Issue Date: October 4, 2009
LeBron's having a ball
Basketball made LeBron James a 21st-century icon and a multimillionaire. Now a new documentary film takes us back to when he was a high school phenom stuck in a public housing apartment in Akron, Ohio.
By Lola Ogunnaike
"I hate to lose. There's nothing worse."
Tucked away in a lavish hotel suite in Washington, D.C., is where you'll find NBA superstar LeBron James one late-summer morning. He's eating syrup-drenched French toast while watching his favorite network, ESPN, which just announced that the canine world's worst enemy, Michael Vick, has been signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. The news causes James to exclaim, "I'm so happy for that man. Everyone deserves a second chance." As he watches TV, he invites me to begin the interview. "Don't worry," he says, sensing my unease about his divided attention. "I have two kids. I know how to multi-task."
James, 24, is a hands-on father, businessman, philanthropist and arguably the world's best basketball player. He handily won the MVP award last year, after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference finals and the league's best record (66-16). He's used to accolades. In high school, he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "The Chosen One." Now he's called King James. "I prefer LeBron," he says chuckling.
The Akron, Ohio, native may eschew flashy handles, but the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James is a consummate showman, loved as much for his pre-game ritual of throwing talcum powder into the air as for his slam dunks -- devastatingly powerful glides through the sky that combine graceful agility and primal ferocity. What's it feel like to fly? "It's an indescribable feeling," he says, beaming. "You have to experience it."
Naturally, endorsement deals have rolled in. Nike pays him millions to shill for their shoes. He does brisk business with State Farm, Coca-Cola and the sports trading card company Upper Deck. As a result, LeBron Inc. pulled in $40 million last year, according to Forbes, which ranked him No. 19 on its list of the 100 most powerful celebrities.
The player's latest venture is the documentary More Than a Game, a coming-of-age tale nine years in the making about James and his high school teammates' relentless pursuit of a national title. Guided by their God-fearing coach, Dru Joyce II, the "Fab Five," as they come to be called, rack up painful losses and exhilarating wins. Think Rocky meets Stand by Me, with a dollop of Hoop Dreams. "You could tell from five minutes of being with these guys that they had something special," says the film's director, Kristopher Belman, who began following the group as a college project. "They finished each other's jokes and sentences, and they knew what the other was thinking with just a look."
What began as a 10-minute-long project is now a 102-minute meditation on perseverance, big dreams and the unbreakable bond of true friendship, the most bromantic film of the year.
"We had so many great times," James says wistfully, as a coterie of handlers quietly mills about. "I wouldn't trade those times for anything that I have going on right now."
In More Than a Game, which opened in select cities this Friday, James is mesmerizing. In person, however, he doesn't seem to possess the warmth or easy jocularity of Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, whose charisma matches their extraordinary talent. His answers are clipped and clichéd. It feels like halftime, and I'm standing between him and the locker room. This may have a lot to do with the fact that his schedule is packed sardine-can-tight with interviews, a photo shoot and a Nike-sponsored charity event for D.C.'s youth basketball leagues.
Those who know James say, in his downtime, he's funny, giving and incredibly loyal. "He's a genuine person and a true friend," says Willie McGee, one of the Fab Five. The media spectacle that surrounds James is comical to his old buddies. "The other day we were all working out at the gym, and a girl asked LeBron for his socks -- his sweaty socks!" recalls Romeo Travis, another member of the quintet. "We were all like, 'Wow. Are you serious?' " (James kept his socks and gave the fan an autograph instead). "To us, he's still that guy who used to leave his sneakers in the hallway because they stank so badly."
Raised by a single mom, James spent his formative years moving constantly. Basketball, he decided early on, would be his ticket to a better life.
"When you grow up in the inner city, you don't believe there are that many ways out," he says. "You're either slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot -- Biggie said it best," he says, quoting the rapper Notorious B.I.G. While attending St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, James led his team to three state championships in four seasons. The phenom decided to skip college and head straight to the NBA, where he was the top pick in the 2003 draft and, at 18, the youngest-ever Rookie of the Year.
Since then, he's led the Cavs to four consecutive playoffs, including the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance in 2007. He also helped America take home the men's basketball gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He dances around rumors that he may go to the New York Knicks after his contract expires at the end of the 2009-10 season. "N.Y. is a great place," he says with a sly grin. "It's one of my favorite cities."
For now, he says he's focused on winning the Cavs a championship (the new season begins later this month). "I hate to lose. There's nothing worse than that," says James, who received flak for walking off the court without shaking hands with Orlando Magic players after they ended the Cavs' hopes of reaching the NBA Finals. "I compete with my friends all the time. Basketball, video games, I'll bet you if the next car coming around the corner is red, and I get mad if I lose that."
Ask if he's reached his full potential as a player, and he offers an emphatic, "No, no, not at all. I'm about five years away," he says matter-of-factly. "I'll be there around 29 or 30."
We're looking forward to it.
Cover and cover story photographs of LeBron James by David Yellen for USA WEEKEND