MIKE MANCIAS HAD been given pointed instructions by his bosses with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Don’t f— this up.”
That order bounced around his head as he drove the 40 minutes from Cleveland down Interstate 77 toward LeBron James’ house in Akron on a late October evening in 2006.
It was the unofficial motto for everyone in Cleveland in those days. The franchise had been blessed with a native son, who just happened to be one of the most talented basketball players of all time, and it was their job to help him make good on his destiny.
As Mancias pulled through iron gates adorned with basketballs and into the large curving driveway that fronted one of the largest homes in the city, he was taken aback by a line of cars. It was the night before the season opener of James’ fourth season in the NBA, but the first time he’d actually invited a member of the team’s training staff, or any non-teammate, to his estate.
Mancias had slowly earned James’ trust over the previous two seasons as the team’s assistant athletic trainer. James liked the way he felt after their stretching and training sessions. But this was their first private session. Mancias took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.
The door was opened by … Batman.
James had summoned Mancias to his mansion for an important reason. However, James, dressed as the caped crusader, had forgotten he was hosting a Halloween party.
The 15 or so people at the costume party, family and members of James’ tight circle, were skeptical of Mancias — except for little Bronny James, having just turned 2, in a diaper.
“They all sort of stood around and watched me. They made it clear: ‘Don’t mess our guy up,'” Mancias told ESPN. “But they all left, and when it was over I had dinner with Savannah [James’ wife], LeBron and Bronny in his high chair.”
Mancias, of course, did not mess James up. That training session was the beginning of a relationship that has helped James keep his body in remarkable condition for 20 seasons. They’ve trained together hundreds of times since, from Cleveland to Miami back to Cleveland and then to Los Angeles. The night before nearly every game, at James’ house before home games and in team hotels on the road.
MORE: Every point LeBron has scored, in every jersey he’s scored them in
Long enough to see the baby who was in the high chair at that first session reach the precipice of joining his father in the NBA. And of course, long enough that James has executed an iconic achievement by breaking one of sports’ most hallowed records, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,390 points. The volume of scoring, though, is really just a wonderful side effect of his journey.
The mission James, 38, has been focused on — actually make that obsessed with — for two decades is to maximize.
Maximize the athleticism he was born with. Maximize his ability to earn money for his family and raise it for charity. And maximize his chances at winning.
All the points — the side-step 3-pointers, the dunks (more than 2,000 of them) and all those and-1s (more than 1,400 of them) — are an outgrowth of James’ desire to make the most out of a career he has nurtured with great care.
This record is a James triumph in longevity of mind and body, something he has never lost sight of even as his career has gone on such an unprecedented ride.
“I know as long as my mind stays in it, I can play at this level. That’s up to my mind,” James said in December, reflecting on his career. “My body is going to be OK, because if my mind is into it, I will make sure my body is taken care of and I’ll continue to put the work in.”
There are many differences between Abdul-Jabbar and James, both as men and as players. One was a slender giant who revolutionized the way the game was played at every level with possibly the most unstoppable shot ever. The other is an athletic marvel whose genius changed the business of basketball nearly as much as he dominated the league.
Much has been written and said about their differences off the court, in matters of social justice, activism and politics as well. Abdul-Jabbar has been a critic of some of James’ positions, and James has made it clear they don’t have a relationship. But the new scoring leader made a point to downplay any past issues this week.
“It’s all good. At the end of the day, we’re a part of a franchise that’s so historic in the game of basketball, that means so much to so many people not only here in Los Angeles but all over the world,” James told ESPN this week. “It just makes sense. It’s kind of weird how the stars align.”
Their similarities go beyond their time in L.A. and their long association on the NBA’s career points list, starting with the legendary discipline it took to maintain a level of physical and mental greatness for two decades in the NBA.
“When [Abdul-Jabbar] played, he looked ageless,” former Lakers general manager Jerry West told ESPN. “I watch LeBron play and he looks like he can play another 5-6 years. He looks younger to me this year than he did last year. That’s what they both have: longevity and performance.”
Those who have known both men and their games well, like Pat Riley, a teammate and coach of Abdul-Jabbar on four championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers and the president of the Miami Heat when he won two titles with James, keep coming back to how alike they are in thinking the game and caring for their bodies.
“What happens with great, great, great players is their amount of intellect and experience and all of that stuff and just knowing the game, that sort of eventually surpasses maybe your physical ability,” Riley told ESPN. “[James] really knows the game inside and out and knows the whole industry and the environment. And so it’s incredible what he is doing after 20 years. I mean, it’s just incredible.”
THE DAY AFTER his first evening session with Mancias, James scored 26 points with 10 rebounds and five assists in a narrow season-opening victory over the then-rival Washington Wizards. It was the beginning of a long expedition into planning for the long haul.
When James was a rookie in 2003, he often didn’t even tape his ankles, relying on simple braces. There were no such things as postgame ice sessions. But he made a shift after signing his first max contract with the Cavaliers in 2006 when he was 21 years old.
After every Cavaliers game back in those days, veteran All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the last out of the locker room. After a series of foot injuries, Ilgauskas was deeply invested in recovery and injury prevention to try to prolong his career. He would sit with his feet in a bucket of ice for 20 to 30 minutes after every game with bags on his knees and sometimes his shoulders and back.
When James would leave the locker room, “Z” would still be sitting there. Eventually he was joined in the practice by fellow center Anderson Varejao; they are the two teammates with whom James played more games than anyone else in his career.
“Zydrunas used to be so influential in that regard, and other areas, too, in LeBron’s life,” Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown told ESPN. Brown coached James and the Cavaliers from 2004 to 2010. “I really feel like he learned a lot of the maintenance stuff and taking care of his body and how important that was from Z.”
Soon, James was telling Mancias not to let him leave without icing his knees, even if for 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually, Ilgauskas and Varejao had a new friend to sit with in postgame ice baths.
“He did it a few times and started feeling better,” Mancias said. “That turned into icing his feet and knees after every game. He used to rush ice to get to dinner. Now dinner waits for ice.”
As the years went on, Mancias started adding more items to the menu. Massages. Cryotherapy chambers. Hyperbaric chambers. Leg compression therapy. He convinced James to buy a VersaClimber for his home gym. Then he talked him into installing a cold tub at his house. Then a hot tub alongside it, each ready at any hour of the day. Then Pilates.
If you happened to be in the Cavs’ team hotel in the late 2000s and you happened to walk by the pool in the mornings, you might’ve been stunned to see James doing a headstand yoga pose.
Mancias brought that technique to James as well. It was something Abdul-Jabbar pioneered in the NBA in the 1970s, when such practices were unheard of.
“Back then, whatever stretching we did as a team was to put 15 guys in a circle and then they would tell stories for 15 minutes and bust each other’s chops,” Riley said.
“And he’d go and he’d end up in these pretzel-like positions. And our guys would laugh at them, and he would just say, ‘You’ll see one day. You’ll see one day.’ … But this guy was serious about getting up early and meditating, praying and eating healthily.”
Before games, Riley and West would find Abdul-Jabbar quietly reading at his locker.
“He was just quiet and concentrating on reading his book,” West said of Abdul-Jabbar. “When the game started he was focused on taking care of business. He was the consummate professional in how he prepared himself. He’s one of the most professional players I’ve ever been around.”
James often quotes Riley in explaining this kind of self-discipline and focus: “Keep the main thing the main thing.”
In this case that main thing is basketball, and how to maximize his time in it.
Over the years James has worked with many different specialists — at one time he personally employed a full-time biomechanics specialist to manage back issues — to boost his performance and prolong his career.
“He got caught at an early age with people that were teaching him the right things about how to take care of his body and what it means to have longevity in this league. He followed the guidelines, and look where he’s at today,” Tyronn Lue, who coached James to a title with the Cavs in 2016 and is now the LA Clippers’ coach, told ESPN.
“He wanted to be one of the greatest of all times. And so if you want to do that, you have to put in the work and you’ve got to have longevity.”
ONCE TEAMMATES IN high school, Dru Joyce III and James are lifelong friends.
At St. Vincent-St. Mary, James didn’t eat as healthily as he does now. The team’s pre-training meals were the dozens of McDonald’s cheeseburgers coach Keith Dambrot picked up for them on his drive from his stockbroker job in Cleveland to the school campus in Akron. But James’ self-discipline and care for himself was astonishing even then.
“You know how when you have a sleepover, some of your friends may leave their pillow out and their blanket all over the place?” Joyce told ESPN. “With him, the blanket is folded up and put back where it’s supposed to be.
“That’s a small thing, but it’s meaningful when you go about caring for things in your life that way.”
Throughout his career, James’ compulsion for order and neatness has been a defining characteristic. His locker is immaculate. His office is deftly organized.
“He never missed a weight room session. He was never late to anything. He carried himself like a veteran even though he was a teenager,” Darius Miles, one of James’ closest friends in the league early in his career, told ESPN. “I’d been in the league three years by then, and he was 20 times more mature than I was.”
When he was in school, James was obsessive about doing his homework and chided teammates if they were late to class.
A few summers ago, Joyce, who had a long playing career in Europe, came to stay with James in Los Angeles and watched how he worked out. Things hadn’t changed much.
“At 5 a.m. he was up and ready, breakfast prepared and ready to go out the door,” said Joyce, who is now an assistant coach at Duquesne University.
On reflection, though, Joyce found one thing that had changed with James over the years.
“When we were kids, he was a night owl,” Joyce said. “Now at 10 p.m. he was like, ‘I’m shutting it down.'”
There’s a nature-nurture question about where a personality type like James’ comes from. The answer is probably both. Either way, it would be hard to replicate.
“His mother did an unbelievable job of raising him and then getting him around people that put discipline into his life,” Dambrot, James’ first high school coach, who is now the head coach at Duquesne, told ESPN. “He has instincts. He learns well. He just has it. And I think that’s where the discipline comes from.”
Joyce stayed with James the summer James shot “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Those 5 a.m. workouts were scheduled that early so James could shoot scenes or meet with producers during the day. James would then return to the gym in the afternoon or early evening to do shooting drills.
In this way, he was also like Abdul-Jabbar, who took time in the summers to film several movies in his career, including in 1972, when he went to Hong Kong a month before training camp to film a fight scene with Bruce Lee in “Game of Death.” In August 1979, he filmed scenes for “Airplane!” as well.
“He never got out of shape,” West said.
In addition to “Space Jam,” which was made in Los Angeles, James spent part of the offseason in 2014 filming “Trainwreck” in New York. But like with Abdul-Jabbar, it never affected his offseason routine.
“LeBron has gotten to the point where his whole day is predicated around making sure his body is in the best position to perform,” Mancias said. “That is first, and then he’ll have his meetings or go watch the kids play. His goal has been to take care of his body in a way that he’s available to his teammates.”
Abdul-Jabbar played 80 or more games in 11 of his 20 seasons, five times playing all 82. James averaged fewer than five missed games per season over his first 15 in the league, though he has suffered some injuries over the past few years that have boosted that number.
In 2017-18, as James was making his eighth consecutive Finals run at age 33, he played in all 82 games, then 22 more playoff games.
“He really wanted to do that,” Lue said. “That’s a badge of honor to play 82 games, especially at the rate he played them.”
James led the league in minutes per game in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 during his second stint with the Cavs, a decidedly heavy workload compared to his fellow mid-30-somethings and downright anathema to the load management crowd.
But James always told Lue he preferred it that way, so it became Lue’s job to explain that to the media after particularly heavy-minute games.
“He said he ain’t 50 years old,” Lue recalled. “That he feels better when he plays more minutes. That his body felt worse when he didn’t play enough minutes.”
ULTRAMARATHONERS HAVE A a saying that applies here.
“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up.”
In many ways, this scoring record is a test of endurance. And yet when James talks about why he presses on, the only suffering he ever reveals is after losses.
“I’m a winner and I want to win. I want to give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron,” James said after a loss in Miami in December. “I know it takes steps to get there, but once you get there and you know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
Brown, who coached James for five years in Cleveland, likes to tell a story about how a young James dealt with losing as an example of his dedication to the craft. It was 2010, and the Cavaliers had just lost a brutal playoff series to the Boston Celtics, and it ended up being James’ last game with the Cavs before leaving for the Heat.
“We got eliminated on Thursday and I went into the office on Sunday,” Brown recalled. Brown’s son Elijah was in middle school at the time and often used to shoot at the Cavs’ facility.
“All the lights were off in the gym,” Brown said. “And probably 10 seconds later [Elijah] runs back into my office and goes, ‘Dad, LeBron’s in the weight room.'”
In Brown’s telling, it is a story about dedication. But from a wider lens, it is a story about passion. For the game, for competition — and the forever quest to maximize his abilities.
When Mancias first started working with James, they’d take four to six weeks off after each season. Eventually they shortened that break to two weeks. James found he felt better the shorter the break.
“He would talk about, ‘What can I do to prepare this summer that will help me play another 10 years?'” Mancias said. “Now it’s, ‘What can I do to play long enough that I can get to Junior.'”
Junior is the 18-year-old version of that little kid in the high chair Mancias met after the Halloween party all those years ago. James wants to play with him in the NBA one day — on the same team if they can. That day is in sight now, as Bronny prepares to play in college this fall.
Batman just has to make it another two seasons.
Batman is James’ favorite superhero. He has a life-sized replica of the mask prominently displayed in his office and has said he’d like to play the Dark Knight in a movie one day.
Unlike other superheroes, Batman doesn’t have any official superhuman abilities. He makes up for it with his brain, technical prowess, determination and ability to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Though it helps to have a fortune, like Bruce Wayne, James has spent millions on his body over the decades.
“I knew when I got drafted as an 18-year-old kid that I could play the game of basketball and play it at a high level even against grown men,” James said this week. “One thing I didn’t know is that the success I would have. I prayed on the success. I worked my tail off for the success, but had no idea the success I had. And it’s just been a very humbling and gratifying journey. And I hope people have enjoyed it with me.”