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There's a fascinating new theory about what makes LeBron James so good

LeBron James might have an “eidetic memory”.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

LEBRON JAMES MIGHT have an “eidetic memory” — the closest thing to a photographic memory — according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

It’s assumed that LeBron is so good because of his once-in-a-generation athleticism, combined with a good work ethic. Windhorst reports that there’s a third contributing factor: LeBron’s freakishly good memory.

The article, which you should really read in its entirety, is full of examples of LeBron remembering things with unusual precision on and off the court. While experts agree that “photographic memory” doesn’t exist, eidetic memory is a known phenomenon where people can vividly recall visual images.

Some of the examples:

  • One of LeBron’s childhood friends says that when you play the Madden videogame against LeBron, you can’t be the same team twice because he’ll remember which plays you ran.
  • In February of 2014, after making a game-winning shot in Golden State, he recalled a game-winning shot he made against the Warriors in 2009, noting small differences: “That one was probably about six feet closer to the baseline and inside the 3-point arc. It was over Ronny Turiaf, I stepped back on him but I crossed him over first and got him on his heels. I’m sure of it. It was down the sideline a few feet. It was a side out-of-bounds play; this one we brought up.”
  • During a game against the Pacers, he suggested that they run a certain play “like we did in Game 3 against Dallas” — a three-year-old game.
  • He remembers the jersey number Kevin Ollie wore for the Cavaliers in 2003-04.

It’s easy to see how a good memory could make someone a significantly better player. Reading defences, recognising plays, noting tendencies — all of these things are a matter of memory.

In “The Sports Gene,” the great book about athleticism and genetics, David Epstein writes about the importance of perceptive ability in sports like baseball and tennis. Baseball hitters don’t have faster muscle reaction times than normal people, but they generally have exceptionally strong eye sight that lets them recognise the type of pitch and its speed earlier than normal people would. It’s the ability to perceive quickly that differentiates these athletes, not necessary the ability to react quickly.


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Memory is a major component of a person’s perceptive ability.

Hong Kong James China NBA star LeBron James speaks during a promotional event at a shopping district in Hong Kong this week. Source: AP/Press Association Images

When LeBron jumps a passing line that no one else sees, steals the ball, and dunks, we view that as a result of his physical athleticism. In reality, it might be that his brain — with its reserve tank of memories — has recognized the pass before anyone else would.

LeBron told Windhorst that he has a “photographic memory.” Windhorst explains what what might actually be going on:

“The evidence appears strong that his memory banks are loaded up like Fort Knox. Rather, what James might be describing appears more likely to be a version of ‘eidetic memory,’ which is, essentially, the medical term for crazy, crazy freakish recall. And although eidetic memory appears to take many forms — some claim to be able to ‘read’ pages in their mind, others to ‘replay’ their memories as if pressing play on streaming video — those who claim the ability often share one trait: They are as cursed by it as they are blessed by it.”

This should also help LeBron maintain his level of play as he ages. As his physical skills deteriorate, his memory should persist.

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