Before LeBron James had completed his sophomore year of high school, basketball scouts were discussing his chances of playing for the National Basketball Association (NBA). Before playing his first regulation game for the NBA, James had signed deals with Nike and other corporations for multimillion-dollar product endorsements. Before he completed his rookie season in the NBA, sportswriters were discussing his chances of joining the most elite players in history in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Comparisons to NBA superstar Michael Jordan (1963–) became common, and some sportswriters began calling James "The Chosen One," indicating the hope that the rookie phenomenon would revive interest in the NBA that had declined since Jordan's retirement. LeBron James, by age eighteen, knew a thing or two about dealing with pressure. James's ability to cope with that pressure has proven to be a critical factor in his success. Sportswriters and his coaches agreed that James has shown uncommon maturity for a player his age, handling his newfound fame and the extraordinary expectations of others with grace.
During 2003, prior to his graduation from high school, James declared himself eligible for the NBA draft, the annual process by which professional basketball teams select new players to join them for the upcoming season. The Cleveland Cavaliers, one of the worst teams in the NBA, had the privilege of the number-one draft pick. The Cavs chose James, with the obvious expectation that this eighteen-year-old would lead the team to greatness. While James's first season with the Cavs did not exactly propel them to a championship, he did help his team win twice the number of games as they had the year before, and at the end of the 2003–04 season, James was named Rookie of the Year.
A team player
Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1984, James is the only child of Gloria James, who gave birth to him when she was just sixteen years old. Gloria struggled to provide for James during his childhood. When James was about five years old, he and his mother moved seven times in a year. For a couple of years during elementary school, James lived with a foster family. Gloria's longtime boyfriend, Eddie Jackson, has acted as a father figure for James, but he was not always around during James's youth, spending several years in prison for selling drugs and, later, for fraud. Regardless of any troubles they may have had, however, James and his mother have a close and supportive relationship. He told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated: "My mother is my everything. Always has been. Always will be."
"I don't want to be a cocky rookie coming in trying to lead right off the bat.... If there's one message I want to get to my teammates it's that I'll be there for them, do whatever they think I need to do."
Taller and more athletic than most other kids his age, James got hooked on basketball early in childhood. Dru Joyce II, who coached James for many of his early years, recalled in an article for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service that, while playing in a summer league during elementary school, James was an aggressive offensive player who "really liked to shoot the ball—a lot." Joyce remembered advice he gave James at the time: "I started telling LeBron about passing the ball, how great players make their teammates better. I talked about getting his shots in the flow of the game." Joyce assumed that he would have to repeat this advice many times, reminding the eleven-year-old to be a team player, but he was mistaken. James absorbed every word his coach said and immediately changed his playing style. "That was the last time I ever had to talk about LeBron shooting too much," Joyce recollected.
Another Rising Young Star: Carmelo Anthony
For the 2003 draft, the hype surrounding LeBron James nearly eclipsed another young basketball phenomenon: Carmelo Anthony (1984–). The number-three draft pick with just one year of college basketball under his belt, Anthony would have attracted even more attention than he did, had he not been drafted at the same time as James. His one year of college ball, playing for Syracuse University, had resulted in a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship for Syracuse, with Anthony named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, the NCAA championship series.
Anthony was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, a team that joined the Cleveland Cavaliers at the bottom of the NBA rankings. Expectations for Anthony, like those for James, were extremely high: the Nuggets would be relying on him to raise them from the depths and eventually make them playoffs contenders. Anthony performed impressively during his rookie season, racking up an average of 21 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. Perhaps the most significant statistic for his team: the Nuggets went from winning just seventeen games in 2002–03 to winning forty-three games in Anthony's first season.
Anthony grew up in the rough inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother, Mary Anthony, raised Carmelo and his three older siblings by herself. She pushed her son to stay focused and disciplined where basketball was concerned, and she pushed him to attend college before going professional. To fulfill his desire to play for Syracuse, Anthony had to leave his Baltimore high school to attend the prestigious Oak Hill Academy, a Baptist boarding school in Virginia. He studied hard to bring his grades up so he could get admitted to Syracuse, and he practiced basketball as often as possible. He helped the Oak Hill team to a number-three national ranking in 2002, and he earned the grades necessary to take him to Syracuse.
Anthony has been described as an unusually mature player who has maintained his down-to-earth style even in the midst of the money, celebrity, and pressure that have come his way. Among the first things he spent his money on after being drafted by the Nuggets were a home for his mother in Baltimore and a youth center there to replace one that was closed down by the police when he was growing up.
At the time, James played basketball with his best friends, including Dru Joyce III, the son of his summer-league coach, and Sian Cotton, the son of another summer-league coach, Lee Cotton. Those coaches, both of whom stressed the values of good sportsmanship and being a team player, helped James form the basis of his playing style. James and his pals Joyce III and Cotton, along with Willie McGee, played together every chance they could as kids, and they vowed to stay together all through high school. That childhood promise became a reality as the four boys all attended Akron's St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, a private school known for its basketball program. At St. Vincent–St. Mary, James not only became the school's star basketball player, he also played football for three years and maintained solid grades. James's philosophy about being a team player meant that he spent as much of his playing time passing the ball to teammates and setting up shots as he did taking shots himself, resulting in his extraordinary passing skills. His high school coaches asserted that James could have been a player who averaged fifty to sixty points per game. Instead, his average was closer to thirty points a game, but he helped his entire team play better basketball. Many coaches and sportswriters have described James's maturity and selflessness as a player; Keith Dambrot, who coached James for his first two years of high school, summed up the key to James's success in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article: "LeBron is a basketball genius, there is no other way to say it."
Fast-track to the NBA
Few high school basketball players attract notice outside their home state, but by his junior year, James had caught the attention of basketball fans across the country and earned the intense devotion of fans throughout Ohio. The St. Vincent–St. Mary team won the Division III state championship three of the four years that James attended the school, and in 2002, USA Today named the team number one in the country. James was named High School Boys Basketball Player of the Year by Parade magazine after both his junior year and his senior year; in forty-seven years of giving out this award, Parade has never chosen the same player two years in a row. Sports Illustrated put James on the magazine's cover in 2002, only the eighth high school basketball player to be on the cover in forty-eight years. Once word got out about James's extraordinary ability, home games were moved to a stadium at University of Akron to accommodate the numerous fans who wanted to see him play. Some of those games were even broadcast to national audiences on ESPN and ESPN2. With all that attention came some mild controversy: James received some negative press after his mother obtained a $100,000 loan to buy him a brand-new Hummer H2. He was briefly declared ineligible to play after accepting a gift of two sports jerseys, valued at $845, from a Cleveland store. The abundant attention he had received for his playing, many observers suggested, had made James—nicknamed "King James"—feel that he was entitled to the financial benefits of a seasoned professional. On the court, however, all agreed that James kept his head and continued to play like the member of a team rather than a basketball superstar.
Many observers had wondered, from James's earliest high school years, whether he would go to college or attempt to be drafted into the NBA straight out of high school. Eager to test his skills at the next level, James considered declaring for the draft as a junior, trying to get an exception to the rule that would have barred him from the draft before his graduation year. He decided instead to complete high school, announcing during his senior year that he would declare himself eligible for the 2003 NBA draft. James's decision to go professional right out of high school renewed the debate over whether players should be allowed to play for the NBA at such a young age. Supporters argue that if the player possesses the skills, he should be allowed to earn a living playing his sport. Critics suggest that most high school kids would benefit more from going to college first, using those years to improve their playing, acquire an education, and become more mature. Ignoring the debate and following his own instincts, James opted to skip college and head for the NBA.
Coming off a terrible season, tying for the worst record in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a chance to reshape their future in June of 2003: they had the number-one draft pick. They chose James, pinning their hopes on the eighteen-year-old player to turn their fortunes around. At six-foot-eight and 240 pounds, James certainly looked the part of an NBA player. But many wondered if he could live up to the hype surrounding him and compete in the far more competitive arena of professional basketball. When James made his official NBA debut in the fall of 2003 in a game against the Sacramento Kings, he answered the concerns of many doubters. The Cavaliers lost the game, but James played better than most rookies could hope for in a debut game—and better than any rookie straight out of high school—with twenty-five points, nine assists, six rebounds, and four steals. While he occasionally showed his inexperience and youth, and while he did not live up to the most outrageous expectations that he would play like Michael Jordan right out of high school, James did perform extremely well in his rookie season. He ended the 2003–04 season with an average of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. He ranked among the top fifteen players in the league in a number of categories, including points per game, total points, assists, and steals. In April of 2004, James was named the Rookie of the Year for the 2003–04 season. Speaking of the rookie's innate abilities on the court, Cleveland power forward Carlos Boozer told McCallum of Sports Illustrated, "You can only call it court sense. The way he takes advantage of a situation right away can't be taught. He just has it."
"I can handle it"
Barring injury, James will earn $19 million for his first four years with the Cavs, an amount that seems downright insignificant when compared to his endorsements. In a sponsorship deal that will pay James more than any other basketball player except Michael Jordan, Nike signed the player to a seven-year, $90 million contract—and that contract was signed before James had even inked a deal with the Cavs. He has also agreed to promote Coca-Cola products, including Sprite and Powerade, and Bubblicious bubblegum.
Predicting the amount of money James will generate for the Cavaliers, for Nike, and even for other NBA teams, Forbes magazine suggests that those investing in James will be repaid handsomely. During his rookie season, attendance for Cavs home games increased by fifty percent from the prior season. James sparked so much hype that basketball fans around the country sought out tickets for the Cavs' away games, moving the Cleveland team from last in the league for road attendance to first. As for his corporate sponsors, Nike released the first shoe endorsed by James, the Air Zoom Generation, in December of 2003. At $110 a pair, Nike sold 72,000 pairs in the first month alone. Bob Williams, the CEO of a company that matches athletes with corporations for endorsement deals, described to Sports Illustrated in 2003 the hurdles James will encounter in his first few years in the NBA: "He has to dominate his position, take a downtrodden franchise to the playoffs and eventually to a championship. He will make a lot of money and live happily ever after. But no one has ever had more expectations put on him than this young man right now." When reporters have asked him about dealing with the enormous pressure placed on him, James has frequently uttered what has become a sort of motto: "I can handle it." And with one successful season under his belt—both on court and off—many commentators have come to believe that perhaps he can.
For More Information
Jones, Ryan. King James: Believe the Hype—The LeBron James Story. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.
Morgan Jr., David Lee. LeBron James: The Rise of a Star. Cleveland: Gray and Company, 2003.
Badenhausen, Kurt. "Slam Dunk." Forbes (February 16, 2004): p. 64.
Chappell, Kevin. "Can LeBron James Repeat the Jordan Miracle?" Ebony (January 2004): p. 124.
Finnan, Bob. "Early to Rise." Sporting News (October 20, 2003): p. 40.
McCallum, Jack. "You Gotta Carry That Weight." Sports Illustrated (October 27, 2003): p. 68.
Pluto, Terry. "LeBron James, Once a Lanky Kid, Has Come a Long Way to the NBA." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (April 20, 2004): p. K1569.
Taylor, Phil. "Carmelo Anthony Has a Secret." Sports Illustrated for Kids (November 3, 2003): p. 24.
LeBronJames.com. http://www.lebronjames.com/hsc/hscMain.cfm (accessed August 1, 2004).
"LeBron James." NBA.com. http://www.nba.com/playerfile/lebron_james/index.html?nav=page (accessed August 1, 2004).
"LeBron Watch." Cleveland.com. http://www.cleveland.com/lebron/ (accessed August 1, 2004).
Morgan Jr., David Lee. "The Rise of a Star." HoopsHype. http://www.hoopshype.com/articles/lebron_morgan.htm (accessed August 1, 2004).
"James, LeBron." UXL Newsmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/james-lebron
"James, LeBron." UXL Newsmakers. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/james-lebron
James, LeBron 1984–
LeBron James 1984–
Professional basketball player
No player in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) has received so much attention so early in his career as LeBron James, the 18-year-old who was selected as number one draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA draft. For James, however, this kind of attention was nothing new: ever since his freshman year in high school, James had been hailed as the next basketball superstar—the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, the retired Chicago Bulls star who many view as the best to play the game. The expectations facing James in his rookie year were immense: in Cleveland, he was viewed as a potential savior for a franchise that had struggled for years to reach the playoffs; in the NBA as a whole, he was greeted as á potential crossover marketing phenomenon who could spur sales of licensed products and tickets, and help polish the image of a league whose best young players made news as much for their legal court appearances as their play on the basketball court.
James took his first step toward realizing the expectations of many observers when he completed a successful first season in the NBA and was crowned the ‘got milk?’ Rookie of the Year in April of 2004. Statistically, the 6’ 8”, 240-pound forward placed in the top five among rookies in all the major categories: he led in steals at 1.65 per game; was second in scoring, behind Carmelo Anthony, with 20.9 points per game; placed third in assists, with 5.9 per game; and was fifth in rebounding, with 5.5 boards per game. He became just the third rookie ever to average more than 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game, joining legends Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. James led Rookie of the Year voting, taking 78 first place votes to 40 for fellow phenom Carmelo Anthony. Most importantly to James himself—who is adamant that he is playing for his team, not his personal stats—he helped the Cavaliers more than double their victory totals from the previous year, though their 35-47 record did not earn a playoff berth.
James was born on December 30, 1984, in Akron, Ohio. He never knew his biological father, who was reputed to be a stellar street-basketball player, and remains silent about him to this day. His mother, Gloria, gave birth to James when she was just 16 years old and became his biggest fan. “My mother is my everything. Always has been. Always will be,” James told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated. James’s devotion is announced to the world with the large tattoo on his arm: it reads “Gloria.”
By all accounts, James did not have an easy upbringing. His mother switched jobs and houses often. When James was just five, they moved seven times. Due to the unstable environment, he missed large stretches of elementary school and spent two years living with a foster family. The most stable male influence in the athlete’s life as a child was Gloria James’s boyfriend, Eddie Jackson, who James sometimes refers to as his father. But Jackson was sentenced to three years in prison in 2002 for mail and mortgage fraud.
Toward the end of elementary school, James found a true stabilizing influence in his life: basketball. He and
At a Glance…
Born on December 30, 1984, in Akron, OH; son of Gloria James.
Career: Cleveland Cavaliers, OH, professional basketball player, 2003–.
Selected Awards: Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Player of the Year, 2001, 2002; Gatorade National Player of the Year, 2002; USA Today National Player of the Year, 2002; Parade Magazine Player of the Year, 2002, 2003; NBA got milk? Rookie of the Year, 2003-04.
Addresses: Office—c/o Cleveland Cavaliers/Gund Arena Company, One Center Court, Cleveland, Ohio 44115-4001.
his mother lived with basketball coach Frankie Walker for several years. By the time he was in eighth grade, his Amateur Athletic Union team went to the finals of the national tournament, and scouts began to notice that the young player from Akron had real talent. That talent brought James to the attention of coaches at St. Vincent-St. Mary high school in Akron, a private Catholic school, and James began attending the school in ninth grade. It was his time at St. Vincent-St. Mary that launched James on the road to stardom.
James made an instant impact as a high school player. During his freshman year he led the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish to a 27-0 record and the Ohio state basketball championship. James averaged 18 points a game. Things only improved in the years to come. In his sophomore year (2000-01), the Fighting Irish finished with a 26-1 record and took their second state championship in a row. James averaged 25.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3.8 steals per game. The next year the team finished second in the state, but James’s statistics improved to 29.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 3.3 steals per game. By the middle of his junior year, people began to speak of the prospects of James turning pro—before he even finished high school. His team began to play its games on college campuses to accommodate the overflow crowds coming to see the rising star. Just over 17 years old, LeBron James was quickly becoming a national celebrity.
Despite the hype that built up around James in his high school years, his mother and his advisors at school helped him stay grounded. “St. V’s has been very good for him,” mother Gloria James told USA Today. “There’s no messing around there, they’re on the books and [the students] have to get good grades.” She continued: “He goes to movies, loves Playstation, and gets good grades. He knows school work comes first: No work, no basketball.” James was no one-sport wonder: he also played football for the Fighting Irish, earning all-state honors as a sophomore and helping his team make it to the state championship semifinals in his junior year. He was also, by his own accounts, a world-class consumer of Fruity Pebbles cereal. When he was turning pro and being offered endorsement deals, he joked to Sports Illustrated: Fruity Pebbles is “the endorsement I really want. Somebody gave me 10 boxes of it for [high school] graduation. Best present I got.”
By his senior year, however, the hype was inescapable. National sports networks ESPN and ESPN2 began to provide coverage of games in which James played, and every Fighting Irish game was a sellout. The pressures of competing at this level led James and his family to make some questionable decisions. When James turned 18 during his senior year, his mother borrowed $80,000 to buy him a Hummer H2 sport utility vehicle, leading many to believe that he was receiving money improperly. That same year, Gloria James and Eddie Jackson borrowed over $100,000 to help finance travel for Jackson to negotiate shoe contracts for James; they were later sued by the businessman who loaned them the money. Ironically, the biggest trouble came when James accepted two vintage sports jerseys, valued at $845, from a Cleveland-area sports store. James was ruled ineligible for future play because the state forbids players from accepting compensation for performance. James immediately returned the jerseys, and he missed one game, but his eligibility was reinstated on appeal.
Despite the controversy surrounding his final season, James had his best year yet, averaging 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 3.4 steals per game. He led his team to its third state championship in four years, and USA Today crowned the team the high school national champions. Following that spectacular season, James made the rounds of the postseason all-star games, and he earned Most Valuable Player awards at the McDonald’s High School All-American Game, the EA Sports Roundball Classic, and the Jordan Capital Classic. He was named the player of the year by several national organizations, and the Sporting News later called him “the nation’s most-watched high school athlete ever.” When he declared his eligibility for the NBA draft in the spring of 2003, observers knew that whichever team selected him would be getting someone special.
The Cleveland Cavaliers “earned” the right to select first in the 2003 NBA draft after winning just 17 games in the 2002-03 season, and they did not hesitate in selecting James. Pressure built in the off season, as observers wondered how coach Paul Silas and the rest of the Cavaliers team would handle the presence of the heralded rookie. From the very beginning, James’s play was solid. He scored 25 points in his debut, and on March 27, 2004, became the youngest player in NBA history to score more than 40 points in a game when he lit up New Jersey for 41 points. By season’s end he averaged 20.9 points per game while playing forward and sometimes guard.
Fans, coaches, players, and sportswriters loaded James with accolades for his rookie performance. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle told the Sporting News: “Some of the things he is doing out there are just breathtaking. He makes plays we have not seen anybody make since Jordan in terms of pure strength and athletic ability and hanging and seeing things and finishing.” Numbers produced by the Cavaliers bear out this observation. Strength and conditioning coach Stan Kellers told Sports Illustrated that the team tests players on vertical jump, strength, agility, body fat and speed, and rates them on a scale of one to five. But, says Kellers, “LeBron’s a six.” Teammate Carlos Boozer lauded James for unselfish play, noting that James often gives up a basket to feed the ball to his teammates. “When he gets the ball,” Boozer told the Sporting News, “you better have your hands up and ready and make yourself available because he is going to find you.” Such praise helped earn James the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy as the got milk? Rookie of the Year in for the 2003/04 season.
There are those who have been more cautious in their estimation of the rookie sensation. Michael Jordan told Ebony that James has “unbelievable potential, but he hasn’t played against the competition consistently in college or the pros…. Five years from now,…he can definitely be a good pro.” James himself seems to recognize that he has to pay his dues before he can raise to the top ranks of the NBA. “I don’t want to be a cocky rookie coming in trying to lead right off the bat,” James told Sports Illustrated. “I’m going to lead more by example…. If there’s one message I want to get to my teammates it’s that I’ll be there for them, do whatever they think I need to do.”
Already, James has become a marketing phenomenon. His $10.8 million, three-year contract with the Cavaliers amounts to peanuts besides the more than $100 million in endorsement contracts he has signed with Nike, Sprite, Powerade, Upper Deck cards, and Bubblicious bubble gum (his agent is still working on Fruity Pebbles). Assessing the rush to get James to endorse their products, Cavaliers coach Paul Silas told Sports Illustrated: “I’ve been around the game for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s scary.” For the corporations, however, James seems like a good risk. Unlike some of his fellow NBA players, James appears to be a solid citizen. He speaks well of teammates, takes time to sign autographs, is respectful of the history of the game, and—most importantly—has not had any brushes with the law like high profile players Kobe Bryant and Allan Iverson. Even more importantly, he appears to have unlimited potential as an athlete. For now, his team, his fans, and some major corporations are all invested in the idea that LeBron James is the next big thing.
Jones, Ryan, King James: Believe the Hype, St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Morgan, David Lee, LeBron James, Gray & Co., 2003.
A Tribute to LeBron James, Beckett/Statabase, 2003.
Basketball Digest, March-April 2004, p. 26.
Ebony, June 2003, p. 174; January 2004, p. 124.
Sporting News, July 23, 2001, p. 60; February 10, 2003, p. 72; June 2, 2003, p. 60; July 14, 2003, p. 16; October 20, 2003, p. 40; November 17, 2003, p. 22.
Sports Illustrated, February 18, 2002, p. 62; February 10, 2003, p. 37; October 27, 2003, p. 68.
USA Today, November 28, 2001, p. 3C; December 13, 2002, p. 3C; May 7, 2002.
“LeBron James,” NBA, www.nba.com/playerfile/lebronJames/ (July 21, 2004).
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“LeBron Watch,” Cleveland.com, www.cleveland.com/lebron/ (July 21, 2004).
"James, LeBron 1984–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/james-lebron-1984
"James, LeBron 1984–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/james-lebron-1984