He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior. His prep games were nationally televised. NBA scouts began watching him play when he was 13. Some thought he could be the NBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick as a sophomore — a high school sophomore. The last teenager who caused this much drool was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 40 years earlier. You could question the hype, believe the hype, or suspect the hype wasn’t thick enough. LeBron James gave us all a sneak preview when he dropped clues right from the smashing start.
How could a player who wasn’t old enough to legally drink become the toast of not one, but two towns? He represented Akron, his birthplace, and transformed Cleveland, his workplace. Teenage LeBron put the “Oh!” in Ohio and awakened the basketball pulse in the state. Actually, that’s selling him a bit short. Teenage LeBron was an alarm clock for the entire league, putting fans and teams and even established stars on alert. There was a new kid on the block and he brought the swagger, the shots and the sensational plays that no one ever saw before from a player so young. He craved respect, and respect was given and earned.
LeBron as a rookie had speed, strength and court sense, a trifecta that served him well. He averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, only the third rookie to hit those numbers. He was, easily, the Rookie of the Year. The Cavaliers improved by 18 wins over the previous season. Those are the sheer facts and figures. But the true measure of the rookie was the reaction everywhere he played. The buzz, the noise, the roar … it was all because of the curiosity he stirred in fans. There was no slow growth process for LeBron. He would have none of that. It was a show from the get-go.
In 2005 the basketball world saw how quickly LeBron fit in when he played his first All-Star Game. He belonged among the game’s greats, even then, easily meshing with his teammates, soaking up the atmosphere, and wearing the uniform well. LeBron felt at home in that arena, as he should since he would experience a string of 17 consecutive All-Star appearances. LeBron played a good game, and since he was mic’d up, everyone discovered he talked a good game, too.
As much as he showed as a rookie, and also through his first few years, the superstar baptism of LeBron happened on May 31, 2007. He and the Cavaliers were locked in a playoff series against the championship tested-and-true Detroit Pistons. It was tied 2-2. The Cavs brought very few certified credentials to this fight. But they had the best player. They had a young player eager to flex on the playoff stage. They had LeBron, who came to this game looking to earn his stripes. Which means the Cavs had all they needed. Witness the sheer audacity of LeBron at 22 as he carried the Cavs on the road with legs that stayed strong in the moment of truth, when he scored Cleveland’s final 25 points and totaled 48 overall. It was the first of a career’s worth of epic performances.
If you’re LeBron James, how do you top your own greatness? This became a theme for him, a challenge that only he could conquer, because each time he issued a signature game, a new opportunity came along and demanded another. Well: In 2012, Game 6 against the Celtics, LeBron’s Miami Heat trailing 3-2 and staving off playoff elimination inside a cranky TD Garden where the crowd and the home team would show no mercy, LeBron rose up and … topped himself. Again. He had the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders, if only because of his previous predictions of titles after teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — especially after failing in 2011 in the NBA Finals. The efficiency, the stealth and the fury, it was all released on a memorable night when LeBron delivered dominance … and left no doubt.
LeBron James reached the Eastern Conference finals eight straight times while wearing two uniforms. It was a show of force rarely seen in the NBA, how one player could go from Miami back to Cleveland without skipping a beat. Even better, LeBron flashed all the traits that made him special: The soaring dunks, the step-back 3-pointers, the slashes to the rim, the 20-20 court vision, the team-friendly game and the chase-down swats. And you know what’s more delicious than watching LeBron in one playoff season? It’s watching them all stitched together in a thrilling stew of sensational plays. So let’s go.
There was nothing taken for granted more than LeBron making the playoffs. He’s the all-time leader in playoff games played. He made the playoffs every season from 2006-18, a streak that was snapped mainly because he was injured. He owns almost every important statistical playoff record. There was, in essence, two seasons of LeBron in one. There was the regular-season LeBron who won four MVPs, and as impressive as that was, the playoff LeBron went next level. Lucky for us, so did the highlights.
The world changed in 2020, and so did the finish of the NBA season, which was confined to a COVID-free bubble in Orlando, Fla. There were no such constraints on the talents, ambitions and desires of LeBron James, not even at the ripe age of 35. LeBron wanted it all — once again — and wanted to achieve it with his third team. He took the previous two teams to championships and now with the Lakers, LeBron was locked in on grabbing the trifecta. Father Time would have to wait, and wait, and wait some more. LeBron’s time was still on the clock, still allowing him to issue stunning performances, still allowing for greatness. And championships. Don’t forget that. It all came together in the most unlikely of places, under the most unexpected circumstances. That’s when the legends rise up and push their legacies to the next level. That’s what LeBron James did in 2020 to win his fourth championship.