Thirteen times in his NBA career, LeBron James has reached the postseason, and when the story of his career is told, it’ll likely begin with the many memorable moments he has created during those 13 trips: eight NBA Finals appearances (including seven consecutive), three championships, three Finals MVP awards, a triple-double average in the Finals … the list goes on and on.
But there are other moments – some you might not know about, and some you might have forgotten – that help shape LeBron’s story, stretching all the way back to the days after he was drafted, right through fashioning the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history. If you’re not familiar with these 13 moments, then you’re not getting the true full story of the career of LeBron James.
The (first) summer of LeBron
Summer league wasn’t yet a big event in 2003. But that year at the Pepsi Pro Summer League in Orlando, games were moved from a private gym to TD Waterhouse Centre to allow 13,000 fans to catch a glimpse of James playing a meaningless game in an NBA practice jersey for the first time.
Outside the arena, fans swarmed the Cleveland Cavaliers as they arrived in a fleet of SUVs. According to longtime team communications director Tad Carper, it was a “playoff-like atmosphere.”
In a make-or-miss postseason, Cleveland’s shots finally went down, as LeBron James notched 12 assists and the Cavs went 17-of-34 from the 3-point line to claim their first win of the Eastern Conference finals.
“You couldn’t see who was inside the SUVs and [fans] were tapping on the window and trying to scalp the tickets,” Carper said.
A week later, at the Reebok Pro Summer League, the Cavs wised up and chartered a bus to take them to the tiny 3,000-seat Clark Athletic Center on UMass-Boston’s campus. Summer league organizers arranged for makeshift parking in what Carper remembers as a mixed dirt and gravel lot, which was supposed to be secure from fans who had also parked there.
Several fans hid in the lot by laying on the ground underneath their cars. When the Cavs piled off the bus, the fans rolled out into plain sight, hoping to get an autograph or a picture with James, who was unfazed.
“I mean, to be honest, man, I had got so much in high school, it wasn’t something that was surprising to me or something that I haven’t seen before,” James said. “I mean, everywhere we went in high school, man, there was people outside our rooms, whether we was in a motel or a hotel, or a Holiday Inn, people was there trying to figure out what the hype was all about. I had seen it so much in high school throughout those last three years that when I got to the NBA, it was like, ‘OK.'”
Lunch with a legend
Before rookie James launched off his left foot and cocked the ball back in his right arm to throw down an instantly iconic dunk in Sacramento, he dug into some chicken fettuccine at the team hotel. It was his last lunch before a legendary run that would include multiple championships and MVP awards, and he was breaking bread with someone who had a couple rings and MVPs of his own: Moses Malone.
The Hall of Famer, who connected with James through a Nike commercial shoot, visited the 19-year-old’s hotel room, shared stories about life in the NBA and offered up advice.
“It was just about hard work and dedication,” James said of Malone’s message. “Whatever you give to the game, the game will give back to you. … That was already in my head, but when you hear it from someone who had accomplished so much, it resonates even more.”
Malone, whom James would affectionately refer to as “Uncle Mo,” was one of the rare greats of the game to embrace him from the very start. His gesture meant the world to James as he transitioned to the pro game.
“Just the simple fact that he was there,” James said. “Just sounded very genuine. I appreciate that day. That was kind of like the beginning of the journey. Sitting in that room, and sitting around with him and sitting with my loved ones. That was the beginning of the journey.”
A comforting conversation
On an off day in March 2009, James drove two hours to Columbus to attend a high school championship game featuring his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, and Thurgood Marshall, a high school in Dayton.
It was a hotly contested game with James’ school ultimately winning by six, but Thurgood Marshall’s Juwan Staten, a spark-plug junior guard at the time, scored 28 points in defeat. In the moments after the final buzzer, Staten broke down in exhaustion and grief, holding his head in his hands as he started to cry. He felt someone hug him and start to speak to him.
“[James] grabbed me close. He told me that he lost a state final his junior year. He told me I was a special player and to keep my head up,” said Staten, who later went on to play at West Virginia. “He told me to remember the moment for the rest of my life. He told me to let that drive me for the rest of my life, never to feel like that again. Those were wise words, and I’ve tried to live by them.”
The moment created a remarkable photo, James comforting and offering advice to a teenager in a devastating moment.
“It’s just who I am, I guess. It’s not like it was planned. Obviously I just recognized the kid had a lot of talent. He played his heart out against our high school and he wanted to win that game just as bad as, you know, probably living,” James said. “And I mean he was just crying, like, a disaster, you know? I’ve been there. I was in my junior year. … I just wanted to try to give my words of encouragement in any way I could.”
The President and The King
James has been to the White House for three formal occasions, when President Barack Obama honored his championship teams in 2012, 2013 and 2016. But it was the nonofficial times when James visited that were the most fun for him.
In 2009, James was in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, for the premiere of a documentary he produced about his high school years, “More Than A Game.” He made a surprise visit to the White House, despite not being on Obama’s official schedule for the day. James and friends Rich Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims got a tour of the West Wing and met with Obama in the Oval Office. Obama even made visiting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wait a few minutes for a scheduled meeting.
A year later, a few weeks after he signed with the Miami Heat, James returned to the White House as part of what ended up being a historic pickup game to celebrate Obama’s 49th birthday. Among those who took part were Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Magic Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Bill Russell, Dwyane Wade and David West.
Fantasy, but still not reality
James’ feature film debut came in 2015’s “Trainwreck,” and he has long been rumored to be involved in a “Space Jam” sequel. But there’s another saga that predates both of those, a decade-old idea to have James star in a movie about a fantasy basketball camp.
In 2009, after he’d gotten some attention for playing four different versions of himself in Nike ads, James started a project about an adult fantasy basketball camp set in Las Vegas. The script, from established screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, was to be produced by Brian Grazer. It was scheduled to film in 2010 and director Malcolm Lee spent time with James during the 2009-10 season.
But after The Decision, preproduction stopped. The project stayed dormant for three years. In 2013, Kevin Hart agreed to co-star with James. The movie had a new name, “Ballers,” and a new setting, Miami, where James had just won two titles with the Heat. Hart was set to play James’ less talented brother. But James left Miami a year later and the project never got off the ground.
After “Trainwreck,” momentum returned. In 2016, Mark Wahlberg announced on “The Tonight Show” that he was going to star in a fantasy camp movie with James and it would be written by Doug Ellin, the creator of “Entourage.” Nothing has happened with the concept since.
Will it ever get made?
“That’s still the hope and the idea is still out there,” James said. “Kev [Hart] is, well, you can’t stop him. The route that he’s on right now, he has no time to be stopping and waiting. He’s got to stay on that wave. So, you know, we’ll see what happens.”
Hanging up No. 23 … everywhere
Michael Jordan has attended only a few dozen of James’ games over the years. But when he sat courtside for one game in Miami in November 2009, James seemed overwhelmed with emotion.
As he was walking off the floor he whispered to TNT’s Craig Sager that he was going to dump his No. 23 to honor Jordan. After the game he doubled down and suggested that the entire league retire Jordan’s number. In Miami, Jordan’s No. 23 is retired and hangs on a wall on the side of the arena. That night Jordan sat next to Heat president Pat Riley, who had the idea to honor Jordan even though he never played for Miami.
“He’s the best basketball player we’ve ever seen,” James said that night. “If you see 23, you think about Michael Jordan. You see guys flying through the air, you think about Michael Jordan. You see game-winning shots, you think about Michael Jordan. You see fly kicks, you think about Michael Jordan. He did so much, it has to be recognized, and not just by putting him in the Hall of Fame.”
A few weeks later, James filed paperwork to change his number for the following season. When he signed with the Heat and switched to No. 6, there were some conspiracy theories that James knew he’d be going to Miami and that’s why he brought up the number change. James denied that was true, noting he would’ve had to change his number if he signed in Chicago, where it is also retired for Jordan.
After wearing No. 6 for four years in Miami, James switched back to No. 23 when he returned to Cleveland.
An early meeting with a future rival
In July 2010, after three days of free-agency meetings with six different teams that were monitored by media and fans like a congressional hearing, James pondered his future at his annual Nike basketball camp at the University of Akron.
The camp was for elite high school players but also featured some of the nation’s top college players serving as counselors. They drew the attention of scouts, playing pickup games that often turned into a “who’s who” of future lottery talent.
On the second day of the camp, with the whole basketball world hanging on his free-agency decision, James – joined by Chris Paul – showed up in workout clothes ready to play.
Joined by a couple of James’ Cavs teammates, they took on a team that featured Dayton’s Chris Wright, Georgetown’s Vernon Macklin, Butler’s Shelvin Mack, Duke’s Kyle Singler and a rising junior sharpshooter from Washington State named Klay Thompson.
Yes, the first time Thompson faced James and Paul was on a side court in Akron, Ohio.
“You never know who you’re going to cross paths with,” James said, recalling the game. “That’s why, for me personally, I’ve always been kind to the younger generation and the kids in high school, the kids in college, the kids growing up. … I would never want a story to come out about me and them say, ‘Man, when I was in the 10th grade, man, I went up to LeBron and he told me you ain’t never going to make it and now …’ You know? That’s wack for me. To kill a kid’s dream before it started? That’s wack to me.”
Thompson hit a few long jumpers, and Mack wasn’t intimidated going up against Paul, who was recovering from injury. James and Paul won, but it was respectable. And just the beginning.
Taking his two-wheeler to South Beach
When James first joined the Miami Heat, there were few figures more reviled in professional sports. Overnight, he went from celebrated in the only home he’d ever known in Northeast Ohio, to perceived as disloyal and afraid of competition by joining up with a superteam in South Beach.
With his life uprooted, something to prove, and plenty of vitriol to escape, James took up a new pastime: bike riding.
“Being in Miami it’s all about just trying to have a mental edge,” James said. “And at the same time, being able to have just a freedom, which is very rare in my life.”
Longtime friend Randy Mims fashioned stereo speakers on his bike so he could blast music when James and the gang crashed Critical Mass – a street cycling event held on the last Friday of every month when hundreds of bike riders find the route posted online at the last minute and pedal around Miami together. By the time other bikers realized who was in their presence, James & Co. had usually already zipped past them.
The practice later inspired both a Nike commercial and James’ charitable initiative “Wheels for Education,” in which he doled out thousands of bikes, helmets and other gear to children who completed a learning enrichment camp that he sponsored.
“To be able to just have some freedom,” James said, looking back. “And just feel like I was at peace and smell the fresh air and things of that nature and also have a mental edge saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to use this as conditioning, we’re going to use this as a way to get to work.’ If I could do this and still go out and play and dominate, it was more of a mental edge for me.”
The night Miami ended Linsanity
At the shootaround before a game in Miami in February 2012, James and Wade got into an argument about strategy for that night’s game against the New York Knicks. Both badly wanted to guard – and shut down – Jeremy Lin, who had taken the league by storm.
The cards were stacked against Lin. It was his fourth game in five nights and the Knicks had a tough back-to-back, flying in from New York after beating the Atlanta Hawks the night before. It was the culmination of a historic 11-game stretch that made up “Linsanity,” during which he averaged 23.9 points and 9.2 assists and had some breathtaking finishes.
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Ten days earlier the Heat had laughed and celebrated when Lin hit a game winner in Toronto, with some of the players staying in the locker room in Indianapolis to watch after their win that night. But by that February night in Miami, they were sick of it and wanted to prove a point.
The Heat smothered Lin in traps and shoved him around, and Lin quickly unraveled. He ended up shooting 1-for-11 with eight turnovers, and the Heat won by 14 points.
James used his size advantage to push Lin far away from the basket and from teammates. He plucked away five steals of his own and harassed Lin into several other miserable mistakes that unleashed the Heat’s fast break.
Later, the New York Times reported that President Obama was so impressed with the performance that he used it as a metaphor for his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney.
“We’re the Miami Heat and [Romney] is Jeremy Lin,” Obama reportedly told aides.
The incredible streak within a streak
In the middle of the 2012-13 season, the Heat won 27 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in NBA history. But lost within that streak was perhaps the hottest regular-season streak James has ever been on.
During his time in Miami sharing the ball with stars Wade and Chris Bosh, James wasn’t able to get the volume of shots he’d gotten before. So he became more focused on efficiency, making sure the shots he got counted. He hunted cleaner looks, devoted himself to 3-point shooting for the first time, and learned where on the floor he should be positioned to maximize his chances. The result was a soaring shooting percentage, which hit a whopping 57 percent in 2012-13.
During the long win streak that season, James had six consecutive games shooting better than 60 percent and scoring more than 30 points. During the core of that run, he went 31-of-41 shooting over three games. His streak ended in Oklahoma City, in a rematch of the previous season’s Finals, when James shot only 14-of-24 (58 percent) and scored 39 points in an incredible duel with Kevin Durant, who scored 40 points. The Heat won by 10.
The following season, James had a streak during which he shot 67 percent or better in five straight games and averaged 37.4 points. It culminated in his career-best 61-point performance against the Charlotte Bobcats, a night he shot 22-of-33 from the field and 8-of-10 from 3-point range.
When 25,000 fans came to watch LeBron … speak
James once had more than 25,000 fans show up just to watch him give a speech. In August 2014, the city of Akron wanted to welcome James back home so it essentially threw a giant rally at the University of Akron’s football stadium, which was nearly at capacity, including thousands of seats on the field.
Beforehand, James held a news conference where he nonchalantly announced the Cavs had finished a trade for Kevin Love. The move had been reported but wasn’t yet official until James started openly talking about his new teammate.
James didn’t come out to the field until just before dusk, making a slow circle like a boxer coming to the ring as he embraced fans. As he was on the circuit, Skylar Gray appeared on a stage and sang her song “Coming Home,” which had become the anthem of James’ choice to re-sign with the Cavs.
After honoring students supported by his foundation, James waited for the sun to go down before declaring “I’m back” and dropping the mic. A surprise fireworks display then started over the stadium.
Specialized shoes lead to special connection
Aaron Miller, who has a rare form of cerebral palsy called spastic hemiplegia that stems from a severe stroke he suffered at birth, was being honored by the Celtics during a timeout in a December 2015 game against the Cavaliers. James looked up at the video board to see the story of how Miller overcame his health hurdles to win MVP in a local basketball tournament associated with the Special Olympics. James then noticed the teenager’s footwear.
Miller was wearing a specialized version of LeBron’s shoes, designed to be easier to put on and take off, with children with disabilities in mind.
“I just saw him with my shoes on and picked him out,” James said. “I was just … it was kind of fate.”
James walked over to Miller and his family, who were seated courtside, placed his hand on the back of Miller’s head and acknowledged his presence, with thousands of Celtics fans all fixing their gaze upon the look of pure joy on Miller’s face.
“I felt amazing because I was that kid that sat in the shadows behind everyone, and I was really shy, but when LeBron noticed me and when I got my award, I just felt like I gained a lot of oomph and notoriety,” Miller says now, looking back at the experience. “I just felt important. Like, I’m important to LeBron and that he recognized how amazing I am and how I inspire him. That was really cool.”
James later gave Miller his game-worn sneakers and posted a photo of the moment they met on his Instagram account, where the image has garnered nearly 400,000 likes.
Love you kid! Continue to beat the odds, continue being a inspiration to us all and continue to #StriveForGreatness!
A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on Dec 16, 2015 at 9:12am PST
Miller, who has dealt with paralysis in the right side of his body, blurred vision and limited brain functionality, will graduate high school in June and enroll in Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts, in the fall, where he plans to study sports management and help out the basketball team.
He still has the inspirational message James wrote on Instagram memorized, but now has his own message he hopes will inspire James.
“Good luck and never give up,” Miller said. “Tell him, ‘You’re an inspiration to me and I have followed you since you honored me.’ I look at the sneakers that he gave me every day to give me motivation throughout the day. And he’s just a really kind person and every time I watch him it makes me happy. So, something like that. Just say, like, ‘Thank you for everything.’
“He’s an inspiration, and he changed my life. Yeah, he changed my life, like, forever.”
Raw emotion after an emotional loss
The Cavs had just lost to the Golden State Warriors on their home floor to fall down 3-1 in the 2016 NBA Finals. No team in NBA history had ever come back from that type of deficit with a championship on the line. And Cleveland would need to make that comeback against a Warriors team that won a record 73 games in the regular season.
“We had a chance to win that Game 4 at home and we let it slip away,” James said of a game the Cavs led by eight in the third quarter but ended up losing by 11. “We let Steph and Klay get loose and we let it slip away.”
Flipping through the channels with his wife, Savannah, after one of the most disheartening losses of his career, James’ attention was grabbed by Eddie Murphy’s 1987 comedy special “Eddie Murphy: Raw.”
With Murphy cracking his solemn spirit, James whipped out his phone to send a directive to his teammates after he and Savannah were finished “laughing our ass off.”
“As hard as it was, man, I knew how I felt, so I can only imagine how my teammates felt at that moment,” James said. “And, s – , it was like, 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning.
“I just felt the need before we got on this plane to go out there, to send them a text message and just let them know that, ‘Listen, whatever y’all got to do, however y’all feeling, it’s cool. Feel as s – ty, feel as bad as you want to, but leave it here. Leave it here and don’t bring it on that plane because we got work to do. And if y’all trust me, as y’all leader and y’all feel that, then I’ll make sure when we come back home for a Game 6.'”
The rest – Cleveland’s first title in 52 years – is history. But it might not have happened without an assist from Eddie Murphy.
“It just happened to be on,” James said. “It’s one of those movies, one of those stand-up shows that if it’s on, you stop and you watch it. And it just happened to f – ing be on at that point and time. It was like, it was the perfect timing.”
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