CLEVELAND -- A sanguine start to the Cleveland Cavaliers' season -- a few weeks full of wins, record-setting shooting and utopian unity among its defending-champion roster -- was interrupted by the 71-year-old president of the New York Knicks who has been paid more than $25 million to have his team lose twice as many games as it has won since he was hired in March 2014.
Phil Jackson's comments about the "special treatment" of LeBron James and his "posse" bounced from New York, to Los Angeles, to Cleveland, back to New York again. And James was left sitting in a half-empty locker room at Quicken Loans Arena trying to piece together what just happened.
"What does that mean?" James asked ESPN, referring to Jackson's assertion that the 14-year veteran receives special treatment. "I want to know what that means, though."
James' coach, Tyronn Lue, had a hard time figuring it out, too. Before the Cavs' 121-117 win over the Toronto Raptors extended Cleveland's record to an East-best 9-1 on Tuesday, Lue shot down Jackson's notion.
"He hasn't asked for special treatment," Lue said. "We treat everyone the same around here. Everyone grown men, we treat everyone the same, and LeBron has never come to me and asked for special treatment or to do anything different."
Lue had no plans to broker a meeting between Jackson and James, even though Lue played for Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers and won two championships under his tutelage. Lue has repeatedly likened that experience with the Lakers as a "blood transfusion" among all the team members who accomplished it together. Apparently that blood wasn't so thick between Lue and Jackson, or else he would have easily sorted it out between his former coach and current player.
Why, James was left to wonder, did Jackson choose to aim at him of all people? Were the four MVPs and three championships and two gold medals and six straight trips to the Finals not enough to prove his place in the game? Was the record revenue not a testament to the NBA's growing success ever since James has been the face of the league? Was his dedicated family life and social consciousness just not palatable? What happened to game respects game?
"I'm smart and I want respect!" James exclaimed, slapping his hand against the polished wood that lines his locker, breaking out the infamous Fredo Corleone line from "The Godfather: Part II," a film series James has seen too many times to count.
James laughed at himself for playing the victim card, ever so briefly. He knows what matters and what doesn't at this point of his career, at this point of his life as a 31-year-old father of three.
He might not seek out special treatment, but it comes to him just the same. James put up 28 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds against the Raptors to come up just shy of his 45th career triple-double, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. And the Holy Father of the Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson, was sitting courtside next to the Cavs' bench.
"LeBron is going to be a great player [historically]," Robertson told ESPN.com. "He may be No. 1, maybe No. 2, but the game is going to slow down for him. When he's out here, it's a different game. No doubt about it. You can tell it. When he's out (on the bench), they don't play the same. They don't play the same."
Said James: "It's a humbling feeling to know that a guy like that takes time out of his schedule, takes time out of his day, to come watch me, watch our team play the game that we love."
As if the Cavs needed reminders of the special player they have in James. On Tuesday, a fan was shown on the Jumbotron holding a sign that read, "I flew in from Taiwan to see LeBron." Security guards line the tunnel from the locker room out to the court, and they all hold up a single fist when James makes his way through. He's the only Cavs' player who elicits that heightened awareness, because, well, he is the man everyone is there to see.
If anything though, James tries to share the shine -- whether that be empowering his childhood friends Rich Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims to become business partners or spreading the wealth with a simple gesture like putting a pair of Beats headphones in every teammate's locker before the Toronto game.
"He's always been like that," Tristan Thompson told ESPN.com. "He's all about team and family so you got to be very appreciative and always say 'thank you' because I've been on other teams where we haven't got s---, so he always looks out for us and makes sure everyone is well taken care of …
"I've never met a human being at that level that cares so much about others. So Phil Jackson's got his comments, it is what it is, but … I'm rolling with him. I'm rolling with 'Bron."
Thompson wasn't alone in rallying around James.
"Come on," Lue said. "We know he's one of the all-time greatest players, and right now, he's the best player in the game. We know that and we acknowledge that, but LeBron doesn't want special treatment. It's really a big thing when you're a leader and you want to stand in instead of stand out all the time. There's times where we have to come in together as a group, not who is the best player or worst player, but a team, one through 15, you have to be a tight-knit group, and LeBron understands that. He doesn't want that kind of treatment."
He wants to feel like a part of the team. A gregarious, generous leader on the team who can switch between self-deprecating Fredo impressions to singing the lyrics to The Weeknd's "Starboy" without a hint of irony. Because that's authentic. That's LeBron James. It's not whatever or whoever Phil Jackson thinks he is.
"That's all I've ever done, since I was a kid," James told ESPN.com. "That's all I've ever done. I've put a lot of work into my craft and I'm blessed and naturally gifted, and I put a lot of work into it on top of that. But as far as when it comes to a team, I like being a part of a team. ... I'm an only child. I never liked being alone. I never liked standing out. ... I always wanted like brothers around me all the way from when I started playing ball. From the first time I picked up a basketball all the way through high school to now."