And so he does. Over the course of the next six years, James becomes a vastly better shooter, statistically one of the finest in the game, before adding layers to his post game in the following years, racking up three more visits to the Finals, four Most Valuable Player trophies and a title ...
And still it is, in 2013, with Popovich returning to the exact same game plan from six years prior, that James is finding he isn't just battling the strategy, but rather the baggage of those long-ago missed jumpers. The memory does not forget. James is by now a completely different player, more mature, more polished and confident. But as he looks down at that Spurs defensive set, his head can't help it, the hard drive producing the files it has already downloaded without asking for permission first. The memory replays a string of prior decisions, all leading to a series of negative outcomes, one atop the other, locking him in stasis when he needs action, most of all.
"At times his memory can be a bad thing," Spoelstra said. "Because he remembers his failures, too."
Consider what you know of the 2011 NBA Finals. And now consider it, instead, like this: In what will likely be remembered as the low point of his career, James is miserable for several games against the Dallas Mavericks -- including a vitally important Game 4 collapse when he somehow scores just eight points in 46 minutes. At times during that game it appears as if James is in a trance.
"What is he thinking?" the basketball world wonders.
James -- with two titles and counting, and four straight trips to the Finals -- can admit today what he's thinking in 2011: He's thinking of everything. Everything good, and everything bad. In 2011, he isn't just playing against the Mavs; he's also battling the demons of a year earlier, when he failed in a series against the Boston Celtics as the pressure of the moment beat him down. It's Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, and it is, to this point, perhaps the most incomprehensible game of James' career. His performance is so lockjawed, so devoid of rhythm, the world crafts its own narrative, buying into unfounded and ridiculous rumors because they seem more plausible than his performance.
James, though, never fully deals with any of that. Instead, he changes teams. Changes cities. Changes coaches. Changes owners. Changes teammates. Changes uniforms. Changes climate. Wipe the slate clean, and maybe, for once, he can leave the past behind.
Instead, when it all happens again a year later, James' recall turns against him, yet again, like an awful sequel to an awful original movie -- everything happening out of James' control, the awful computer in his head winning the inner monologue.
"There are a lot of things that go through my mind during a game," James says. "Sometimes I cloud my mind too much. I get to thinking about the game too much instead of just playing."
It's 2014, and James is atop the game -- a triumph a decade in the making, each letdown having given way to incremental growth. But perhaps the most overlooked battle in his personal war has been the campaign to control his thoughts and corresponding fears.