NBA

‘He’s much better than you think he is’: Remembering LeBron James’ NBA debut

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Editor’s note: On October 29, 2003, 17 years ago today, LeBron James made his NBA regular season debut against the Kings in Sacramento. Here we take a look back at that night.

Everybody remembers LeBron James’ first NBA game. You know, the one where he got dunked on by Britton Johnsen.

Perhaps we’re being too literal here: That was LeBron’s first NBA summer league game, back in July 2003, and probably the career highlight for Johnsen, an undrafted rookie who did indeed catch a fast-break dunk on his better-known rookie counterpart. LeBron, seen on pregame video dragging the Cavs’ luggage into the arena in typical rookie fashion, totaled 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists.

Three and a half months later, LeBron James made his official NBA debut. And that’s the one people remember. Unsurprisingly for a guy who has made a career out of defying the highest possible expectations, he did just that the very first time he played in a real NBA game.

As cameras showed LeBron at the scorer’s table before tip-off dumping rosin powder onto his hands, ESPN announcer Brad Nessler could be heard hyping “probably the most anticipated debut of any first-year athlete in any sport.” If it sounds like hyperbole, it’s not: The coverage of LeBron’s high school career—nationally televised games, Sports Illustrated and SLAM covers, not one but two biographies published by the time his rookie year began—was simply unprecedented. The question was whether he could handle the spotlight’s glare while playing against the best in the world.

A starter from his very first game, LeBron quickly showed that he belonged. The Cavs’ first points came in transition, with LeBron calmly pushing the ball up court before finding teammate Ricky Davis for an alley-oop dunk. It seemed appropriate that his first contribution to the box score was an assist—Nessler correctly called it “the best part of his game” even as the pass to Davis left his hands—but LeBron didn’t take long to prove he was capable of scoring against NBA defenders.

It almost seemed intentional that he chose a couple of midrange jumpers to make his point, hitting open looks from each baseline for his first two NBA baskets. He made it a 3-for-3 start with an 18-foot fall-away over the outstretched arm of Brad Miller. A few minutes later he hit a contested runner in the lane; then, as the quarter wound down, the real highlights began.

How’s this for a 41-second span in your first NBA game: After stealing an errant pass in the lane, LeBron led a 4-on-2 break and found Boozer for a dunk. He stayed greedy on the next defensive possession, lurking as Peja Stojakovic passed to Doug Christie and bursting out to intercept; pushing the ball ahead, he dribbled once, gathered, rose, cocked the ball high above his head and finished with a thunderous one-handed jam.

That’s the highlight everyone remembers, making it easy to forget that on the next defensive possession, he stripped Christie from behind for his third consecutive steal, then, instead of taking another breakaway for himself, he stopped and dropped it off for a trailing Davis, who finished in style with a two-handed reverse.

When the first quarter was over, LeBron had a line that most rookies would happily take for an entire game: 12 minutes, 12 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. He added a rebound and three more assists before the half, then came out to start the third quarter and promptly scored the Cavs’ first three baskets on a couple of runners and a lefty layup around Miller that drew oooohs from the crowd.

More important, he quietly led the Cavs back from a 19-point deficit to briefly take their only lead of the game. In a span of 22 seconds early in the fourth, LeBron cut the lead to one on a driving layup in transition, hauled in a defensive rebound, and found fellow rookie J.R. Bremer for an open 3 that put the Cavs up 85-83. The Kings’ superior talent allowed them to pull away over the final 10 minutes en route to a 106-92 win that was quickly forgotten for anything other than the performance of the 18-year-old rookie everyone was already calling “King James.” His 42 minutes, 25 points, 9 assists and 4 steals were all game highs.

As the players cleared the court, former NBA vet turned ESPN color commentator Dan Majerle made a blunt assertion: “He’s much better than I thought he was going to be, and I’m going to tell all NBA players right now: He’s much better than you think he is.” It wouldn’t take long to convince the rest of the league—or for that matter, the rest of the world.

Ryan Jones is Editor Emeritus of SLAM Magazine and LeBron’s OG biographer. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.