There’s no question LeBron James is the best basketball player of his generation, worthy in every way of inheriting the throne long inhabited by the legendary Michael Jordan.
But perhaps just as impressive as what he’s accomplished in his sport is the setting in which he’s done it, a Truman Show-esque atmosphere fueled by Twitter updates and TMZ ambushes. Since he was a teenager, every move has been scrutinized, and LeBron has smashed lofty expectations with championship rings, MVP Awards and a future plaque in the Hall of Fame. Not bad for a kid from Northeast Ohio.
You can pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron entered the national mentality: The 2001 ABCD Camp, when the 16-year-old matched up with older, more hyped prospect Lenny Cooke. At 16 years old, James outscored Cooke, 24-9, and hit the game-winning shot, effectively stealing all of Cooke’s momentum and making it his own. Legendary sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro, who ran the camp, cited it as “the beginning of LeBron.”
But even before that, James had been steadily rising, aided by a preternatural physical and mental maturity. Raised by his mother, Gloria, James grew up in relative poverty in Akron, playing AAU ball with his best friends. When it came time to pick a high school, “The Fab Four” chose to attend St. Vincent-St. Mary, where they were immediately one of the best high school teams in the country. James averaged 21 points as a freshman and then became the first sophomore to be named First-Team All-USA by USA Today. SVSM games grew into a phenomenon, often relocated to the larger arena at the University of Akron.
(He also played football for St. Vincent-St. Mary, scoring 16 touchdowns as a junior. He gave up the sport after breaking his wrist in a basketball game.)
By the time he was a senior, LeBron had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. He looked and carried himself like a fully formed NBA player, averaging 31 points for the No. 1 team in the country, while SVSM games were aired on national television.
LeBron was also a magnet for notoriety and skepticism; how could anyone be this good, this young? He attracted scrutiny for his Hummer H2 purchased via a bank loan given to his mother, and for two throwback jerseys gifted to him by a store in return for posing for pictures. His high-school eligibility was stripped for the jerseys, then restored after an appeal; his first game after the suspension was lifted, he scored 52 points in a sold-out New Jersey arena against future pro Trevor Ariza and Westchester High School.
In the biggest foregone conclusion in recent memory, James declared for the 2003 NBA Draft, before which he would sign an unprecedented $90 million endorsement contract with Nike. The hometown Cavaliers won the Draft lottery and earned the right to select him No. 1 overall.
As soon as he put on the wine and gold, the uninformed questions about his defense and jump shot melted away. Mere months after graduating high school, LeBron debuted against the Kings with 25 points. He would average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists as a rookie, a feat only accomplished by Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. (Tyreke Evans would join the club in 2009-10.) The Cavaliers went 35-47, but that was 18 games better than the prior season.
Both LeBron and the Cavs would continue their meteoric rise over the next couple of years. In just his second season, James became the youngest player to notch a triple-double, and he later scored 56 in a game. By his third season, LeBron was averaging 31.4 points per game and led the Cavs to the playoffs for the first time, where they lost to the Pistons in the second round.
The 2006-07 season was the zenith of James’ halcyon era in Cleveland, specifically Game 5 of the East Finals, when James scored 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points — including the game-winning shot — to singlehandedly will his team to victory over the favored Pistons. That the Cavs would be swept by a much more balanced Spurs squad in the NBA Finals hardly took the bloom off the rose for LeBron, who seemed on the verge of taking over the entire league.
The next season, James would lose to a Celtics team in seven games in the second round despite his best efforts: He scored 45 points to Paul Pierce’s 41 in a typically epic duel between the two rivals. In 2008-09, LeBron reached another level, winning his first MVP Award and leading the Cavs to an outstanding 66-16 record.
The season didn’t end according to plan, however. Despite James averaging 38.5 points in the East Finals and hitting a game-winning three-pointer in Game 2 — a signature moment for him — the Magic won in six games. Frustrated, James left the court without congratulating Orlando, a rare crack in his carefully constructed public veneer. And he faced more criticism the following season after the favored Cavs lost to the Celtics in the second round, with James struggling — for him — amid rumors of an elbow injury.
Then the roof caved in. James opted out of his contract and signed with the Miami Heat to team with friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, making the announcement on an ESPN special called “The Decision.” He drew widespread derision for the seemingly callous way he left his hometown team, and for the ostentatious television special (which did raise millions of dollars for various charities). Formerly universally beloved, LeBron became one of the most reviled athletes in memory.
Met with boos at every turn, his first season in Miami was somewhat of a failure given the high expectations: The Heat were upset by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, with James scoring just 17.8 points per game. James took the summer to work on his post game and center himself, and he returned with an entirely new focus and maturity.
LeBron was named League MVP each of the following two seasons — both of which ended with the first and second NBA titles of his career. James was routinely magnificent, scoring 45 points in Game 6 of the 2012 East Finals with the Heat facing elimination, and scoring 16 fourth-quarter points to salvage Miami’s hopes in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.
After making a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, LeBron and the Heat lost in five games in 2014 to a superior Spurs team. He would surprise many by opting out of his contract following the season, and then surprise literally everyone by heading back to the Cavaliers to settle the unfinished business from his first stint.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” James co-wrote with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
As such, King James has come full circle: Again the most popular – and marketable – athlete in the country, he will try to bring his hometown a long-coveted championship while the eyes of the sports world refocus on Cleveland. As always, LeBron will be burdened by the highest of expectations, but we’ve seen him grow, and we’ve grown with him. And by now, we know if anyone can pull it off, it’s him.