In February of 2002, 17-year-old LeBron James appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated.” The already self-anointed “King James” was ready to become the greatest athlete since Michael Jordan and one day (at the risk of committing a sporting sacrilege) perhaps even better. It was unheard of, no matter how gifted the player—pay-per-view airing a high school junior’s games, a high school junior hanging out with NBA players like then-Celtics star Antoine Walker (who has since filed for bankruptcy and faced a litany of legal issues), spending time in hotel rooms with Jay-Z when the biggest concern for most kids his age was how they scored on the ACT. For James, who boasted a 44 inch vertical and seven foot inch wingspan, the sky was the limit.
And he almost made it.
But at 25 years old and in the aftermath of arguably the most hyped off-season in sports history, James is at the helm of his own pop-culture version of a Shakespearean tragedy (if there is such a thing), yet his downfall has one difference: it could have all been prevented.
James’ foray into the league was unlike the Magic Johnsons and Larry Birds of the past—guys who played in an era without $200 sneakers or ESPN. James, the number one overall draft pick in 2003, turned pro at the height of the NBA’s popularity. And in a league that revolves around endorsements and maximum contracts, James had the world drooling. His game was as much about the booming dunks and bravado as it was about winning.
Although, that’s not to say James did not do plenty of the latter. Almost overnight, the Akron, Ohio-native transformed the lackluster Cleveland Cavaliers, who had won only 17 games the year before, into a perennial title contender.
James revived a city that had suffered the kinds of agonizing losses that would make the woes of Chicago Cubs fans look inconsequential. Before James, Cleveland looked like the unluckiest sports town in America, like when the Indians blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning in game seven of the 1995 World Series or when the Browns were defeated in the 1987 AFC Championship, as John Elway crafted the most famous comeback drive in NFL history. James brought hope to town that had none.
For seven seasons, he put up gaudy numbers and became one of the richest athletes in the world—34 triple-doubles, six All-Star game appearances, consecutive MVP awards to go along with heavy endorsements from Nike, Sprite and McDonald’s. Before every home game, James clapped talcum powder into the adoring crowd and took imaginary pictures with his teammates when the staring lineups were called. He mockingly danced in front of the Chicago Bulls bench during a December 2009 game, with the Cavs safely ahead. If players can have a genetic makeup pertaining to basketball, James’s DNA was as much about his antics as it was anything else. And Cleveland loved it.
“I don’t plan to go anywhere,” James, referring to his impending free agency, told ESPN’s Dan Patrick in May. “These fans have done everything to support me.”
But, in the end, the opportunity to bring a championship to a city that had worshipped him from day one was not enough. His ego won out.
On July 8, 2010, after months of intense speculation, James appeared on a live hour-long television special entitled “The Decision” to show the world his true colors. James announced he would sign with the Miami Heat along with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, not only deserting a team that had given him free reign over personnel decisions and coaching style, but slapping the face of an entire city on the way out.
“He’s not Kobe,” many NBA fans have said about LeBron throughout his career, suggesting he lacks the killer instinct that has defined Kobe Bryant’s success with the Los Angeles Lakers. The truth is, he’s not like Kobe.
In Cleveland, where unemployment rates have remained near 17 percent the past year, the achievements of the Cavs was the only thing many people had left to root for. The median household income in America is about $50,000 a year according to the US Census Bureau. James will earn that in less than one quarter of basketball.
In downtown Cleveland, as number 23 jerseys were set ablaze and the sprawling mural of James that read, “We Are All Witnesses” fell, one thing became clear: James was always in it for himself.