Professional football players aren’t really that much different from you when they come home from work. Their knees might ache a bit more, and they might have heartier appetites at the dinner table, but after that, they just want to kick back and be sports fans, too.
The Eagles reconvened last month for OTAs after a welcome but shorter-than-usual offseason, and they will be together for mini-camp this month. There is the usual shop talk about their own business throughout the locker room after practices, but few topics have been as thoroughly discussed as the NBA playoffs, and specifically the exploits of one LeBron Raymone James Sr.
It sometimes takes a professional athlete to fully appreciate another, and reaching across to another sport allows some of the Eagles to dissect James’ accomplishments not just dispassionately, as they might for another football player, but also with the same touch of awe as the average fan.
“The craziest thing about LeBron, aside from the talent, is that Father Time hasn’t touched him, and Father Time comes for everybody,” Eagles guard Brandon Brooks said. “Think about it. He’s played for 15 years and he doesn’t get hurt. He’s a once-in-a-generation kind of player. For some people, it was [Michael] Jordan. For me, it was Kobe [Bryant]. Now, it’s LeBron.”
James is 33. He will turn 34 in December, and he will be playing basketball then, although no one knows exactly where yet. You might have heard that James will be a free agent after this season and is expected to depart Cleveland again because of a fractious relationship with team owner Dan Gilbert. (After James decamped for Miami in 2010, Gilbert called the move a “cowardly betrayal” in an open letter to fans. James returned in 2014 and the Cavs won a championship in 2016, so many believe another move is not only justified but also inevitable.)
Once again, for the eighth straight season, James has his team in the NBA Finals, and for the fourth straight time against the Golden State Warriors. This has been called his greatest accomplishment, getting the current version of the Cavs to the championship round despite their holding just the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and after a regular season in which the roster was blown up at the trade deadline and the team played just three games over .500 after mid-December.
The Cavs are there, however, and LeBron got them there, finishing off the run to the Finals with a 48-minute performance in the clincher against Boston. As the Eagles leaned forward in their chairs, they were as impressed as you.
“Obviously, he’s got a different gene pool from the rest of us. He’s a freak show,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “But I think it’s his ability to have sustained success that really separates him. He has the ability to understand how good he can be. For a lot of guys, that comes and goes in waves. With him, it’s a mind-set thing. The guy never gets hurt, and that might be lucky, but you make your own luck in terms of how you prepare, how you take care of your body. You see him after a game and he’s got ice bags from head to toe. He understands the responsibility he has.”
James will play more games this season than in any of his previous seasons. His personal record had been 100 in 2011. This season, he played every game of the 82-game regular-season schedule, leading the league in minutes as well as points, and the final game against Boston in the conference championship was Cleveland’s 18th postseason game.
“Even as an athlete, it’s hard to imagine relating to LeBron. I think he’s that rare combination of everything. God doesn’t give everybody everything,” defensive end Chris Long said. “The thing about him is he goes out and plays at that standard every night. Some guys can have a special playoff performance that people always talk about, but with LeBron, it’s every night, and if he doesn’t do it, people crush him. He’s unbelievable. Sometimes we overhype stuff, but he’s one of the few things in sports that we don’t overhype.”
James believes he can fulfill another long-term contract while playing at a very high level. There are a number of teams out there – including that wacky 76ers organization – that would take a chance he’s right. At the NovaCare Complex in South Philly, he has plenty of believers.
“What makes him better than everybody else – and, yes, he’s got measurables you don’t see, and he’s a freak and all of that – is that he’s such a competitor mentally. To have that for so long has been amazing to watch,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I look at it as an athlete, and I know to do that so consistently the amount of discipline you have to have in terms of diet, sleep, how you take care of your body to keep going for that long is unfathomable. People might say, ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ And it’s because you’re not dedicated enough. He has the willingness to do what it takes to reach that level, and even some of the best don’t want to go there.”
The Eagles have a locker room full of champions now, loaded with veterans who know what it takes to be at the top of their own games, and to reach for every bit of their potential. And then, just like us, they watch LeBron James and wonder how the sky can possibly be so high for a few very special players.