Chronicling LeBron's career
Miami's LeBron James is Sports Illustrated's 2012 Sportsman of the Year
James has been in the spotlight since being a high school star in Akron, Ohio
For all his gifts, LeBron didn't break through with an NBA title until this year
LeBron James appeared on his first Sports Illustrated cover as a 17-year-old high school junior in 2002. More than 10 years later, he graces the cover this week as SI's Sportsman of the Year. In between, the magazine has tracked his emergence as the best player in the NBA, his messy departure from Cleveland, his humbling loss with Miami in the 2011 Finals and his redemption 12 months later. With James being honored for a year in which he collected his third MVP award, won his first NBA title and led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, five writers reflect on their experience covering LeBron and trace his evolution over the last decade.
The way I remember it, the make-or-break moment for "The Chosen One" cover story on 17-year-old high school junior LeBron James took place in the locker room of James' high school on a cold winter day in January 2002. I had just parachuted into Akron, Ohio, for SI, and I could tell that he wasn't entirely happy about my coming in on short notice. Finally, I asked him: "LeBron, could you come over for one second?" We walked over to a quiet corner. "I'm sorry we didn't let you know about this any earlier, but this story could be a pretty big one in the magazine. There's a good chance you'll be happy with the results."
LeBron thought about it for a second, nodded and smiled. And from that point I was in. The rest of the day was a blur of images: visiting his small West Akron apartment and having LeBron proudly show off the throwback jerseys in his closet. Meeting his buddies and watching their favorite video, the Wayans brothers' parody Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. Noting the fake SI cover of LeBron on the top of the living-room television: IS HE THE NEXT MICHAEL JORDAN? Eventually we all piled into my small rental car -- me, LeBron and his buddies Maverick Carter, Brandon Weems and Frankie Walker -- for the hour-long drive to Cleveland for the Cavaliers-Wizards game that night. LeBron brought a binder full of his favorite CDs and blasted Jay-Z most of the time.
On the way, we stopped at a McDonalds drive-thru, and as we waited I turned to LeBron next to me and casually mentioned: "You know, this has a chance to be a cover story." I won't forget the look he gave me, a wide-eyed stare followed by a nod that showed he understood what that meant. SI senior editor Greg Kelly already had the idea for the cover line -- THE CHOSEN ONE -- and LeBron would eventually like it enough to get a tattoo of the line. That night LeBron rooted for the Wizards and his idol, Michael Jordan, who hit a last-second game-winning shot (of course). And afterward something fascinating happened. We met a guy in a fantastic suit, a guy whom LeBron and Maverick called "Uncle Wes." It would turn out to be William Wesley, aka Worldwide Wes, the great social connector of the basketball world. Uncle Wes brought out Jordan, and as 17-year-old LeBron and His Airness talked I lurked a few feet away and felt like I was witnessing the hoops equivalent of that old photo of John F. Kennedy with a young Bill Clinton. The scene ended up being the lead of my SI story.
We drove back to Akron that night, LeBron serving as the deejay in my crappy rental car and being thoroughly entertaining with his pals. (At one point, LeBron taught me the meaning of the slang word janky.) We finished off the evening with a late dinner at Applebee's, where LeBron could still eat with a few friends and not have to worry about being accosted for autographs. A couple weeks later he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated -- the real one, not a fake one -- and his life would never be the same.
-- Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl on high school phenom LeBron James, in a 2002 Sports Illustrated story:
"All things considered, it's hard to decide what's more impressive -- that LeBron could be hailed as the best high school player even though he's only a junior, or that many NBA scouts believe he would be the first pick in this year's draft (if league rules didn't forbid his entering it), or that he can get an audience with [Michael] Jordan as easily as a haircut appointment.
"Then again, the world behind the velvet rope is nothing new to LeBron. Last summer he was the only schoolboy invited to play in Jordan's top-secret workouts in Chicago. LeBron speaks regularly with Boston Celtics star Antoine Walker, who is his best friend among NBA players. Those floor tickets to the Cavaliers game? LeBron's surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, simply made a call to Cleveland coach John Lucas. Already LeBron has hung out with Michael Finley, Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse, to say nothing of his favorite rapper, Jay-Z. 'He's a cool guy too,' LeBron says. 'We went to his hotel first, and then I had backstage passes.'
"Did we say LeBron just turned 17?"
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In the grand scheme of LeBron's career, the game doesn't mean much. He may not even remember it. But during the 2005-06 season, when I was following the Phoenix Suns for a book, I got an inside look at how one team prepares for one player, and how sometimes all that preparation just doesn't matter if it's a player like LeBron James.
James was at that point still a work in progress, albeit a formidable one in his third season. The league may have seen what was coming before he did, lodged as he was in the confusing game of being both Young Teammate and Franchise Megastar for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"LeBron will go through this streak when he makes everything, and I mean everything," assistant coach Marc Iavaroni said in a pregame meeting among the coaches. "We just gotta ride out those hover jump shots he makes because we do not want him breaking us down."
As the coaches saw it, LeBron had already achieved superstar status among the refs, a reality that influenced their defensive strategy, in this case making sure that the established Shawn Marion guarded LeBron, instead of the little-known Boris Diaw, when James moved to power forward.
"They'll call a foul on Boris," assistant Alvin Gentry said, "before they'll call one on Shawn."
Added Iavaroni: "And remember LeBron leads the league in and-ones."
Phoenix's main hope is that LeBron will "settle," i.e., take outside shots instead of drive to create fouls.
Well, LeBron rarely settled. And when he did, he usually made a perimeter jumper or fed a teammate for a basket. I remember thinking that I had rarely seen one man do so much so effortlessly. Anyone who covers sports knows how false the phrase "one-man team" is, but this came damn close.
James had 23 points at halftime, yet the coaches actually praised the joint effort done on him by Marion and Raja Bell. They spent the entire halftime session trying to figure out what to do to stop him, and finally head coach Mike D'Antoni just summed it up: "LeBron is just kicking our ass."
The Suns didn't fare much better in the second half trying to stop him, though they were the superior team and won 115-106. James finished with 46 points, including five three-pointers, eight assists and seven rebounds. Even the partisan Phoenix crowd was applauding him by the end.
"He's like Jim Brown on a basketball court," Gentry said. "Only way I can think to describe it."
Everyone was still talking about the game the next day at Suns practice. Let's be clear that no one would've been happy had they lost. But they won and so it was possible both to be happy and marvel at the skill of an opponent. (Indeed, two weeks later, James scored 32 of his 44 points in the second half as the Cavs rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to beat Phoenix 113-106 in Cleveland.)
"LeBron is real tough to play," Marion said. "Still, I don't know what it looked like from where you were, but that was a fun, fun game to be in."
It looked the same from where I was, Shawn.
-- Jack McCallum
Jack McCallum on an 18-year-old LeBron James, set to make his NBA debut, in a 2003 Sports Illustrated story:
"NBA officials will tell you that we've seen this before, a phenom receiving big bucks, arriving amid much fanfare. But they're kidding themselves and they know it. No one has gotten this much this soon, no one has ever entered any league under so much scrutiny. The three-year, $10.8 million rookie contract he's getting from the Cavaliers is Monopoly money to James, who has endorsement deals worth more than $100 million. 'I've been around the game for 40 years,' says Cavs coach Paul Silas, 'and I've never seen anything like it. It's scary.' "
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