Superhuman basketball savant LeBron James could be just one game away from finally settling the tired old debate - is he better than MJ? His Los Angeles Lakers side took total command of the NBA finals with a 102-96 Game 4 win over the Miami Heat earlier this week.
Which means LeBron (this guy has no need for his surname) and his teammates go into Friday night’s game with a 3-1 series lead. Victory tonight will give the Lakers their first NBA Championship win in 10 years. And, it would be the ultimate tribute to the late great Kobe Bryant, who tragically died alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, earlier this year in a helicopter crash.
But the win will also allow sharp shooter LeBron to finally step out of the 6’6” tall shadow of ‘His Airness’, Michael Jordan. It will be his fourth NBA Finals win, with his third franchise, following rings with the Miami Heat and his hometown club, the Cleveland Cavaliers. As he sits upon the cusp of his greatest achievement in basketball, the man who has been named NBA MVP four times and graced the All-Star team a record 13 times, we take a look at the other numbers that have made LeBron the man and the icon he is today...
Life started off very differently for LeBron Raymone James Sr. His mother, Gloria, was just 16 when she had him, and his father was never on the scene, too busy bouncing in and out of prison. Life was chaotic, with lots of moving around rented properties in the projects of Akron, Ohio. But two sports coaches stepped in to change the course of his life.
At the age of nine he met Bruce Kelker, who was putting together a youth football team. Kelker took LeBron under his wing and he and his mum moved in with him and got some stability in their lives. By the end of that year, another youth football coach, Frank Walker, offered to let LeBron move in with his family. After missing 80-something days of the fourth grade because of his chaotic living arrangements, LeBron didn't miss a single day of fifth grade. When the superstar gives motivational speeches, it’s the nine-year-old LeBron he talks about, and how lucky he was to get the break he did.
In February 2002, shortly after his 17th birthday, LeBron graced the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine for the first, and certainly not the last, time.The headline was simple but prophetic - The Chosen One. A slogan LeBron would later go on to get tattooed in bold, ornate letters, across his back. He was ripping up the court playing for St Vincent-St Mary’s High School (for some reason known as The Fighting Irish) when the illustrious magazine, with a weekly readership of 3.2m people, came knocking. It sent LeBron national. As he recalls, “I didn’t really understand what it truly meant to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It pushed me onto the national stage, whether I was ready for it or not.” LeBron was born ready.
A year later he was selected as number one draft by his hometown club, the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’d decided to skip college and get straight into the action. To this day he’s one of only three High School draftees to be selected at numero uno. And he didn’t disappoint in his first season with the big boys, being named 2003/04 NBA Rookie of the Year, to absolutely nobody's surprise.
He earned his first All-Star call-up the following year, and his development was rapid. He was adored by this hometown crowd, from his style of play, to his leadership and even his pre-game chalk toss. It involved talcum powder but LeBron still made it look cool, worth checking out. He had a phenomenal run, but after four or five years he was drawing tired of being ‘the man’. The expectations on him became too much, he didn’t want to be the sole superstar anymore. And in July 2010 LeBron James became a free agent.
The power of hindsight is a wonderful thing, but something even the all-conquering LeBron James doesn’t possess until it’s too late. What happened next is a blot on his copybook, and he would admit that. Instead of announcing his new team in the usual way, LeBron made the, err, decision to do it on a live ESPN telecast, called The Decision. Ok, so it raised a total of $6m for good causes but LeBron was universally panned for treating his move in this way. Cleveland fans burned his jersey after he announced live on air that he was going to the Miami Heat.
The two MJs, Magic and Jordan, stuck the boot in and virtually overnight he became the most hated man in basketball. Think Beckham after that sending-off against Argentina. That bad. But like all true greats, LeBron turned it around and went on to win his first two NBA rings with the Heat in 2012 and 2013. His move had paid off. But he had unfinished business back home
On 11 July 2014, LeBron wrote an essay, not a couple of lines you understand, a full-on essay, in Sports Illustrated announcing his intention to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s safe to say this approach went down better than the live TV one. He’d clearly learnt his lesson. And he was, in the main, welcomed home with open arms. And it paid off, as in 2016 Cleveland were crowned NBA Champions, winning the city’s first professional sports title in 52 years. They also became the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3–1 series deficit in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors. LeBron’s redemption was complete.
In September 2007 an average of 9.9million people tuned in to watch LeBron host Saturday Night Live. He was following in the footsteps of such sporting greats as Michael Jordan, George Foreman and The Rock. Just as his fame was reaching stratospheric heights in Cleveland, he headed to Studio 8H to strut his stuff in a bevy of memorable sketches, including a take on High School Musical, which was better than it sounds. With music from Kanye, this was yet another memorable performance from the man they call King James. And he didn’t stop with the small screen, oh no, LeBron has been in a number of movies, playing himself in SpongeBob Squarepants and Trainwreck, and will star in Space Jam:A New Legacy, which is out next year. He’s also a producer and documentary maker, and he’s one of only three men to grace the cover of American Vogue, the others being Richard Gere and George Clooney. You get the picture, there’s nothing this man can’t do.
Greatness sees greatness, so the saying goes. And we can imagine that’s exactly what Liverpool fans were thinking when they heard the news that LeBron had become a minority (very minority) shareholder in the club, taking up a 2.2% piece of the action. And it’s paying off. He became an Anfield investor in 2011, and his stake was initially thought to be worth $6.5m. After Liverpool won the Premier League last season for the first time in 30 years, LeBron’s investment is now believed to be worth around $45m. That’s greatness for you.