LeBron James was 16 years old when he first met Michael Jordan, an NBA legend he would spend his basketball career chasing. The following excerpt from the book “LeBron” chronicles their first conversation in 2001.
Over the summer, word leaked out that Michael Jordan, at the age of thirty-eight, might come out of retirement for the second time. With rumors swirling, LeBron [James] and Maverick [Carter] headed back to Chicago to spend a week with Greg Ryan, working out at Hoops. When they arrived, they encountered more than a dozen top NBA players — Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Ron Artest, Paul Pierce, Jerry Stackhouse, Antoine Walker, Tim Hardaway, Michael Finley, Juwan Howard, Charles Oakley, and others. It was a collection of some of the biggest and toughest enforcers in the league, along with some of the most talented offensive players in the game. Each day they’d arrive, spend an hour lifting with a team of trainers, and then they’d play pickup games.
Jordan wasn’t around. But his personal trainer, Tim Grover, ran the place. And for LeBron, it was an opportunity to be in Jordan’s inner sanctum, watching some of the greatest players in the world train. It was immediately apparent that there were no boys in this world. These dudes were men. Drenched in sweat and their bodies chiseled with muscle, they weren’t playing — they were running and banging and talking trash in their own unique vernacular.
The NBA players did not pay much attention to LeBron. But partway through the week, Grover arranged for LeBron to get in one of the pickup games. LeBron laced up his sneakers. Like an interloper, he stepped onto the floor and immediately realized it was different from any floor he’d been on. The dimensions were the same. But the players were so much bigger that the driving lanes to the basket were harder to see. Everyone’s arms were so much longer that the passing lanes were much narrower. It was as if the court had shrunk.
LeBron ended up guarding Jerry Stackhouse, who made a point of taking him to the hole, demonstrating that LeBron wasn’t ready to defend at this level. And Antoine Walker talked shit the whole time, giving LeBron a taste of what he was in for in the NBA.
But LeBron maintained his poise. Although he had trouble guarding guys on defense, he was able to get up and down with them on offense, making several impressive passes and knocking down a couple of shots. It was a tremendous confidence boost to receive a pass from an NBA great and turn it into a bucket.
For Maverick, it was impossible not to swell with pride as he watched LeBron visit the world he’d soon occupy as a full-time resident. He was running with millionaires who drove luxury cars, were married to beautiful women, and were raising families. They were pros. And seeing LeBron play with them made it easier to visualize LeBron’s future.
At the end of each day, after all the players left, LeBron and Maverick stayed behind to help Ryan and Grover clean up. One afternoon towards the end of the week, they were walking out the door when they spotted a red Ferrari coming down the street. As it came to a stop, they noticed who was driving — Michael Jordan.
“Ho-lee s—,” Maverick said.
LeBron froze, staring at Jordan as he stepped out of the car and walked towards them. LeBron had never seen his idol up close. It looked as though he were levitating.
Jordan had a lot on his mind at that time. After being away from the game for three years, he was gearing up to come back. He realized that at his age, he probably wouldn’t be able to play at the same level people had become accustomed to when he walked away from the game. One of the lessons he’d learned during his career was that it was impossible to live up to other people’s expectations; all he could do was set his own expectations and try to meet them. Another thing he’d learned was the power of silence. He still hadn’t told anyone about his comeback plans. He was keeping all that close to the vest.
Approaching the gym, Jordan looked at LeBron, said hello, and invited him and Maverick back inside.
They followed Jordan to the weight room. Grover and Ryan joined them. No one else was around.
Jordan smiled at LeBron, the kid who people were saying would be his heir.
LeBron met his gaze.
Surrounded by weight machines, Jordan kept it light, talking in general terms about the NBA and what it meant to be a professional.
LeBron listened and nodded. The experience was too surreal to process.
The conversation lasted about fifteen minutes. And Jordan dispensed no advice. But he gave LeBron something more valuable than words: his cell phone number.
Maverick was stunned.
LeBron didn’t know what to say. Jordan’s shoes were on his feet. And now Jordan’s number was in his pocket. At sixteen, LeBron had joined a very select club of people in the world who had direct access to Jordan.
It was late when LeBron and Maverick left Chicago for the five-plus-hour drive back to Akron. In the morning, LeBron had to be at St. V for the first day of school. There wouldn’t be much time for sleep. But with Maverick at the wheel and LeBron playing DJ from the passenger seat, music pulsed from the stereo as they sped down I-90 past South Bend and crossed into Ohio. In between songs, they couldn’t get over the fact that they had met Jordan.
“It was like listening to God speak,” Maverick said.
LeBron was flying high. Over the past few months it was as if he had lived a lifetime. He didn’t want the summer to end. He just wanted to keep on soaring.
In his journal, he quickly summarized his experience in Chicago:
I didn’t get to play with Mike, but I did get some runs with a lot of the other NBA guys, and I talked to Jordan a little bit. He didn’t really give me any advice, he just told me to keep my head on straight. We all went out to dinner at his restaurant — the steak and mashed potatoes were tight.
Excerpted from “LeBron” by Jeff Benedict. Copyright © 2023 by Rockspring Media, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.