Growing Up with LeBron James

M-V-P chants faded. The last scrap of confetti fell. And a throng of grown men without shirtsleeves exchanged their final hugs. Only then, was it time for LeBron James, who looked like a man amongst boys on the court, to accept his place atop the NBA.

Because of our proximity in age, I’ve felt a small connection to the man since he first appeared on SI’s cover. He’s the first superstar athlete of my generation to reach the top and – despite what others say – I’m proud of the way he got there.

My first time watching James play came in 2002, during my first Christmas break home from college. LeBron and his St. Vincent St. Mary’s teammates were on their national tour and their next stop brought them to local Strawberry Mansion. So, my friends and I all got tickets and made our way down to the Palestra to watch.

There could not have been a more perfect venue for the game to take place. When you step foot into the Palestra you get the same sense of history you do when you take in a game at Wrigley or Fenway. The atmosphere at the Palestra was similar to a Big Five meeting – except this time all of the anticipation and excitement was for an 18-year-old kid.

I was 19 at the time and my greatest accomplishment to date had been procuring a fake ID. Special thanks to Summit, NJ for housing fake me and to the state of New Jersey for being stuck in the 80s and still having laminated licenses after the turn of the century.

Back to LeBron: The game quickly got out of hand as St. Vincent St. Mary built a sizable lead. But in the fourth quarter, LeBron and Strawberry Mansion’s Maureece Rice (yes, I looked up the name), waged a one-on-one battle while the rest of their teammates milled around, snacking on soft pretzels and waiting to snag the occasional rebound if necessary.

I remember Rice getting the better of LeBron one time and the entire arena erupting as if he’d just hit the game-winning shot. The scene was like one from an AND1 Mixtape: dancing on the court, women fainting in the stands and a cacophony of hoots and hollers. In reality, the basket might have cut the score to less than 30.

It could have been 40. It didn’t matter.

One of ours got the best of the “next Jordan.” Despite the blowout, everyone left the arena assured they had just seen the future of the NBA. I saw LeBron again that spring in the high school state tournament, but the details are a little hazy, which if I’m guessing could be due to my championing of Ohio State’s tailgating culture.

When Cleveland won the draft lottery that June, I’d swear I felt the shaky foundation of Park Hall quake due to the unbridled excitement of Cleveland fans. The entire South Campus partied like the opening scene of Wedding Crashers that night. With just one NBA team in the state, everyone was a Cavs fan.

In order to fully appreciate this, what you need to understand about Ohio State is that it’s comprised almost entirely of in-state kids. So much so that the first day of every quarter when I proudly announced I was from Philadelphia the next question asked was if I meant New Philadelphia, Ohio. That fall I remember having a party to watch LeBron’s debut against the Kings in my first off-campus residence (which essentially equated to a Real World house minus the cameras).

From there, we all know what happened while LeBron was in Cleveland: He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, appear in six all-star games, win two All-Star MVP awards, earn All-NBA First Team honors four times, All-Defensive First Team two times, finish second in points six out of his first seven seasons, lead the Cavaliers to five playoff appearances, one NBA Finals appearance, win a god medal, revitalize basketball in Cleveland and raise the profile of hand chalk. And that’s just on the court.

Off the court, LeBron signed endorsement deals with brands like Nike and McDonald’s, had his own shoe made, bought his own home, conquered his cuticle biting habit and earned more than $60 million playing basketball.

All that by the age of 25 when most guys his age, myself included, counted graduating college and moving out of their parents house among their greatest accomplishments. LeBron achieved all those aforementioned accolades without facing any major scandal. In fact, by 2010 his biggest mistake was still accepting a yellow H2 Hummer from his mother.

LeBron never once found himself on Facebook dressed in a coconut bra, passed out with his shoes on, or filming an entire air guitar tribute to Stairway to Heaven (the reader may or may not have been able to find all those instances at one point in time on my Facebook profile). Only those of us who experienced college with Facebook can appreciate the degree of difficulty required to avoid such pitfalls of social media.

You can dismiss the last few paragraphs as a verbal fluffing if you like, but the point I’m trying to make is this: In the context of an early 20-something and not the Basketball Messiah, everything LeBron did was incredible. He was the child actor equivalent of professional sports, but he managed to fulfill all his promise during his first seven years in the league without a sex scandal or drug problem. Not an easy task, as Drew Barrymore, MaCaulay Culkin or the kid from Blank Check will tell you.

LeBron stayed on the straight and narrow despite growing up without a father and having a mother who was a less than ideal parent. But all that was never enough for the critics. LeBron still hadn’t won a championship.

Unless you live under a rock or in North Korea – in which can you were probably led to believe Kim Jong Il fathered LeBron James – you’re now aware how LeBron’s time in Cleveland ended. After being dismissed by the Celtics in Game 6, LeBron ripped off his jersey walking through the tunnel at the Boston Garden before giving a rather standoffish and flippant post-game speech.

At 24, a relationship of my own came to a bitter end. I broke up with my girlfriend (my first mature relationship, mind you). And – much like LeBron – when things came to an end, I acted like a fool. I put distance between us, acted obstinate and was just a general dick. At the time I didn’t have the emotional capacity to handle the situation like a man.

Less than two months after his final game as a Cavalier, LeBron went on live television and broke up with Cleveland via The Decision. Pundits and reporters likened it to breaking up with someone via text message or over the phone. LeBron was killed on the ESPN for weeks for his treatment of Cleveland and asked how he could treat his home city this way. Cleveland – much like my ex-girlfriend – had countless reasons to be angry, burn clothing and swear at LeBron until there wasn’t an expletive left to use.

While a lack of maturity isn’t an excuse, I couldn’t label LeBron James an asshole without looking at myself the same way. To draw the parallel even closer, I opted to move in with three friends the year before The Decision. The reasons are obviously different, but at age 25 when some of my friends were living on their own or moving in with significant others I chose to move in with three friends.

When my roommates and I moved in together we were greeted with similar fanfare to LeBron’s arrival in Miami: We rented cabanas at the downtown W Hotel in Chicago, champagne cascaded from the skies and dozens of groupies flocked our way.

No, that is false. Our celebration consisted of going to the Wrightwood Tap across the street from our new apartment, chasing girls too hot for us, drinking dollar beers and playing Big Buck Hunter Safari until we ran out of quarters.

This spring LeBron completed his NBA odyssey en route to taking his place as king of the NBA. On the road to winning the NBA Finals, he answered the call when the Heat was down 2-1 to the Pacers and vanquished his greatest adversary – the Boston Celtics – in the next round on his way to his third finals appearance.

When LeBron and the Heat got to the finals, they rolled through a young and maturing OKC team to win in five games. The storyline after the finals was: LeBron finally figured it out.

Despite winning the title, you got this sense that the sports world was shocked it took this long for LeBron to dedicate himself and refine his talents. There were no more jump shots. He realized his strength was driving to the basket to score and set up teammates. And when LeBron was faced with high-pressure moments, this time he met them with the authority of a man, because he is now in fact a 26-year-old man.

Right on schedule with LeBron, this spring after five years of searching I discovered that my skills and passion lie in writing. Thankfully, I was able to discover what I was best at with only two critics following me, my parents.

You can find countless articles online now saying that the maturation process is getting longer while at the same time we are becoming a less patient and more On Demand society. This is no more prevalent than with the sports world’s impatience as it pertains to LeBron’s career. LeBron can deny he was unaffected by the media’s ridicule and demand for him to achieve greatness right away, but his first line after winning the title shows otherwise: “It’s about damn time.”

No, LeBron you were right on time.


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