INDIANAPOLIS — First time I saw LeBron James, his mom was braiding his hair. This is a true story, all of it, and there will be parts that defy belief, but what was happening at the adidas ABCD Camp in 2001 wasn’t unbelievable. Just sweet.
LeBron James’ story has always been sweet. That’s the part that defies belief. All these years later, after those braids went up and came down, after his haircuts grew shorter and shorter, as his hairline receded – the only part of his body or mind that suggests he’s mortal – LeBron remains almost too good to be true.
When people debate the greatness of LeBron, his impact – When people ask: What’s his most impressive achievement? – I’m saying that’s it. The enduring sweetness of his story. Because that, to me, feels impossible.
Breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record? Seemed difficult, sure. But records get broken. The NBA titles? Hey, people win. Playing as well as he’s playing at age 38? He’s an outlier, a physical marvel, like someone made by Marvel.
But to live his life in the public eye, with the world’s spotlight on him since 2002 – when Sports Illustrated put him on its cover at age 17 and called this high school junior “The Chosen One” – and to live it without blemish?
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I’d say that’s impossible, but it’s like those Nike ads have told us: We are all witnesses.
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First time I saw him, he was in the bleachers at the gym at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., where adidas held its camp to rival the Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis. Remember those days? Kids had to choose the camp to attend – the shoe to honor – and in 2001 LeBron James was the sneaker industry’s hottest commodity since Michael Jordan in 1984.
Sonny Vaccaro was there for MJ and he was there for LBJ, and while LeBron seemed destined for the swoosh – he showed up at the adidas camp in a pair of Nikes – Sonny was pulling out all the stops. He got LeBron to Teaneck, had custom-made “The King” T-shirts waiting for him in his hotel, and arranged travel for his mother, Gloria, to attend camp as well.
This was back when players could enter the NBA Draft out of high school, and everyone knew LeBron was going pro. Everyone. In 2001 I was working for The Charlotte Observer, covering the programs at Duke, UNC and North Carolina State, and none of them was trying to recruit LeBron. Because they knew: He was a pro.
In 2001 he was 16, a high school junior sitting in those bleachers at Fairleigh Dickinson. Gloria was sitting behind him, working on hair that was at least six inches high, pulling it down into braids. She braided one-half of his hair tight to his scalp, and left the other half pointing skyward. He rose from the bleachers and started making shots.
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LeBron later attended the Nike camp wearing adidas, because even at age 16 he was a businessman, an adult. One of the things that gets overlooked about LeBron, overshadowed by a combination of physical gifts we’ve never seen, is his intelligence, his maturity. Every so often LeBron will give us a peek behind the curtain, describing a section of a game in minute detail, as if he’s reading from the play-by-play printout. But he’s not. That’s just his brain revving at a ridiculous level.
Saw it first-hand during the 2011 NBA Finals, and lots of you saw it too. Might not remember my part in it, which would be fine. But here it goes:
It was after Game 2, a Miami Heat victory against Dallas, but LeBron wasn’t playing like LeBron in those Finals. He was deferring in the fourth quarter, had done it both games, and with the series tied at 1-1 after two games in Miami, I decided to ask him about it. Again, this is after a victory. He’s not expecting this sort of negativity, but I basically tell him “it’s almost like you’re shrinking” in the fourth quarter, then I ask: “What’s going on?”
LeBron doesn’t pause. He talks for 24 seconds, splitting his answer into two neat segments. In part one he talks about basketball, about teammate Dwyane Wade being on a roll offensively, about him focusing his energies on the defensive end. Then he pauses for about a quarter-second, and smirks to himself. Here comes part two, where he eviscerates me:
“You go back and watch the film,” he said, “and you ask me a better question tomorrow.”
It was brilliant, and it was caught on film – because what isn’t? – and went viral as these things tend to do. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that moment so much, to admire the intellect behind that answer in real time, that I show it to journalism classes when I speak there. As a reminder of two things: One, how not to ask a question. And, two, how LeBron James’ gifts aren’t just physical.
No allegations, no rumors, no whispers
He grew up with everyone watching, in the newly arriving era of cell-phone cameras and social media. When was the last time LeBron James was out in public without a stranger’s cell phone taking it all in? How many years, how many decades, has he lived his life as one of the most recognizable people on planet Earth, without a misstep?
Seriously, think about that. The worst thing he ever did, if we’re going to use such a loaded term – the worst – was “The Decision,” when he went on ESPN to announce he was “going to take my talents to South Beach,” stunning his northeast Ohio home on live national television.
“The Decision” was filmed at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., with scores of kids in the background. At the time, because so many of us – yes, us – were angry with his decision to leave Cleveland to form the first super team, we held the location against him. He was using those kids as pawns, we said, as human shields. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t.
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Did you know “The Decision” has been credited with raising more than $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club of America?
Think about our stars, our legends, our heroes, our most famous athletes. Don’t make me list all their names here, all their scandals, because the fallibility of Brett Favre or Barry Bonds or Kyrie Irving or Lance Armstrong isn’t the point.
The point is the infallibility of LeBron James.
No scandals. No allegations. Not even whispers, and people like me, we hear whispers all the time. We don’t write them, because they’re whispers not facts, but we hear them. And it affects how we view certain athletes, because how could it not? We’re human.
When it comes to this, when it comes to so many things, LeBron James seems inhuman in the best of ways. Perfect? Close. Damn close. And in this era of snoops and rats and leaks and “sources,” that’s the most incredible thing about this most incredible man:
More than 20 years in the brightest spotlight, and the worst thing he ever did was raise millions of dollars for the Boys & Girls Club of America.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.