions for providing a form of it. It's unquantifiable and only vaguely identifiable, and that allows every baller to think he's hungrier than the man he's facing up. Only some of them, of course, have a case. "It's that old cliché: 'Don't talk about it, be about it,'" says Hornets coach Byron Scott, who won three rings with the Lakers. "A lot of teams talk about how hungry they are, how dedicated they are. But until you go out and show it, it's just talk."

Now, some examples of hunger are textbook: Mine are Willis Reed limping onto the court in the 1970 Finals. Dominique and Bird dueling it out in Game 7 in 1988. MJ's 38-point performance while battling defenders and the flu in the 1997 Finals. Derek Fisher sinking a clutch three in 2007, an hour after flying 2,000 miles from his daughter's eye-cancer surgery.

Where will it come from this year? Who's going to commit to playing D for all 48? Who's going to fight through screens or risk lumps and lacerations lunging into the stands after the rock? We offer some guesses elsewhere in this story. But know this: It's not about physical effort only. That's the easy part. The hard part is using discipline and maturity to apply your brain as much as your body. Take it from a reporter who's spent a lot of days with players during series: There are guys who scour scouting reports and those who skim them -- and the difference is clear come tip-off. When I look at a player and try to guess how he'll impact a series, I begin by asking how dialed-in he is, on off-days and on-nights. Does he watch film in free time, seeking every edge possible, or just in coach- mandated sessions? Does winning mean enough to him that he'll sacrifice touches, feeding the hot hand even if it's not his? These are the kinds of questions coaches and captains ask all season as they scan the practice court and locker room. If they don't like the answers they see, it's their obligation to ratchet up the hunger quotient. Exhibit A: Early December in Boston, when Kevin Garnett nearly brought Glen Davis to tears. KG felt the Celtics' subs were squandering a 25-point lead against the Blazers. So during a timeout, he got in Davis' grill and let him have it. The C's won, and kept right on winning for eight games.

Exhibit B: Kobe's bizarre "trade me" rants, delivered in July 2007 following back-to-back first-round exits. Kobe told me later the episode motivated teammates and created a "win now" sense of urgency upstairs. See, front office execs can show their hunger as well. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak responded to his star's cravings by adding a necessary post threat in Pau Gasol.

Exhibit C: Denver trading for Chauncey Billups, which wasn't just a way to get rid of AI. Nuggets personnel boss Mark Warkentien knew Billups had plenty of practice whetting the appetites of his old Pistons teammates, who once fluctuated famously between famished and full. Billups' priority in Denver has been to coax the Nuggets, longtime opening-round fodder, to at least the second round for the first time in 15 years. "I'm not good at playing it off or playing with people who don't have the same passion or desire that I have," Billups says.

Some guys, I have come to believe, are just wired with a particular and insatiable desire. "CP3 and me are similar in our desire to win," Utah's Deron Williams says of New Orleans' Chris Paul. "We both hate to lose in whatever we do." Sounds like a cliché, but it's not. It's hard to describe what it's like to be in the presence of some of the most competitive people in the world, but you can actually feel their heart when you are. I was on the set of last season's NBA preview photo shoot for The Magazine when Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were locked in a game of table tennis that was anything but two guys killing time. Allen's eyes trained on the ball; beads of sweat formed on Pierce's brow. Watching them, I got the feeling that if they were half as intense during the season as they were on that late September evening they'd be champs -- and nine months later they were.

Winning does little to sate hunger for such guys. Michael Jordan still wants a seventh ring. The three titles Kobe won with Shaq might as well be ancient history now. He won't retire happy until he gets ice for his pinky without help from the big man. "I'm always starving," Kobe says. "I'm going to scrape the plate, whether it's now or five years ago." Tim Duncan owns four rings with the Spurs, but that's not enough. "You don't want to see somebody else holding the trophy because you know what it feels like. It makes you want it that much more."

So does actually believing that your team can win, as opposed to just hoping or wanting. The handful of teams with a real reason to think the Larry O'Brien Trophy could be theirs grow hungrier with each step toward that goal. Which brings us back to our cover subject. LeBron says he's hungrier than ever this season, and you believe him, if only because the Cavaliers are on the short list of favorites to win it all for the first time in his career. "It reminds me of the days when I was back in high school," he says. "Every time we went out on the court we knew we were going to win. So, yeah, this is the hungriest I've been. I see the potential in our team." Having the best record in the league will do that.

It's been almost a year since LeBron took that surly walk after the Cavaliers swallowed a very bitter pill. This spring, King James & Co. expect nothing less than a four-series meal. And they're saving room for dessert.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.