For the elite athlete, the brass ring of immortality—aka a professional sports championship—often dangles just beyond his grasp. The longer he goes without one, the more the public focuses on what he hasn’t accomplished instead of what he has. LeBron James knows all about this cruel irony. For eight frustrating seasons, he was the NBA’s king without a crown. Finally, in year nine, LeBron put the championship stamp on an otherwise unprecedented career and became an official part of the “basketball’s greatest-ever” debate. This is his story…

GROWING UP

LeBron James was born on December 30, 1984, in Akron, Ohio. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Gloria James, was only 16 at the time. His biological father, Anthony McClelland, was an ex-con uninterested in being a parent. Gloria raised LeBron on her own, and to this day he goes by her last name.

Life was often a struggle for LeBron and his mother. Gloria battled personal problems during much of his childhood. Some of those were brought on by the death of her mother, who passed away when LeBron was an infant. Bouncing between retail and accounting jobs, Gloria was never able to land steady work, and she and LeBron moved from apartment to apartment. The pair got to know all the seedier neighborhoods of Akron, a city of more than 200,000 located less than a hour south of Cleveland.

Despite her failings, Gloria worked hard to be a loving mother and shield LeBron from the poverty and violence of the streets. This was no easy chore, and at times made her choice of boyfriends seem puzzling. When LeBron was two, she started dating Eddie Jackson. In and out of trouble with the law, he went to prison in 1990 for aggravated cocaine trafficking. (In 2002, he pled guilty to mortgage fraud and mail fraud.) Nevertheless LeBron formed a bond with Jackson, and Gloria liked having a man around who was willing to serve as a father figure. Her brothers, Terry and Curt, also helped out.

From an early age, LeBron showed tremendous instincts for basketball. Gloria gave him a miniature hoop and ball when he was an infant, and he amused himself for hours each day with the toys. LeBron also had the genes necessary to spawn a long-limbed basketball phenom. Though Gloria stands only 5-5, she has relatives who are much taller.

The strain of the Jameses’ nomadic lifestyle began to take its toll when LeBron entered elementary school. Embarrassed by his home life, he didn’t make friends easily. And thought he wanted to do well in school, focusing on his studies was difficult. He found an outlet for his emotions and intelligence in sports. Basketball and football were his favorites.

By now LeBron had developed into a superb athlete. In addition to his natural speed, quickness and strength, he could think his way around the court or gridiron. His hero was Michael Jordan, and he patterned his game after his idol’s. LeBron liked taking it to the hole, as well as launching jumpers, but he took a special delight in distributing the basketball to his teammates.

In football, LeBron usually played receiver. He scored 19 touchdowns in six games in his first year of Pee Wee football. His coach was Frankie Walker, a man who would soon have a profound effect on his life. After the season ended, Walker began hearing stories that his young star, now a fourth-grader, was missing school on a regular basis. He soon discovered that LeBron had all but dropped out. Walker confronted Gloria, who admitted that her son needed a more stable living environment. They agreed that Lebron should move in with Walker and his family.

LeBron quickly took to his new surroundings. Walker and his wife, Pam, had three kids, Chanelle, Frankie Jr. and Tanesha. Everyone in the household, including LeBron, was responsible for daily chores. The structure did wonders for him. As a fifth grader, he received his school’s attendance award.

Walker also had a positive impact on Lebron’s basketball. Among other things, he taught the youngster how to shoot with his left hand.

After 18 months of living separately from her son, Gloria took him back. But when financial problems arose, LeBron returned to the Walkers. Eventually they worked out an arrangement to help Gloria pay her rent. Walker and his wife wanted to ensure that LeBron always had a place in the Akron area he could call home.

For LeBron, another advantage of living with the Walkers was his friendship with Frankie Jr. The two ran with four other boys—Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Romeo Travis. Together they formed a terrific team on the basketball court. On Sunday nights they gathered at the Akron Jewish Community Center, where Keith Dambrot, the former head coach at Central Michigan University, put them through their paces.

LeBron and Dru, who played point guard, became extremely close friends. In fact, when LeBron was 12, he spent most of that summer living with Joyce’s family.

ON THE RISE

It didn't take long for LeBron and his crew to gain recognition around Akron. They learned the fundamentals of basketball from Dambrot and developed tremendous chemistry with one another. Literally and figuratively, LeBron was head-and-shoulders above his friends. By the eighth grade he was six feet tall, could play all five positions and had a sixth sense for the game.

Calling themselves the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars, LeBron and his pals—coached by Joyce’s father—made a splash on the national scene in 1997 by qualifying for the Under/6th Grade AAU National Championships in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later they went all the way to the AAU Under/8th Grade final, in Orlando, Florida. The Shooting Stars won their first five games to set up a showdown with the Southern California All-Stars. They lost a heartbreaker, 68-66, but LeBron was the big story with his sparkling play.

By then LeBron, Joyce, Cotton and McGee—the self-proclaimed "Fab Four"—had arrived at a decision. They were a package deal, and pledged to continue their hoops careers together. The foursome settled on Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School, a parochial school in downtown Akron. Best known for its tradition of academic excellence, SVSM was about to establish a new legacy, with LeBron leading the way.


 

 

 

 


Michael Jordan, 1988 Fleer

     
 

Before he hit the hardwood, LeBron buckled up his chin strap as a wideout for SVSM football coach Jay Brophy, a former NFL linebacker who spent time with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. The freshman made his varsity basketball debut weeks later on December 3, earning a spot in the Fighting Irish starting backcourt. The decision to go with LeBron was an easy one for Dambrot, who had recently been hired as SVSM’s coach. Wearing Jordan’s number 23, LeBron, now 6-3, contributed 15 points in a blowout over parochial rival Cuyahoga Falls.

With LeBron and Maverick Carter (his cousin and an all-state senior) headlining a talented team, the Fighting Irish posted a perfect 27-0 record and captured the state championship, the school’s first since 1984. LeBron averaged just under 20 points, shot better than 50 percent from the field and was among the team leaders in rebounds, assists and steals. His instincts were amazing considering his age, and he demonstrated that intangible quality of making everyone else on the court better. Rumor had it that IMG, the Cleveland-based representation firm, was already putting out feelers to him.

The summer after his freshman season saw LeBron continue to improve. But the biggest change came off the court, where he grew nearly four inches, to 6-7. LeBron now looked more like a man than a boy.

LeBron played another year of football at SVSM in the fall of 2000, racking up more than 700 yards receiving. He was named All-Ohio, but the Fighting Irish finished at a disappointing 4-6.

As LeBron prepared for the basketball season, word began to spread that SVSM had a bona fide phenom on its hands. Expecting a huge crowd for their 2000-01 season opener, the Fighting Irish scheduled the game at the University of Akron’s James A. Rhodes Arena. Some 5,000 fans packed the house. LeBron paced SVSM to an easy victory, and the team rolled from there.

The Fighting Irish faced their stiffest test against Oak Hill Academy during a tournament in January. The Warriors—led by center DeSagna Diop and swingman Rashaad Carruth—were the nation's top-ranked prep squad. LeBron and his teammates entered the contest undefeated. In a classic, Oak Hill barely hung on for a 79-78 victory. But in what was becoming a habit, LeBron stole the show. With a small army of NBA and college scouts in attendance, he torched the Warriors for 33 points, nailing bombs from beyond the 3-point arc, hitting on leaners in the lane and finishing the break with rim-rattling dunks. LeBron actually could have won it for SVSM, but he missed a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter and his desperation jumper at the buzzer rimmed out.

The Fighting Irish rebounded from the defeat in impressive fashion. They ran the table the rest of the regular season, then stormed through the state playoffs for their second straight title. The final, played at Ohio State’s Jerome Schottenstein Center, attracted a sellout crowd of more than 17,000, including North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty and California head coach Ben Braun. LeBron, who poured in 54 points in his team’s two playoff wins, was a no-brainer as tournament MVP.


Jay Brophy,
1982 University of Miami photo
     
 

For the year LeBron averaged 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. He also increased his proficiency from downtown, connecting on 39 percent of his treys. Named an All-American (along with the likes of Eddie Curry and Kwame Brown), LeBron became the first sophomore in Ohio history to be voted the state’s Mr. Basketball.

MAKING HIS MARK

LeBron began the summer after his sophomore year in Colorado Springs at the USA Basketball Development Festival. The first underclassman ever invited to the camp, he broke the festival scoring record with 120 points in five games and was named MVP.

At his next stop, adidas’s ABCD Camp at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, LeBron officially arrived on the national scene. Going into the week, the player attracting the most attention was Lenny Cooke, a 6-8 forward from New York.

Cooke, who was planning to enter the NBA draft, was completely overshadowed by LeBron, who took control of the camp. With a camera crew from ESPN’s “The Life” following his every move and college and pro scouts looking on, he flashed his full offensive arsenal and played suffocating defense. But what blew away everyone were LeBron’s passing skills. Up until this point, most had labeled him the next Jordan. Now comparisons to Magic Johnson started.

Still, at times during the camp, LeBron seemed almost bored by the competition, and his focus wavered. It was when challenged that he shone brightest. He first turned heads in a featured game for underclassmen. The contest’s MVP, he tallied 22 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Later he matched up against Cooke in a showdown anticipated by everyone at the camp. Cooke tried to set the tone on an early possession, dribbling between his legs several times before nailing a 3-pointer. But LeBron got the last laugh. He hit for 24 points, held Cooke to just nine, and drilled a 25-footer at the buzzer to deliver a last-second victory.

After the ABCD camp, a rumor—floated in The New York Times and helped along a little by LeBron—surfaced that he was thinking of declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft after his junior season at SVSM. While he eventually denied the claim, it contributed to the growing legend of “King James." After running a feature on the 16-year-old, SLAM recruited him to pen a regular column for the hip-hop hoops magazine.

Meanwhile, Michael Jordan invited LeBron to join him in an exclusive workout, where he scrimmaged against the likes of Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, Juwan Howard and Penny Hardaway. LeBron struck up a friendship with Walker, a product of Chicago’s Mt. Carmel basketball factory, and still counts him among his most trusted advisors.


Eddie Curry, 2000 Basketball Times
     
 

When LeBron returned home, he strapped on the pads for his junior year of football. Gloria was opposed to the idea, afraid he might get injured and jeopardize his hoops career. But LeBron persisted. After sitting out the opener, he hauled in three scoring passes a week later. Despite a steady dose of double-coverage, LeBron wound up with 52 receptions for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. SVSM, meanwhile, experienced a tremendous turnaround, going 7-3 and qualifying for the state playoffs. In the Fighting Irish’s first post-season game, a 28-20 victory, LeBron fractured the index finger on his left hand. He chose to keep the injury quiet and take the field for the state final. SVSM lost, and LeBron suspected he had likely played his last football game.

The junior immediately turned his attention to the hardwood. By now speculation about his future was running rampant. With a solid B average, he would probably have his choice of colleges. On his short list were Cal, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, North Carolina and Duke. But many questioned whether LeBron was really considering college. Though a good student, he was a basketball player first and foremost. And with the hype around him building, he was being exposed more and more to the trappings of life as a pro. Eddie Jackson raised eyebrows by buying him a Ford Explorer. His name appeared in newspaper headlines across the nation. Nike and adidas were in a fierce battle to sign him. Reports said the final offer could reach $20 million.

Against this backdrop, LeBron began his junior basketball season. In as coach for SVSM was Dru Joyce, the father of LeBron’s best friend and the team’s point guard. The Fighting Irish faced one of the toughest schedules in the country. Indeed, nearly half of the school’s opponents were ranked nationally. LeBron and his teammates opened against Germantown (Pa.) Academy, which featured a pair of stars, Lee Melchionni and Matt Walsh. Thanks to LeBron’s 38 points and 17 rebounds, SVSM won 70-64. Next, at the JAR Arena, the Fighting Irish registered a 49-41 victory over Vashon of St. Louis and their shifty point guard, Jimmy McKinney. LeBron led the way with 26 points.

SVSM rode the momentum from those victories into the Slam Dunk to the Beach, a Christmas tournament held in Delaware. There the Fighting Irish fell for the first time, an 84-83 loss to Amityville of New York. LeBron almost gave his team a dramatic win with a four-point play near the end of regulation. But Amityville followed with two free throws to seize the lead for good. Weeks later, in a game against local rival Brush, LeBron felt like he was back on the gridiron. Roy Hall, a well muscled guard headed to Ohio State on a football scholarship, bodied him all over the court. LeBron responded with a grinding defensive effort, limiting Hall to eight points in an easy victory.

In February SVSM suffered its first two-game losing streak since LeBron joined the team. The first defeat came in a highly anticipated rematch with Oak Hill, at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, NJ. Though LeBron sizzled with 36 points, it wasn’t enough to overcome the Warriors and their top gun, Carmelo Anthony, who poured in 34. The Fighting Irish were beaten again a week later by George Junior Republic of Pennsylvania.


Antoine Walker, 1997 Upper Deck
     
 

The pair of losses did nothing to diminish LeBron’s reputation. Kobe Bryant, hoping to lure the teenager to adidas, gave him a special pair of sneakers decorated with American flags. While in Cleveland to play the Cavs, Shaquille O’Neal caught one of LeBron’s games at the JAR Arena.

The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, embarked on a new winning streak that fueled another run to the state final. In front of 20,000 screaming fans on the Ohio State campus, however, they failed in their quest for three titles in a row, losing 71-63 to Roger Bacon of Cincinnati. LeBron, who battled back spasms all night long, wasn’t at his best, and his teammates were unable to pick up the slack.

LeBron finished the year averaging 28 points, six assists and just under nine rebounds. An All-American on everybody’s list, he was named National Player of the Year by Gatorade, USA Today and Parade Magazine. But LeBron wasn’t completely satisfied with his season. His greatest cause for concern was the drop in his 3-point shooting (34%) and free throws (59.3%). He resolved to spend extra time in the gym working on both areas.

Among those who believed LeBron’s game didn’t need much tinkering was Cavaliers coach John Lucas. He had seen him in an AAU tournament the previous summer, and got to know him personally because LeBron often hung out at Cleveland’s Gund Arena. Ignoring NBA rules, Lucas invited the 17-year-old to an informal workout with the Cavs. LeBron impressed with dunks over Jumaine Jones and Chris Mihm, but again it was his ability to see the court and make pinpoint passes that attracted the most oohs and aahs.

The practice session earned Lucas a $150,000 fine from the NBA and got him suspended for two games. But he felt he got off cheap. Watching LeBron up close and personal was more than worth the penalties handed down by the league.

LeBron had plans for a full summer of hoops, but was sidelined after breaking his left wrist in an AAU game. He still made the rounds at all the major camps—and displayed a devilish sense of humor when he showed up at adidas’s ABCD wearing a pair of Nikes, then donned adidas shoes for the Nike All-American! During his downtime, LeBron worked on his endurance with a personal trainer. He also reflected on how much basketball meant to him. When he returned to the court, friends and family noticed a fresh bounce in his step.

They also noticed the circus the teenager’s life had become—not that everyone, including LeBron, wasn’t participating in the spectacle. SVSM struck a deal to broadcast all 10 of its home games throughout northeast Ohio on pay-per-view at $7.95 a pop. ESPN2 agreed to televise the school’s December contest against Oak Hill. Season-ticket packages for the Fighting Irish at the JAR Arena soared to $125.

At this stage of the game. it was becoming rather obvious to just about everyone who knew LeBron that he would soon be playing in the NBA—and probably bypass college. Eager to maximize her son’s earning potential, Gloria enlisted Eddie Jackson to assume full control of “Team LeBron.” They took meetings with all comers, fielding offers that promised to make LeBron a millionaire several times over. The competition between adidas and Nike also heated up. Word was that LeBron’s asking price was up to $25 million.

The Fighting Irish opened the 2002-03 season after Thanksgiving, at home against Wellston. With 2,000 spectators crammed into the SVSM gym, LeBron led his team to a a 46-10 lead before a storm literally turned out the lights on the game. The following night, the Fighting Irish exacted their revenge against George Junior Republic, employing a devastating full-court press that keyed a 101-40 blowout. LeBron was fantastic, posting 21 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and four steals.


LeBron James, 2001 Student Sports
     
 

Less than two weeks later SVSM registered another satisfying victory, defeating Oak Hill 65-45. With Dick Vitale and Bill Walton doing the game for ESPN2, LeBron enjoyed another big night, going for 31 points and 13 rebounds. A staggering 1.67 million households tuned into the contest.

SVSM won four more before LeBron’s birthday in December. Among those who wished a happy 18th to him were Allen Iverson and Jerome Bettis. But problems soon developed. To celebrate her son’s birthday, Gloria secured a bank loan and bought him a Hummer H2 (base price $50,000), complete with three televisions. The gift caused a huge controversy. SVSM and the Ohio High School Athletic Association considered suspending LeBron. The media, meanwhile, launched a national debate that questioned him, his mother and the wisdom of foregoing college for the riches of the NBA.

LeBron and the Fighting Irish, however, kept right on chugging. SVSM traveled to Los Angeles to square off at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion against Mater Dei High School, in another ESPN2 broadcast. Billed as a matchup between LeBron and D.J. Strawberry, a forward headed for Maryland and the son of former big-league slugger Darryl Strawberry. In an entertaining game, the Fighting Irish won 64-58. Though he missed all nine of his 3-point attempts, LeBron still managed to score 24.

A month later LeBron found himself in hot water again, this time for accepting two retro NBA jerseys worth $845 from a sports store. The OHSAA acted with little hesitation and rescinded his eligibility. But LeBron fired back, hiring lawyer Fred Nance to get the ban lifted. Nance requested an injunction in the Summit County Common Pleas Court, and judge James R. Williams ultimately reinstated LeBron. The ruling came just in time for him to play in the Prime Time Shoot Out in Trenton. He showed no ill-affects from the legal tussle, scoring 52 points in a 78-52 shellacking of West Chester of Los Angeles.

The entire episode grabbed national headlines. People who had never heard of LeBron—indeed, people who had no interest in high school hoops—suddenly were familiar with the details of his life. It was at this moment that the 18-year-old transcended his sport and passed into the realm of popular culture.

From there LeBron tried to concentrate on basketball, and did a pretty good job of it. SVSM entered the state playoffs with just one loss, then returned to the Division II final against Kettering Alter. In front of a tournament-record 18,454 fans at Ohio State's Value City Arena, the Irish held a slight lead heading into the fourth quarter. That's when LeBron took over—he scored his team's first nine points of the final stanza to spark SVSM to a 40-36 victory. Pushing their record to 24-1, the Irish reclaimed the state title and tightened their grasp on the mythical national high school hoops championship awarded by USA Today.

Next on LeBron's agenda were the 26th annual McDonald's All-American High School Boys Basketball Game at Gund Arena and the EA Sports Roundball Classic in Chicago. By playing in more than one all-star game, LeBron sealed his fate and made himself eligible for the NBA draft, which became known as the "LeBron Lottery."

Among the teams hoping for a lucky bounce of the ping-pong ball were Cleveland, Denver, Memphis and Toronto. Some even suggested that the Cavs dealt Andre Miller knowing the trade would weaken their club and thus improve their chances of landing the ultimate hometown hero in the draft. If that was indeed the team’s strategy, it worked. Cleveland got the top pick and grabbed LeBron. Though his contract with the Cavs was slotted in by the league’s rookie salary structure, he had no worries about money. In fact, estimates put his endorsement deals (with the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola and Upper Deck) at $100 million.

The lights glared, the expectations rose and the pressure intensified in LeBron’s first season with the Cavs. Of course, he had been performing under similar conditions most of his life. But he was also cashing a paycheck every couple of weeks and taking mega-dollar endorsement fees to the bank for the first time. Critics were concerned that this windfall might rob LeBron of perspective and hinder his ascent to the stratosphere of pro hoops. 

But the teenager remained focused. A team player from the opening of training camp, he averaged 21 points, six assists and more than five rebounds per game. In turn, he helped lift Cleveland from cellar-dweller to playoff contender. The Cavs ended the season at 35-47, a marked improvement over the previous year’s performance.

Cleveland also got solid contributions from Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, both of whom provided muscle in the paint. The Cavs juggled the roster midway through the campaign, sending Ricky Davis and Chris Mihm to Boston for Eric Williams and Tony Battie. Jeff McInnis was another in-season pick-up who made an impact. Cleveland battled the Celtics tooth-and-nail for the final playoff spot in the East, but was egded out by a single game.


Dick Vitale book
     
 

LeBron was the number one reason for the team's turnaround. After getting his feet wet early in November, he strung together 11 games with double-digit scoring, and finished the month with a 33-point, 16-rebound effort against the Memphis Grizzlies. LeBron continued his fine play through December and January, then suited up in the Rookie Challenge Game during the All-Star Weekend. He led the newcomers with 33 points, but the sophs won the contest behind Amare Stoudemire.

Heading down the stretch in '04—when many rookies hit the proverbial wall—LeBron played perhaps his best ball of the year. In late March against the New Jersey Nets, he exploded for 41 points and 13 assists in a 107-104 victory. He posted two more double-doubles in Apri.

Those types of performances stayed in voters' minds when it came time for Rookie of the Year balloting. Though Carmelo Anthony also had a big season, LeBron beat out his buddy and walked away with the hardware. Along the way, he also accepted an invitation to represent the U.S. on the 2004 Olympic men’s basketball team.

At 19, LeBron was the youngest member of the squad in Greece. Again, he displayed the type of dignity and class that veterans twice his age are known for. While Melo was complaining about his lack of playing time, he kept quiet and did whatever coach Larry Brown asked of him. This was saying a lot on the dysfunctional American squad. In a frustrating couple of weeks in Athens, the Dream Teamers could do no better than the bronze. Angry fans back home complained that the U.S. was nothing more than a collection of spoiled superstars who didn't understand the team concept.

The sailing wasn't much smoother for LeBron during the 2004-05 season. Before the campaign started, the Cavs got awful news when Boozer jumped ship and headed for the big money offered by the Utah Jazz. Cleveland tried to make up for the loss with several additions, including Drew Gooden, Tractor Traylor, Eric Snow and Lucious Harris, but the burden most nights fell on LeBron.

He responded with a wonderful season, improving in every significant statistical category. No one in the NBA logged more minutes, and he ranked third in the league in scoring (27.2 ppg) and steals (2.2 a game), and sixth in passing (7.2 apg). There were some games when LeBron was simply too much for opponents to handle. He became the youngest player to net 50 points in a game, and the youngest to notch a triple-double.

By increasing his range and accuracy from the outside, teams had to respect LeBron’s perimeter game, which opened more opportunities for him and his teammates. LeBron posted four double-doubles on the season, and pumped in 40 or more points on five occasions, including a 56-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors.

But he and Silas saw eye-to-eye less and less frequently as the year progressed. Cleveland was fighting for the last playoff spot in the East, and player and coach differed on how the Cavs would get there. As usually happens in pro sports, the star won out. Silas was canned, as the team finished 42-40 and out of the post-season. LeBron didn't escape unscathed. Some in the media called him out for submarining his coach.

LeBron shook off the criticism and saw his game continue to grow in the 2005-06 season. Working with a supporting cast that included newcomers Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones, he averaged 31.4 points a game—good for third in the NBA—becoming the youngest ever to top the 30-point plateau. LeBron also led the Cavs with 521 assists and 123 steals. At the '06 All-Star Game, he scored 29 points and took home MVP honors as the East gained a 122-120 victory.

Under new coach Mike Brown, Cleveland won 50 games and finished second in the NBA Central. The team played consistently all year, putting together winning streaks of six, seven, eight and nine games. Veterans Snow and Ilgauskus were solid contributors, but it was LeBron who made the difference in a season that looked like it might be headed down the tubes after newly acquired scorer Larry Hughes missed more than half year to a broken finger. For his efforts, LeBron was honored as the runner-up to Steve Nash in the NBA MVP voting.

In the playoffs, the Cavaliers locked horns in an epic battle with Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards. In his first postseason game, LeBron notched a triple-double, and then missed by one rebound in Game 2 of repeating this feat. In Game 3, he hit for 41 points.

After four games, the series was tied at 2-2. The Cavs showed their mettle by finishing off the Wizards with a pair of one-point overtime wins. LeBron averaged 35.7 points—the most ever for a non-center in his first postseason series.

Cleveland’s magical run continued in the next round against Detroit. After dropping the first two games to the Pistons in the Palace, the Cavs tightened their D and squeezed out three straight victories to throw the defending conference champs back on their heels. But Cleveland blew a chance to finish the Pistons off at home, and ended up losing the series in seven games.

The Pistons really got it right in the finale, shutting down the Cleveland offense and holding them to a record-low 61 points (for a Game 7). Early in the contest, LeBron was smoking, hitting 10 of 15 field goals in the first half. But the Pistons held him to one bucket in final 24 minutes to win 79-61. After the game, even LeBron had to admit that it was a masterful defensive performance.

With Hughes healthy and the core of the team returning for 2006-07, the Cavs set their sights on a conference championship and trip to the NBA Finals. The defending champion Heat were older and injured, so the East looked wide open as the playoffs neared. LeBron’s numbers dipped slightly coming out of the All-Star break, but his impact on games was undiminished. The Cavs, meanwhile, were among the top teams in the conference. At home, they were playing .750 ball.

Overall, LeBron’s numbers were down slightly coming out of the All-Star break, but his impact on games was undiminished. The Cavs, meanwhile, were among the top teams in the conference, including a .750 winning percentage at home.

LeBron finished the year averaging 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.6 steals. He was just getting his motor revved for the Cavs’ first-round meeting with the Wizards. With Arenas sidelined for the series, it was little more than a tune-up for Cleveland. LeBron led his team to a sweep, getting more involved on the boards and in playmaking than during the regular season. No one noticed, but he was laying the groundwork for a dominant do-it-all postseason. 


LeBron James,
2004 Upper Deck Insert
     
 

Against the Nets in the second round, Jason Kidd’s experience and leadership were not enough to lift New Jersey out of the swamps. The Cavs took three of the first four and closed out the seriesin six games. Game 4 was the key. LeBron netted 30 and the defense held Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson to just one bucket in the fourth quarter.

Cleveland faced a much sterner test in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons. Detroit was an experienced, battle-hardened club that had already demonstrated it knew how to stop a one-man show like the Cavs. Or so it seemed after the first two games, which Detroit won by identical scores of 79–76.

In the closing seconds of Game 1, LeBron—with just 10 points in the scoring column—had a chance to tie the game but instead passed to Donyell Marshall, who missed a wide-open shot. The backlash against for this decision stunned LeBron at first. When two guys are on you and a teammate is alone, he thought, you pass it, right? Wrong. Not if you are the second coming of Oscar Robertson.

So at the end of Game 2, with a chance to win, LeBron took a spinning shot with Richard Hamilton hanging all over him and missed. Hughes grabbed the rebound and missed, and Anderson Varejao missed a follow-up tip. The Pistons controlled the ball and sank a pair of foul shots to widen their margin to three points.

A dispassionate observer could easily have interpreted LeBron’s late-game decision-making as the misguided thinking of a young star. In truth, he was maturing before the NBA’s eyes. With the Cavs all but written off, LeBron found his extra gear, and the Pistons were totally unprepared to stop him.

The Cavaliers were certain they could win three straight after dropping two, but could they close out the Pistons with that elusive fourth victory? LeBron and his teammates took it one game at a time. Cleveland captured Game 3 and then Game 4. In both contests, LeBron was money at crunch time. He scored 12 in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and 13 in the final stanza of Game 4. With Detroit keying on LeBron, young Daniel Gibson made back-breaking plays in both victories.

The entire Cleveland team was brimming with confidence at the start of Game 5. Both sides anticpated a war. The fans at the palace in Auburn Hills were expecting a victory. What they got was an epic performance from LeBron, who took command in the fourth quarter. LeBron scored 10 of Cleveland’s last 11 points to knot the score at 90 after 48 minutes.

When the Pistons gave LeBron an outside shot, he drilled it. When they came out to meet him, he exploded past one, two and three defenders for layups and dunks. In the two overtimes that followed, Lebron outscored the Pistons singlehandedly 19–17, including the winning basket on a layup with less than three seconds on the clock. He finished with 48 points, including Cleveland’s last 25 and 29 of the team’s final 30.

The 109–107 loss humbled the Pistons. Back in Cleveland for Game 6, they focused so much attention on LeBron that they forgot about the rest of the Cavs. LeBronnetted just 20 points, but Gibson went wild with a career-high 31 to lead a second-half surge that cemented a 98–82 victory and the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals. The Pistons had told anyone who would listen that they planned to make someone else beat them in Game 6. They were right.

Alas, Cleveland’s remarkable run came to an end against the Spurs in the NBA Finals. The matchups were not pretty against San Antonio. Tim Duncan outclassed the Cavs' frontline, Tony Parker cut the Cleveland defense to ribbons, and the San Antonio defense forced LeBron into tough shots. The Cavs led in only one game in the second half, and that moment was fleeting. The Spurs swept them in four.

Playing the 2007–08 season as the team to beat in the East was a new experience for Cleveland. LeBron responded with another magnificent season. In February, he reached the 10,000-point plateau just 59 days after his 23rd birthday. That made him the youngest player ever to hit five figures. A few days later. he passed Brad Daugherty to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

LeBron averaged an even 30 points with 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists. The Cavs went 45–37 to earn a #4 seed in the playoffs. They attempted to reload for the postseason, swinging a massive deal in which they acquired Ben Wallace. But the improvement turned out to be negligible.

In the playoffs, the Cavs defeated Washington for a third straight year, but fell to the newly reloaded Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals in seven games. The finale was a classic, as LeBron and his buddy Paul Pierce filled it up for their respective teams. It was a throwback for those who had witnessed Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins duel in the 1988 playoffs. LeBron’s 45 points were not enough to overcome Boston’s timely rebounding and clutch shooting, and the Cavs lost 97–92.


LeBron James,
2007 The Sporting News
     
 

Up next for LeBron were the 2008 Olympics and a spot on the so-called “Redeem Team.” Though he was on the roster during Team USA’s 2004 debacle, he was not given the chance to be a difference-maker. Now he and Kobe Bryant were charged with bringing home the gold.

They did exactly that—in dmonant fashion. The Americans weren’t really challenged until the gold medal game against Spain. Up by just four points in the fourth quarter, the U.S. turned it on and won going away. LeBron starred throughout the tournament. Embracing Mike Krzyzewski's team-first philosophy, he did whatever was asked of him. LeBron dug in on the defensive end, gave up the ball on the fast break and took over the socring burden whenever necessary. He celebrated his first meaningful championship since high school like a teenager.

Back in Cleveland, the Cavs looked to LeBron to lead them in 2008-09 and he did—in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. The team gelled well around him, and the Cavsobliterated their old record of 57 wins, finishing with 66, the NBA’s top victory total. In 81 games, LeBron averaged 28.4 points, 7.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds. His shooting average improved to a career-best 48.9%.

When the MVP voting came in, no one was surprised when LeBron walked off with the award for the first time. He also was named to the All-Defensive First Team for the first time, plus All-NBA First Team for the second season in a row.

The Cavs appeared to be unchallenged in their quest for a return to the NBA Finals. In the opening round of the playoffs, LeBron was literally unstoppable. He averaged 32 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in a four-game sweep of the Pistons. In the waning moments of Game 4, Detroit fans were chanting, "MVP! MVP!"

The Hawks put up a better fight in the next series, but again, no one on the court could deal with LeBron. In the third game of a second straight sweep, LeBron torched Atlanta for 47 points.

Cleveland's dream season came to a screeching halt against the Orlando Magic, a team that was inferior on paper but matched up very well. LeBron scored 49 in Game 1, but he suffered leg cramps in the fourth quarter as Orlando squeezed out a 107–106 win. LeBron came back with a game-winning three-pointer to take Game 2 and knot the series.

In Florida, the Magic won a brutal contest by 10 points. LeBron scored 41, but he shot poorly, doing most of his damage from the foul line. Game 4 was another classic battle, this one going to overtime. By this time, Orlando had figured out Cleveland’s defense. They forced the Cavs to double Dwight Howard, which left their perimeter shooters open. When they chased the shooters, Howard had his way with the Cleveland big men. He scored 10 points in OT to give the Magic a 116–114 win and an insurmountable lead in the series. Howard was dominant again in Game 5, scoring 40 to LeBron’s 25. The game was decided in the first half. The Cavs had to make up 18 points in the final two quarters and never launched much of a run. After the final buzzer, LeBron hurried into the locker room without congratulating the Magic. Many felt he was being a poor sport.


LeBron James,
2007 Sports Illustrated
     
 

The Cavs responded to their lack of authority in the paint by bringing in Shaquille O’Neal for 2009–10. Cleveland had another great season, winning 61 games. LeBron had another lights-out campaign as well, averaging 27.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.9 assists. Once again, the Cavs entered the postseason as the odds-on favorite to reach the NBA Finals where, presumably, LeBron and Kobe Bryant would face off in an epic championship battle.

Cleveland handled the young and talented Bulls in five games. There was concern among Cavs fans, however, as LeBron’s right elbow began to ach. In Game 5, a narrow 96–94 victory over Chicago, he actually shot his final free throw left-handed. Fortunately, Antawn Jamison picked up the scoring slack, and LeBron led the team in assists and rebounds. He had never had a problem with the elbow before.

The injury was a big issue against the Celtics in the next round. The Cavs needed their entire team to answer the call against the experienced Boston lineup. The teams split the first four games, which made Game 5 a "statement game." Unfortuantely, the Cavs folded in a shocking 120–88 loss. They went nearly as quietly in Game 6. Cleveland simply couldn’t buy a bucket in the second half. Ironically, the series loss once again came down to a deficiency in the middle. No one could contain Kevin Garnett—a stunning development, given that KG had looked like half a player as he limped through most of the regular season.

LeBron, who had been criticized for his seemingly indifferent performance in Game 5, showed up and played hard in Game 6. He led his team with 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals. As he walked off the parquet floor among the celebrating Boston players, LeBron realized that this might never wear a Cleveland uniform again. He felt awful that he was unable to bring a championship to his home state.

Almost immediately, sports fans began the great guessing game: Who would sign LeBron? As the July 1 signing period neared, it was all anyone could talk about. To create some semblance of order from the media chaos, LeBron announced that he would tell fans where he was signing live on ESPN the evening of July 8th. Everyone had a theory where he was headed—New York, Dallas, Cleveland, Miami, New Jersey, Chicago—but after Dwyane Wade and Chirs Bosh signed with the Heat, it began to look like he was headed to South Beach. The three friends made no secret of the fact that they had engineered their contracts to elapse at the same time, and they had talked about playing together then.

Still, the decision was not an easy one. LeBron would wake up one morning thinking he would go to one club, then wake up the next and change his mind. The morning of the "Big Reveal," he woke up, had a conversation with his mother, and then made his final choice. That night, he confirmed what was becoming clearer and clearer: LeBron would create a new Big Three in Miami.


LeBron James, 2009 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Miami’s starting five for most of the 2010–11 season was the Big Three plus center Zydrunas Ilgauskus and guard Carlos Arroyo, with James Jones and Mario Chalmers seeing plenty of time in substitute roles. For long stretches of games, LeBron functioned as a point forward, logging several double-digit assist performance and leading the team in that category by more than 200 assists.

From late November to early January, the Heat dropped just one of 22 games to take a commanding lead in the Southeast Division. Erik Spoelstra guided the team to a 58–24 record, third-best in the league and just behind the Bulls in the East. LeBron scored more than 2,000 points for the seventh year in a row and led the team in points, steals, and defensive rebounds. He finished second in the NBA with a 26.7 scoring average and was third in the MVP voting. The Big Three was good for 60 points and 20 rebounds pretty much every night.

All eyes were on LeBron as the playoffs began. Nothing short of the NBA Finals would be acceptable, and once there the expectation was that Miami had a superior team to anyone in the West. LeBron and his teammates took care of business in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They scored easy five-game victories over the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls. They faced the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.

The Heat split two close games at home to open the series. LeBron played well at both ends of the court in a Game 1 victory, but he was conspicuous by his absence in the fourth quarter of Game 2. The rest of the series played out in similar fashion. LeBron put a lot of pressure on himself and fell out of synch with his teammates at crucial moments. He seemed to be focused on passing instead of scoring, which was fine with Dallas. His points per game plunged below 20. Miami won Game 3 to lead briefly take the series lead, but Dallas found an extra gear and won the final three games to capture the championship.

After a labor dispute pushed the 2011-12 season opener back to Christmas, the Heat got down to business. Great players learn as much from their mistakes as they do from their triumphs, and LeBron was determined to be at his best from opening night to the final game of the postseason. To Wade’s credit, the longtime Miami leader stepped back and encouraged LeBron to be the man in key situations. Bosh, a smart and talented player, filled in around these two as needed.

Although the faces were essentially the same, it was a very different Heat club that entered the 2012 playoffs with a division-best 46–20 record. LeBron upped his scoring average to 27.1 points per game and topped Miamiin rebounds and assists. He also played spectacular defense—some nights shutting down shooting guards and othernights outmaneuvering centers. It was a year that convinced many doubters that LeBron had matured into the player that everyone believed he would one day become. He was an easy pick for MVP— his third award in four seasons.


LeBron James,
Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh

souvenir photo
     
 

The second seed in the Eats behind the Bulls, the HEat drew the Knicks in round one of the playoffs. They made quick work of the New Yorkers, taking the first three games and finishing them off in five. LeBron was the team’s top scorer in four of the five contests. Next came the Indiana Pacers. Indiana put a scare in Miami by taking Games 2 and 3. But LeBron dropped 40 on the Pacers in Game 4 to even the series, and the Heat went on to win in six games.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami faced Boston. The Celtics looked exhausted after a 7-game battle with the young 76ers. The Heat won the first two games, prompting Miami fans to predict a sweep. Instead, the Celtics came alive and took three straight to push the Heat to the brink. Playing Game 6 in Boston, LeBron authored what may be the defining performance of his career, as he scored 45 and led his team to a 20-point win. Back in Miami, LeBron had 31 point and a dozen rebounds to pace Miami’s 101–88 Game 7 victory. Boston actually led early in the fourth quarter, but LeBron’s thunderous dunk—followed by a Bosh 3-pointer—gave the Heat the lead for good.

The difference in the Heat from 2011 to 2012 was clear heading into the Finals. When things got tight, LeBron didn’t try to do too much, and he didn’t disappear. He let his talent flow at both ends of the court and provided his team with the best chance possible to win. Even so, some experts were predicting that the Heat would wilt against the young and energetic Oklahoma City Thunder. Miami had endured two tough series, Bosh was not 100 percent and, well, LeBron had a less-than-stellar history in the Finals that was hard to ignore.

These sentiments appeared to be spot-on after the final buzzer sounded on Game 1. The Thunder scored a 105–94 victory behind Kevin Durant’s 36 points. LeBron was high man for the Heat with 30 points.

LeBron did not change his game as the series unfolded. Rather, he simply outplayed whoever was guarding him, and whoever he was guarding. That included Durant, whose lack of body mass put him at a disadvantage as the series got more and more physical. The Heat tied the series with a narrow victory in Game 2 and then it was off to the races. They swept the final three games in Miami to win the championship. LeBron led the Heat in scoring, assists and rebounds in Games 4 and 5 and was named NBA Finals MVP.

When asked what he was thinking when the last few seconds ticked away on his first championship, LeBron answered, “It’s about damn time!”

LEBRON THE PLAYER

LeBron’s quickness and strength are off the charts, his court vision and ball-handling skills are highly developed, and his rebounding and defense are superb. LeBron’s passing ability is nothing short of extraordinary. He not only sees the whole court but anticipates the movement of teammates and defenders. LeBron knows he will be double-teamed whenever he gets the ball, so the first thing he does is look to see where the help is coming from, always thinking one or even two passes ahead before the second man arrives.

LeBron’s willingness to share the ball and get others involved is one of the things coaches love about him. His unselfishness underscores his innate understanding of basketball and how fully he embraces the fundamentals. Of course, when it is time to take charge and make a momentum-changing statement—or score a key bucket—he is almost impossible to stop.

When LeBron joined the Heat, the big question was who would take the last-second shot? After two seasons, that question hasn’t been fully answered. LeBron is deadly from long distance and can beat almost any defender to the basket. What made his hero, Michael Jordan, so dangerous was that he was a master of the mid-range jumper. This is a shot LeBron has yet to perfect. Until his post-up game evolves inside 20 feet, he will be a great option for buzzer-beaters, but not the only one the Heat have.

Where does LeBron stand in the pantheon of all-time greats? Few would argue that he has now earned his way into the Top 10. What makes him hard to rank is that he is such a unique player. He is capable of playing any position on the court at an All-Star level, both on offense and defense. No one else in history can claim this distinction.

 


2012 The Miami Hearld


 

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