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Tyronn Lue and the Art of Igniting LeBron

Most coaches challenge The King at their own peril. But as the Cavs found out in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Lue is not like most coaches.  by Kurt Streeter ESPN – 12/21/16

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Dec. 26 / Jan. 2 issue. Subscribe today!

Tronn Lue took a risk. “LeBron, you gotta be better! If we’re gonna win, you gotta be better!”

Deep inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena, the visitors locker room was not a happy place. It was halftime, Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the Cavaliers were trailing the Warriors 49-42.

Lue had tough words for everyone, but he was surprisingly sharp toward LeBron James. It was not the first time that night. During a timeout late in the second quarter, the rookie head coach had barked: “LeBron, what’s wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible.” Lue recalls a look that seemed to say: Are you kidding me, what more do you want me to do? His answer: “You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?”

As he had for most of the series, James led the team that night in scoring and assists. But it wasn’t yet enough. He was two quarters from fulfilling his homecoming promise to bring Cleveland its first NBA title, and the Cavs were close to letting it slip away. Draymond Green had been killing them with a flurry of 3-pointers, and everyone in the locker room realized that one big push from the Warriors in the second half could put victory out of reach.

“We weren’t performing well,” says James Jones, the team’s veteran forward. “LeBron needed to step up, and as a team we needed to take it to another level.”

Lue decided to say everything he could to get under LeBron’s skin: “Game 7! Your legacy is on the line.”

James couldn’t believe he was being challenged, and Cavs assistant Damon Jones worked to calm him down: “You trusted Coach all season. You said he was going to take us to where we wanted to go. If you trusted him then, you need to trust him now.”

James snarled, “All right, f— it!” before reportedly storming out of the locker room.

“Now I got him,” Lue thought.

Coaches court misfortune when they confront LeBron. Piss him off and you might lose him. Maybe he tunes you out forever and you could soon be looking for another job. Ask David Blatt.

But James responded to Lue’s challenge in the second half, scoring 15 points and delivering 4 rebounds, 6 assists and 1 length-of-the-court-recovery blocked shot for the ages. “Yeah, I felt different [than Lue did],” James says now. “But at the end of the day, we respected one another to the point where I was like, ‘OK, I respect you; let’s hash it out here, leave it in the locker room and get to playing.’ And I was able to respond in the second half because I just respect what he says.”

When Game 7 ended, Lue sat on a black padded chair, alone, his head buried in a maroon towel, and cried. He thought of his grandmother and his mother, the two women who raised him. Both were battling breast cancer, and neither could attend the Finals. He thought about playing for the Lakers and the permanent place he holds in “You got posterized” lore as the guy who stumbled and was stepped over by Allen Iverson. He thought about his long career — seven teams, 11 years, never close to being a star — and then his sudden, unexpected rise to the top as a 39-year-old coach.

And he thought of the blue-collar town where he grew up, on the plains of central Missouri. And when he stood with his team at the postgame trophy ceremony, he approached the microphone and yelled, “Mexico, Missouri, we in the house, baby!”



Tyronn Lue’s all-important hometown connection – The basement of Rough’s barbershop in Mexico, MO is where Lue became the man who would change the dreams of a title-desparate city. PHOTOGRAPH: Danny Wilcox Frazier ESPN

LUE’S FAMILY ROOTS go back to the days of slavery in Mexico, Missouri, named as a nod to Texas’ declaration of independence from its southern neighbor. And if you could ask each of its roughly 12,000 residents, no one would be surprised that Lue came at LeBron. “That’s how it is around here,” says Damon Long, one of Lue’s longtime buddies in the town’s tight-knit African-American community. “We’re the slick-talkingest m—–f—–s you will ever see. But when we’re done talkin’ mess, we still gonna love you.”

“I carry that place with me everywhere I go,” Lue says. “It is who I am and where I am from. It taught me everything I know about life. I know that no matter what happens in Cleveland, I’m gonna be good down there.”

He’s good at Rough’s, a barbershop in the basement of an old yellow house that looks as if it could blow over in a storm. Lue began going to Rough’s when he was still in grade school. His father, Ronald Kemp, was a local basketball legend who shot deadeye jumpers on the concrete courts at Garfield Park before crack cocaine sent him to prison. Lue hardly knew his father growing up, but the regulars talked about him at Rough’s. Lue and his friends would sneak in and huddle in a corner behind a craps table. He could smell the cologne and the kerosene from an aging heater in the corner.

On one side, men sat in barber chairs. On another was a small bar and a table stacked with vodka, rum, wine and champagne. The air cracked with sharp-tongued cussing and laughter. “Oh, man, inside that barbershop you gonna hear everything,” Lue says, his eyes widening. “And see it too. People robbed. A friend got shot. Police kicked in [the door]. I seen everything you could possibly see in there. … I remember seeing guns on top of money. One guy would keep his money flat, in stacks, and on top he’d put his gun. What that place taught me, what a lot of my growing up in Mexico taught me, was what to do in life and definitely what not to do. As far as coaching now, a lot of skills that I use translate from Rough’s.”

Gary “the Rough Man” Jackson owns the place. He’s 71 but looks 51. His chocolate skin is smooth and tight; his eyes are clear and sharp. He is one of Lue’s many cousins, a barber, a barkeep, a gambler and a raconteur. He has slowed down a bit over the years, and so has his shop, but he still talks about women, a great deal. He talks about high school basketball and ends with a soliloquy on the evils of Republicans, the days of Jim Crow and how he came to be known as Rough. “By last count, there is 217 ass-whuppin’s that I gave people … and I only been whupped two times in my life.” But most of all, he talks about why he loves Ty Lue. “Because of that boy’s good heart.”

“In Mexico, you’re not sheltered from anything,” says Jay “Doodles” Carter, still one of Lue’s closest friends. “From the time we were in grade school, we could be with people with money one minute, regular folks the next, criminals and drug dealers the next. And pretty much all of these people were looking out for us.”

“I relate to him because I was one of those guys who was counted out too.” – LEBRON JAMES ON TYRONN LUE

Lue’s mother, Kim, says she had a hard time finding work when he was coming up. She struggled with drug addiction. She couldn’t afford a car. She shoplifted, trying to make life better for her children. “I would say, ‘I’m going shopping,’ but it was more than that. I was going stealing. You name it, I could get it. Steaks, lobster, chicken, shoes, clothes, hats — one time, even a whole rack of clothing from a department store.”

Today, Kim Lue, 60, is a minister who runs a church out of a four-bedroom home Lue bought for her in Katy, Texas. She’s proud of having survived Mexico. Two brick plants that formed the backbone of the local economy for years are closed now, and there are vacant stores on the weary town square. These days, so many young families have left that the high school has a third fewer students than when Lue attended as a freshman.

Lue returns to town as often as he can — and always on the Fourth of July to host fireworks at Garfield Park in honor of his late grandfather, who shared his birthday with the country. He checks on all the people he helps — the kids he treats to free trips to local amusement parks or special days at the local pool, the neighbors he advises, the friends who count on him to cover their debts or the rent. Sometimes he walks through the neighborhood with $1,000 in his pocket — cash for those who might need some.

“I guess you could say I’m Santa Claus, the lawyer, the tooth fairy, everything,” he says. “There’s not a lot of money in that town, not a lot of money at all. So why would I want to be rich while they struggle and suffer? That don’t make sense. What is the satisfaction from that?”

TY LUE DIDN’T want to be head coach of the Cavaliers. Blatt had taken Cleveland to the NBA Finals in 2015, and the team got off to a fast start last season, but discord was never far from the surface. Players often seemed to ignore him, and he couldn’t find a way to reach James. “The fit was wrong,” GM David Griffin says. “We are trying to raise a family here, and it makes it very difficult when one kid can get away with anything.”

Lue hesitated when he was offered Blatt’s job in late January, less than 19 months after joining the team as an associate head coach. Mexico puts a steep premium on loyalty, and he hated the idea that some might think he had plotted a coup.

He had been at the beating heart of every team he’d ever been part of. He was only 6 feet tall, naturally quiet, but he routinely stood up to Kobe Bryant during Lakers practices. Ditto Michael Jordan in his days with the Wizards. At his offseason home in Las Vegas, Lue held intense games of 5-on-5 at the Impact Basketball gym. He hosted barbecues, card games and hoops strategy sessions. Players from around the NBA gravitated to his place in the summers. “He just has a way of bringing everybody together, a way of connecting,” says Doc Rivers, who gave Lue his first coaching job in Boston in 2009, then hired him again after taking over the Clippers in 2013.

The Cavs “were perfect for Ty,” friend and mentor Jerry West thought. “Because he’s a healer — and tough enough to point out things that some coaches would be reluctant to point out.”

Still, Lue told Griffin that firing Blatt was a mistake.

“So Ty, you are telling me you are not the right person for the job?”

“No. I am definitely the right person for the job. But this is f—ed up.”

By the end of their talk, Griffin had persuaded Lue to become head coach, but Lue refused to sign the contract extension customary in such circumstances. In Mexico, they love to bet on just about everything. Now he was betting on himself.

The team didn’t respond immediately. He wanted them to play faster, but they weren’t in shape for it. His coaching style is generally calm, but he started choosing times to breathe fire. As a player, he had seen how Phil Jackson saved most of his harshest criticism for his biggest stars, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Lue started doing the same with LeBron, calling him out in practice and at film sessions.

Under Blatt, James had a habit of talking directly to the team during timeouts, but Lue shut that down, reportedly at one point saying, “Shut the f— up, I got this.”

In early March, the Cavs suffered a home-court loss to a Memphis team that was missing most of its starters. Seventeen days later, they lost to the Nets in Brooklyn. They were still in first place in the Eastern Conference, but Lue was frustrated with their approach to the game. His uncle, Jay Graves, remembers answering the phone and hearing his nephew’s voice, pissed off and uncertain. “These guys don’t know what it takes to win,” Lue told him. “Too many of them are looking out for their brand.”

“We were going through a very rough time, and I couldn’t believe it — I wanted to jump off the cliff,” Lue remembers. “You second-guess yourself. ‘Am I the right guy for this?'”

The morning after the loss to Brooklyn, Lue gathered his squad in a conference room at the Trump Soho Hotel. He told LeBron and Kyrie Irving it was about time they started playing smart every night and coming together. Get on the same page, he ordered. Then he zeroed in on Kevin Love, who was struggling under the burden of playing with James. Stand up for yourself. Be more demanding. Remember you are a three-time All-Star. “You’re a bad m—–f—er! You can’t just defer every time to LeBron or Kyrie, because you are a bad m—–f—er too. So tell LeBron, ‘I’m a bad m—–f—er!'”

“We’re the slick-talkingess m—–f—–s you will ever see. But when we’re done talkin’ mess, we still gonna love you.”  PHOTO: Danny Wilcox Frazier for ESPN

There’s something different about Lue, James says: “He is not coming from an ‘I’m doing this for me’ standpoint. He’s doing it from an ‘I’m doing this for us. I’m going to tell you the truth no matter what.’ I respect that.” In a strange tie that binds, LeBron’s business manager and longtime friend, Maverick Carter, has family in Mexico, Missouri. Maverick and Ty’s good friend Doodles Carter are cousins. James sees parallels to his own path out of Akron in Lue’s road from Mexico to the NBA.

“Take a look at his background, man,” he says. “One way in, one way out. Population close to nothing. So he has always been counted out. I relate to him because I was one of those guys who was counted out too. Supposed to be a statistic, no way I was supposed to be in this position.”

This season the Cavaliers jumped to a 20-6 start by Dec. 20, best in the Eastern Conference, third best in the league. Despite a rare three-game losing streak just after Thanksgiving that prompted Lue to replace his starting five en masse at one point, overall they have been loose and confident. In Washington, at a morning shootaround before a November game against the Wizards, Lue watches James nail several 3-pointers. Lue takes his spot and launches several of his own. They clang off the rim.

He moves closer and shoots a few more. They go in.

“Midrange!” James says.

Lue laughs.

“Just like Chris Paul. I’ll take those all day long,” James says.

They stand side by side, smiling.

TY LUE HAS coached less than a full NBA season. He’s still learning. His game plans, he says, hurt the Cavs during their first two losses in the Finals; it took awhile for him to figure out a better strategy to combat the Warriors’ speed. He doesn’t command a news conference like Doc Rivers or Phil Jackson, and being the face of the franchise doesn’t come naturally. He isn’t interested in politics or social protest. He doesn’t enjoy vacations. He is not married and never has been. He has no children, and it’s hard for him to imagine any in his future. He says he has never smoked or had a drink of alcohol after seeing the damage of addiction up close. He doesn’t sleep through the night. Doesn’t want to dream. “My life is so good that a dream can only make it worse,” he says.

In mid-November, wearing gray sweats and toting a small gray and black bag, Lue takes a flight to Kansas City for his mother’s 60th birthday party. At the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, about 100 people come together, most with roots in Mexico, Missouri — including his father, with whom Lue reconnected during his NBA playing days. A band plays jazz and blues. “T Lue” is among his people, smiling broadly, giving long hugs, relishing the fact that nobody wants to know about his team or LeBron or the prospects of beating the Warriors with Kevin Durant.

Late in the evening, a DJ begins spinning some hip-hop. Lue clears a table and passes out playing cards. It’s a family ritual: a game of bid whist, akin to bridge. Lue sifts through his hand, eyeing the other players. Doodles Carter hovers nearby: “Pay attention, he gonna do some cheating. He’ll get you if you’re not looking!”

Lue smiles slyly.

The Cavs are a universe away. Their coach is swaying, mouthing lyrics along with Tupac and Biggie. He spreads a winning hand on the table and reaches inside his black suit jacket and brings out his NBA championship ring, a bulb of white and yellow gold nearly the size of his palm and inlaid with more than 400 diamonds. He slams it on the table.

“I’m the world champ, n—a!” he shouts. “I’m the champ!”

His friends yell back. They hug and laugh.

He is home.

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