Gloria James was hiding. Curled up tight in a metal folding chair, the better to diminish her frame, she sat surrounded by a determined team of publicity and security types whose presence not only kept unwanted visitors out of reach, but effectively kept Gloria James out of sight. You got the impression she wanted it that way.
This was early February, a frigid Saturday afternoon in Trenton, New Jersey, and the woman known to friends as "Glo" was seated at the back of a long, cramped room in the bowels of Sovereign Bank Arena. Directly in front of her stood a two-tiered metal platform supporting nearly a dozen TV cameramen and their gear; before the riser, an overflow crowd of nearly one-hundred-fifty print, radio, and Internet reporters, crammed into rows of chairs and lining the only available aisle. And at the head of the room, staring back at the assembled horde from atop a raised podium, sat the six-foot-eight, 240-pound reason the horde had assembled in the first place.
From her secluded spot in the back of the room, Gloria James peered through the tangle of legs and tripods on the platform in front of her, hoping to get a look at her son. At one point, working for a better view--and with the room's attention focused elsewhere--she rose out of her seat,climbed onto the back of the riser, and stayed for a few moments before settling back into her chair. She'd seen enough, and, as her son's voice continued to spill out of the room's speakers, she smiled.
Back at the podium, stuck behind a microphone answering many of the same questions he'd been answering patiently for the past month, LeBron James wore a smile not unlike his mom's. Seeing this, someone observed that, maybe a little surprisingly, LeBron looked happy--genuinely, honest-to-God happy. Glo overheard, and she smiled again.
"Well," she whispered, "he should be happy."
Having just scored fifty-two points to lead his St. Vincent-- St. Mary High School team to another lopsided win against another nationally ranked opponent at yet another high-profile tournament, eighteen-year-old LeBron James seemingly had every reason to beam. And yet, given the recent torrent of negative attention he'd endured--a swirl of controversy unheard of in high school sports and made that much nastier by many of the same media facing him now--LeBron might've been excused a trace of bitterness. But if any such trace existed, he didn't show it, gamely answering familiar queries, time and again directing praise and thanks toward his coaches, teammates, family, and friends for their support on and off the basketball court. When the postgame press conference finally ended, he stepped from the podium and toward the door, escorted by his coach, tournament promoters, a few close friends, and a phalanx of personal and arena security. Shielded by her own portion of the James family security /PR detail, Glo quickly followed from the other end of the room.
Before it unfolded that night in Trenton, it's safe to say such a scene had never occurred at a high school sporting event. No doubt, there had been prominent athletes and teams that, because of historical achievement or great runs of success, some large-scale controversy or simply the size and passion of their followings, had attracted substantial attention. But before LeBron James, well, everything was just different, at least in the high school sports world. The scale of things, it was generally considered, was appropriately small--this was high school, after all. And while there had long been exceptions, of the pitching phenom drafted to the majors straight out of high school, the quarterback prodigy recruited by major colleges as a ninth grader, or more recently the handful of basketball stars who had skipped college and made a successful entry into the NBA, even the best high school athletes were regarded, quite naturally, as largely unworthy of the attention lavished on professional and collegiate stars.
And then came LeBron. And that's exactly when everything changed.
Well, maybe exactly isn't the right word, as it's impossible to pick the precise instant that LeBron forever altered the face of high school sports--or even, one could argue, sports period. But anyone looking for a prime example, a definitive moment in LeBron's roughly two-year rise from just another great high school basketball player to one of the biggest and most unprecedented stories in modern sports, would be hard-pressed to find a better set of conditions than those on display that day in Trenton. Everything that has made his ascent so compering--including the sorts of things that would keep his normally gregarious mother in hiding from the media--was evident on that cold Saturday afternoon.
It all starts with 'Bron himself. In leading his St. V squadto a 78--52 win over Southern California powerhouse Westchester, LeBron showed off every facet of his frighteningly complete game: a career-high fifty-two points, including eighteen of his team's first twenty in the game, coming on an efficient mix of long-range jumpers, determined post-ups, and awe-inducing dunks; twelve rebounds, putting his long, athletic frame to work inside despite playing most of his minutes on the perimeter; and five assists, a lower number than he was capable of but, given how his shot was falling that day (he hit twenty-one of thirty-four field goal attempts), hardly subpar. Defensively, he helped hold Westchester star Trevor Ariza, widely considered one of the best forwards in the nation, to just twelve points. But beyond the numbers, and maybe even more impressive, were the "intangibles"--those hard-to-define but undeniable qualities all great athletes possess. Leadership, timing, and the ability to deliver in the clutch all fall into this category--and so, in this case, does the ability to turn a basketball game into a personal statement of resilience, even defiance. That a high school kid could be thrust into such a situation helps explain the scope of the story; that LeBron actually pulled it off helps define just how good he is.
Because, even for a player and a team so used to sold-out gyms and TV cameras and highly touted opposition, this weekend trip to south Jersey was very different for LeBron and St. V. Just nine days before, LeBron had been ruled ineligible by the Ohio High School Athletic Association after he accepted, without charge, two pricey throwback jerseys from a Cleveland-area clothing store. The decision, as it was laid down, meant the previously unbeaten Fighting Irish would have to forfeit their last victory; it also meant LeBron's remarkable high school basketball career was finished. Only after five days of legal wrangling that saw the authority of ascholastic governing body temporarily voided by a county court judge--and after a media assault that turned one talented high school athlete's brief lapse of judgment into a nationally broadcast scandal--did LeBron regain his eligibility. Thanks to a judge's temporary restraining order, just three days before his team was scheduled to continue its season at the Prime Time Shootout, LeBron was able to exhale. He would play--he could play, as sweet as that must have sounded--and the world would be watching even more closely than it had before.
And so this was the setting: a packed arena, scores of reporters, a foe that shared space with St. V in all the national top twenty-five polls. Nothing new, in other words, except that it was. It was in the air, really, this mix of opinion and emotion and expectation, hanging over the stands and the hardwood floor, and all of it focused on one eighteen-year-old kid. For the crowd of nearly nine thousand, probably 80 percent of whom had bought a ticket for this three-day, forty-eight-team tournament solely to witness LeBron, it was all about the chance to see a celebrity, a prodigy, the next big thing right now. For those with pen or laptop or camera in hand, it was a rare chance to capture The Big Story, up close and with perspective. And LeBron? He could have picked any one of a thousand reasons: a championship to chase, a point to make, a moment to claim, cynics to disprove. Maybe he chose them all.
Anyone who watched LeBron James play during his high school career could clearly see that much of his drive came from within. He was not a player who needed any external motivation--but when it was offered, he generally seized it with a vengeance. There was little doubt that day in Trenton was one of those occasions, when LeBron seemed to findinspiration in everyone and everything in the building.
More than a little of that inspiration came from the crowd. Surrounded as he was by teammates and security from the moment he entered the gym, it must have looked to some in the arena that he was spooked by all the attention--maybe even scared. And so he made a point to play and shoot and talk and defend so fearlessly as to remove all doubt; and when he signed autographs for a surging throng of (mostly) kids long after the game, at one point sternly ordering, "All the grown-ups back up, or I gotta stop signing," simultaneously looking out for the kids who clamored for his signature and showing the "grown-ups" that he'd neither be cowed by their presence nor easily fall prey to the profit-minded autograph hunting for which many of them were clearly there, he made the point that fear was the farthest thing from his mind.
Maybe they didn't see fear; maybe, they thought, they saw arrogance, an air of superiority in a young man who couldn't possibly be as good as the hype. And so he played as well as a high school basketball player could, with a game unquestionably complete enough to dominate collegiate competition and hold its own, right now, in the pros. As good as the hype? That was probably impossible, but LeBron showed the doubters he was every bit as good as all the scouts and coaches said. And whether he heard the whispers from the stands on that day didn't really matter, because he'd heard them before, so that when he raised his arms and egged on the cheers in the closing minutes of the game, he knew at least some in the crowd were muttering unflattering things about that "cocky" kid down on the court. But he didn't mind if they'd misread his confidence as something less admirable; in a way, he probably preferred it that way. All he knew forsure was that he'd convinced one more full house they'd seen the real thing.
Whom else to impress? There was Ariza, with his scholarship to UCLA already secured, the latest in a lengthy string of very, very good players whose star was dimmed in a head-to-head matchup with LeBron. This was nothing personal, really, not some bitter individual rivalry playing out in the course of a team game. This was simply another great high school bailer who couldn't help but try and measure himself against the most-talked-about player in the game, falling short. There was the press, an easy target but an accurate one, on hand to document the moment and--as they'd done throughout the previous few months--making it vastly more substantial by their presence. And there were the shoe company reps, in this case a dozen or so covered head to toe in the Nike Swoosh, lining the baseline near the St. V bench, making their presence known at a tournament of which they were a primary sponsor. In reality, of course, they were there almost exclusively for and because of LeBron, at least as much to impress him as to be impressed. LeBron did his part in a continuing if incidental quest to confirm his earning potential to the world's biggest sneaker companies, who by this time had been wooing him with increasing creativity for the better part of two years. By now, there was more pressure on them to convince LeBron that their shoes, both literally and financially, would be the better fit.
And with that, everyone in the gym that day--short of maybe the janitors, the folks selling overpriced nachos at the concession stands and ten-dollar programs in the hallways, or his own teammates, who'd seen too much of LeBron for too long to really be surprised--had done their part. Motivationprovided, challenge accepted, point made. But LeBron's answer reached even beyond the walls of the arena. While lawyers worked the proper channels in his name, this was the only personal rebuttal he could offer to those other "grown-ups" back in Ohio, the ones who decided that justice would best be served if his high school career ended immediately, all because a store clerk gave him a couple of free jerseys in exchange for a few pictures and autographs. The statement went out as well to a million other folks he'd never met and never would, who'd formed opinions and made judgments based on what they'd heard or read and decided LeBron James must be a punk, because what did an eighteen-year-old kid need with four-hundred-dollar jerseys or the brand-new, fifty-thousand-dollar-plus Hummer SUV his mother, having secured a bank loan, bought him as a birthday present a month earlier? This was LeBron's response, the strongest and purest he could offer.
Looking back on that day in Trenton, it's hard to say which is more incredible: that such an environment could rise up around a high school basketball player at all, or that, where LeBron was concerned, it had become such a common occurrence. True, there might not have been a day that better encapsulated the swirl of media coverage, financial opportunism, fan interest, and, largely hidden among all the rest, actual appreciation of a jaw-dropping talent. But other days came close, especially during LeBron's final season of high school ball. There was St. V's twenty-point demolition of then-No.-1-ranked Oak Hill Academy, a game played in Cleveland early in LeBron's senior year that drew an ESPN2 crew for a national broadcast and gave the network its best ratings in nearly two years; another nationally televised game three weeks later, at UCLA's famed Pauley Pavilion, that saw St. V beat Mater Dei,yet another Southern California power, while reps from adidas and Nike filled entire rows of seats on the opposing baselines, staring each other down while LeBron performed (and not particularly well, for him) between them; or the lopsided but highly charged matchup at the Palestra, when St. V dominated local favorite Strawberry Mansion in front of a standing-room-only crowd--with Allen Iverson on hand and Jay-Z, who the promoter claimed was literally left out in the cold when room couldn't be found for him and his late-arriving travel party. The sum of these parts, and of a million other inimitable events that occurred around and because of LeBron James, is what makes his story truly remarkable.
In late June, as everyone knew he would be, LeBron was chosen first overall in the 2003 NBA draft, by the Cleveland Cavaliers. This came about a month after LeBron ended much speculation by announcing his chosen sneaker company, signing with Nike for a reported seven-year, ninety million-dollar contract. Such moments are generally seen as a great beginning, and this can be said in LeBron's case; but, befitting his unprecedented saga, the draft was as much an ending as anything, a completion of the often spectacular and occasionally absurd "amateur" career that, thanks to many competing outside forces, was increasingly anything but. For LeBron, the true new beginning would come on the opening night of his rookie NBA season, when the past few years' worth of hype and anticipation could start to be quelled and his game--the reason anyone cared in the first place--could once again speak for itself. Only then could his future really begin.
And how is that future likely to turn out? It's a strange word to use, but given his uncommon ability and everything that's happened so far, LeBron James should be a huge success in the NBA. Should, as in "is expected to," but also more subjectively,as in "deserves to." LeBron deserves to succeed because it would be a shame to see such talent wasted, but more so because of the scrutiny he endured to get himself this far. Because, for every critical word written or uttered about him or his family or the people around him, and for every malignant assumption made about the reasons for and rewards of his success, LeBron has only been guilty of two things: saying "yes" on a few occasions when he might have been better off saying "no," and playing basketball with as great a combination of instinct and athleticism and competitiveness and joy as anyone ever has. Yes, LeBron deserves greatness--he's earned it, really, in so many ways--and at this point, few will be surprised if he achieves it.
But, on the off chance that future success somehow eludes him, know this: LeBron's story will remain a fascinating one, in some ways even more so. Certainly, that was the logic behind the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's decision in March of his senior year, when the organization charged with honoring the game's history asked LeBron to send his uniform for display. "LeBron has taken high school basketball to a new level," a Hall of Fame curator told the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time. "With the exposure he has gotten and the rumors of him going to the pros and the rumors of the endorsement stuff ... I mean, those things just don't happen to a high school player every year."
"Any year" might have been a more accurate way to end that sentence. Whether it was rumors that he would challenge the NBA's eligibility rules and declare for the draft after his junior year--or, failing in that challenge, that he'd spend his senior year overseas, paying for play in some foreign league unaffected by the NBA's stringent guidelines--or the pitched battle between adidas and Nike, each ready to offer him asponsorship deal richer than those of all but a handful of pro athletes in the world, LeBron made even more history off the court than he did on it. And this was no small feat, as his high school career became an increasingly awe-inspiring string of firsts both in and out of uniform.
In the spring of 2001, LeBron James became the first sophomore to earn first-team All-American notice from USA Today. The following February, he became the first high school junior to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A few weeks later, he won his second straight Ohio Mr. Basketball award as the state's top prep player. That summer, sitting out most of the summer traveling season with a broken wrist, he pulled off the unheard-of trick of attending each of the competing summer all-star camps run by Nike and adidas--playing in neither, but drawing more attention at both camps than any player who did. By December of '02, with his highlights already playing on ESPN, LeBron led St. V to a lopsided defeat of Oak Hill in a game televised nationally, in prime time, by ESPN2--a first for a regular-season high school game. Another national TV game--and another win, this time over perennial prep power Mater Dei--followed in early January. Not long after, the Ohio High School Athletic Association began investigating whether the Humvee that LeBron had received as a birthday gift from his mother somehow compromised his high school eligibility. Four days after he was cleared in that investigation, LeBron was indefinitely suspended by the OHSAA for accepting two free throwback jerseys. When that suspension was temporarily stayed, LeBron returned after missing one game--the first of his four-year career--to lead St. V, by then the top-ranked team in the country, to another statement victory. In mid-March, capping off a week in which the Hall of Fame asked for his jersey andhe became the first player in Ohio history to win three straight Mr. Basketball awards, LeBron led the Irish to their third state championship in four seasons. Including the game St. V was forced to forfeit due to the jersey controversy, LeBron finished his four varsity seasons with 101 wins and just six losses. And in the final days of his high school career, he won MVP awards in the McDonald's, Roundball, and Capital Classic All-American games, each of which was played in a nearly sold-out NBA arena. In that, the foreshadowing was too strong to ignore.
That combination of off-court drama and on-court success is entirely without precedent, and it's the melding of the two that makes this tale so distinctive. But the off-court issues wouldn't matter--indeed, most wouldn't have even existed--if not for all the things LeBron has done, and can do, on the court. As stated, the thought of LeBron living up to the hype just isn't feasible, because the hype long ago surpassed any attainable level. But, to its most realistic limit, the excitement is completely justified by LeBron's thoroughly unique skill set: athleticism and body control on a par with Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant; court vision, passing instincts, and height reminiscent of Magic Johnson; the prototype physical attributes--long arms, broad shoulders, huge hands, strong legs, and proportional musculature--unequaled by any player who'd previously made the HS-to-NBA jump; and early signs of the innate leadership, competitiveness, and work ethic that defined Magic, Jordan, Bird, and the handful of others who inhabit that most elite group of NBA greats. While straight-up comparisons to any of the above are wildly premature, it's irrefutable that LeBron's proven physical and mental attributes will give him a chance to reach similar heights.
To make the point more clearly: One question heard moreand more over the past two years, asked of those who'd seen him play in person by those who hadn't yet had the chance, was simply, Is this kid really that good? The honest answer, so far, remains yes. And if direct predecessors like Kobe, Tracy, and Kevin Garnett are any indication, LeBron James, two months shy of his nineteenth birthday when he plays his first NBA game, will only get better.
Back in Trenton, Glo gave up the security of her perch in the back of the pressroom only when it was time to leave the gym. And that, as much as anything, showed how much things had changed.
Gloria James has been compared by many observers to Ann Iverson, known to friends as "Juicy," mother of Allen and one of the best-known parents of an NBA star in the history of the game. Ann's trademark, especially in the early years of her son's pro career, was a nonstop barrage of reminders of who she was and how proud she was of her son. There were the custom-made "Iverson's Mom" Sixers jerseys she wore to virtually every one of Al's games, the front-row seat behind the basket at Philly's First Union Center, the "That's My Boy #3" signs she held up whenever Allen made a great play (a fairly regular occurrence), and the autographed Ann Iverson trading cards, complete with an inspirational message on the back, that she handed out to fans young and old before Sixers home games.
By LeBron's final high school season, Glo was giving Juicy a run for her money: St. V jerseys with "LeBron's Mom" on the back, a prime seat at every one of 'Bron's games from which to cheer loud and strong--and not only for her son; his teammates got plenty of support, too--throughout the contest;and a handful of cardboard-cutout likenesses of LeBron's smiling face, with tongue depressors pasted onto the back for easy waving. Glo loved it all, loved greeting friends and fans with a hug, loved being recognized, and, most of all, loved seeing her son succeed in front of all these people. But in Trenton? Well, it was probably a good thing she lost her luggage on the trip from Akron. Instead of the usual customized jersey proclaiming her maternal pride, Glo wore a plain white T-shirt. If you'd known where to look for her in the stands, she wasn't hard to find, still cheering enthusiastically during the game; but her usual pre- and postgame rounds of meeting and greeting fans and admirers was largely avoided there. On that day, her profile--completely foreign to her natural disposition--was decidedly low.
Less than a year earlier, Glo sat in a small college gymnasium in midtown Manhattan, watching her son go through the motions of a photo shoot for SLAM, the monthly basketball magazine. Asked about the ever-increasing levels of attention focused on her family, she chose her words carefully. "The fans are great. The media--the majority of the media--is pretty considerate. Some of them are pretty inconsiderate. Maybe I should call it ... very persistent. They can be a little overpersistent sometimes. But all in all, the attention is good. We enjoy it, and we appreciate it, because without the fans, LeBron or anybody else is really nobody. So it's not too stressful. It hasn't been all that hectic."
Maybe not then, but after the TV games, the SportsCenter highlights, the Hummer, the jerseys, and everything else over the next ten months, stressful and hectic became an undeniable and constant reality for LeBron, Gloria, and their small, tight circle of family and friends. That explains their recoil in Trenton, from Glo's efforts at self-concealment to the expandedsecurity that made it virtually impossible to get anywhere near LeBron. This, they'd found out, was the downside of fame.
To their credit, LeBron and everyone close to him have maintained that it's about the only downside, and that, as much as anything else, is why he has defied every expectation of failure. Without exception, the hotter the spotlight has gotten, the more impressively LeBron has performed. Of those intangibles already mentioned, this ability to rise to the moment is his most defining. That night in Cleveland in the fall of his senior year, LeBron faced not only a terrific Oak Hill team, but also a national TV audience tuned in almost solely to see him perform. His line that night: thirty-one points, thirteen rebounds and six assists. The situation wasn't much different three weeks later in Los Angeles, when the added presence of Nike founder Phil Knight and adidas grassroots basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro in their courtside seats didn't seem to faze him, either: on an off shooting night, he finished with twenty-one points, nine rebounds, and seven assists against Mater Dei. Against nearby Mentor High, playing for the first time since the OHSAA initiated its investigation of LeBron's new ride--the media-dubbed "Hummergate"--he scored a career-high fifty. And of course, less than a month later, in his first game back from his brief suspension for receiving those free jerseys, he upped that career high by two against Westchester.
In other words, point made, time and time again. Is this kid really that good? By now, there's really no need to ask.