for a while there, we really believed.
In retrospect, obviously, it was too good to be true, but in the grip of the fantasy we didn’t see it that way. We spent long stretches of our workdays talking about how there are five of us and only one of him, or how Trent and Will are nearly as tall as he is, or how one man, I don’t care if he is the greatest basketball player on earth, can only cover so much ground. It’s not like he’s a Transformer.
Andy, our executive editor/player-coach/liaison to LeBron’s publicist and the Cavaliers’ PR folks, sent us the following e-mail in late November: “It is on. Team GQ will be traveling from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio (in a van, make and model to be determined), on Sunday, December 7. We will be playing LeBron James, five-on-one, at 1 p.m. on Monday, December 8, at the Cavs practice facility. I repeat: It. Is. ON.”
The predictable flurry of YouTube clips soon followed—LeBron dunking from the free-throw line, LeBron blocking a shot by Chris Duhon all the way out to half-court, LeBron taking flight from ten feet out and throwing down a dunk of such unrestrained fury over Damon Jones that it will forever be the most memorable moment of Jones’s NBA career. Again, Andy via e-mail: “If we’re lucky, he’ll just jump over us, and we won’t suffer the indignity of taking his junk square in the face.”
But then Adam started in with the X’s and O’s—how we need to force LeBron left, how three-pointers are his Achilles’ heel, and how he, Adam Rapoport, style editor at Gentlemen’s Quarterly and occasional wearer of skinny white jeans, was prepared to take the charge if LeBron drove into the lane. Over the next week or so, as plans solidified (we would be driving to Cleveland not in a van but in an Escalade, a hybrid Escalade!), the delusional chatter continued. There was even talk at one point of “allowing” him a teammate—one of his Akron boys, maybe—because five-on-one couldn’t possibly be a game, and it would be kind of embarrassing if we beat him too handily. At the very least, we all agreed (with the exception of Andy, who is always the voice of reason, and Fred, who’s been around longer than the rest of us and possesses a veteran’s hard-earned wisdom): Mr. Chosen One was going to have to work to make it a game. We weren’t driving eight hours to look like a bunch of assclowns.
you can see the Nike billboard from the interstate. LeBron’s massive, striated arms outstretched, a faint halo of chalk dust surrounding him as he gazes skyward. It’s ten stories high and 212 feet wide and dominates the eastern face of the Sherwin-Williams building, which is basically across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, or the Q, where the Cavs play their home games. Last year, federal officials tried to force the city to take it down because it violates the 1965 Highway Beautiﬁcation Act, which apparently forbids a billboard from being within 660 feet of a major highway. (Technically, the dispute was over a previous version of the banner, an equally stunning if less messianic image of LeBron in midflight, the ball cocked high above his head.) But to his great credit, Ohio’s governor, Ted Strickland, refused to remove the billboard, referring to it as a “beautiful display of commercial art” that the people of Cleveland have the rare and wonderful opportunity to enjoy. He’s got that right. It’s also a bit of a reality check if you happen to be among a group of magazine editors arriving in the frigid city at night and pulling over to the side of the road to take in just how physically awesome the man is whom you’ll be playing against the next day. Let’s just say it makes you question some things.
You know what else makes you question things? Waking up in Cleveland, Ohio, and looking north out the window of your Marriott hotel room and realizing that there’s a barely discernible line out there in the distance, and that that line separates the gray lake from the slightly less gray air; then going down to breakfast and watching out the window as two men carrying stacks of overstuffed binders walk straight into the teeth of the wind screaming o Lake Erie, their faces being savaged by tiny airborne razor blades; then going back up to your room and looking out your window again and observing that, while the gray slab of day has lightened a little, the contrast between lake and sky is still imperceptible; and then finally realizing that the people of Cleveland live a large portion of their lives inside a howling, subfreezing, youth-repelling, job-vanishing, anti-light box. It makes you appreciate a little more why Ted Strickland would go to the mats over the giant billboard.
No time for midwestern metaphysics, though: Today is game day!
We meet in the lobby at ten thirty and pile into the Escalade. The uncomfortably seductive computer-generated GPS lady-voice guides us south on I-77 toward the Cavs’ practice facility in Independence, fifteen minutes from the 35,000-square-foot house where LeBron lives with his longtime girlfriend and their two sons. The nerves of Team GQ appear to be a little jangly this morning. There’s a growing awareness that this is really happening, that in an hour or so we’ll be stepping onto a court with LeBron James, and that any number of things could not go well. We’re not sure what it means, but everyone in the Escalade has to pee.
It’s fair to say that the very, very sweet Cavaliers practice facility exists for the sole reason of making LeBron James happy, minimizing how far he has to travel to practice and surrounding him, in the absence of an actual big market, with a lot of state-of-the-art, big-marketish stuff. And it’s also fair to say that everyone who works here, from the twelve-year veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas (a seven-foot-three-inch gentle giant with a feathery shooting touch and the look of a man who’d be just as content operating a cigarette kiosk in downtown Minsk) to the friendly media rep who gently mocks us as she passes out LeBron bobbleheads, is part of the LeBron James Happiness Project. If he can be made happy enough, perhaps he will stay—that appears to be the subtext of more or less everything here, though also everyone in the organization seems to be doing a good job of not getting so publicly worked up about it.
Inside the gym, the Cavs are wrapping up practice. At the hoop directly in front of us, Wally Szczerbiak is making his way around the arc, shooting until he makes 200 three-pointers. He knocks down his last eight shots and looks at the assistant who’s been feeding him and says, “What’s the count?” and the guy says, “236,” which I take to mean that it took Szczerbiak 236 shots from behind the three-point line to make 200. Eighty-five percent. This isn’t at all central to this article, but damn, Wally Szczerbiak can fill it up.
Way, way on the other side of the courts, at the farthest basket from where the reporters are corralled, LeBron is bullshitting and laughing and practicing high-arcing rainbow jumpers from deep in the corner of his court. His publicist gives us a wave and we head over there, feeling like boys in grown-up costumes, but then LeBron has to go o to do some other media stuff, so we pick up some balls and start warming up. As we clang shot after shot, I notice that the Cavs’ GM, Danny Ferry, is wandering around the gym. It occurs to me that what we’re about to do could not possibly have been sanctioned by Ferry, and his presence here could completely put the kibosh on our hopes and dreams. A game of H-O-R-S-E? Sure. A free-throw contest? By all means, that sounds like a fun way to do a magazine story. Wait, what, you guys want to play the most valuable athlete in the world in a game of five-on-one? Stand right there while I call security.
but it actually happens. Not quite as we’d planned, but we play a real game with the best basketball player alive. (Deluded Kobe fans, send your letters to Raha Naddaf at GQ.) Before I describe it, I’d like to pause and say that almost from the moment we met him, a few things were clear. One, he’s very funny. Two, there can’t possibly be another 24-year-old in the world more at ease with who he is and where he’s going than LeBron James (witness his basically telling Charles Barkley to shut his piehole when Barkley criticized him for talking about where he might or might not be playing in 2010). I imagine there are plenty of times when that quality comes o as arrogance, but at least in our time with him, shooting some hoops and then talking for a while after the game, he came across as the anti-Jordan—extremely smart and likable and interpersonally generous, not the imperious empty suit everyone knew Jordan was but was too afraid to say. Three, he would have absolutely crushed us if we’d played him five-on-one. He would have crushed us if it had been five-on-one and he had his right arm duct-taped to his side.
While we were still shooting around, waiting for LeBron, we did this thing where we all lined up and dribbled the ball toward one of the cameramen, then broke o to the left or right and made way for the next guy—you know, like we were a real team and this was a real game. In the raw footage, you can see LeBron in the background, on the other side of the court, looking over and then calling to someone o-court to toss him a ball. And then when he gets it, he dribbles up fast and takes the last place in line, just in time, and does a little shimmy for the camera like he’s one of us.
It was a nice ice-breaker, and then some negotiations ensued, Adam asking him if he’d been briefed on what was happening, that he was about to play us five-on-one, and LeBron giving him a look like, Yeah, um, that ain’t gonna happen, and then suggesting we play a shooting game, and Adam, God love him, saying we didn’t drive seven hours to play a shooting game.
“Actual game?” LeBron says. He gives a quick look around and then goes, “Okay, we got the ball first then.” So it’s decided. Three-on-three—me, Adam, and LeBron James versus Fred, Will, Trent, and Andy (GQ’s player-coach, who will sub in when his team needs a jolt).
After watching some ugly play by the nonprofessional players on the court, LeBron calls for the ball from about thirty feet out. Net. Next possession, he calls for it again from the same spot. “Six-zero.”
For most of the game, he stays out on the periphery, away from our collective clumsiness and flailing elbows, offering words of encouragement and some good-natured shit. We miss a lot of shots. We dribble the ball off our feet. We throw it out-of-bounds like a team of blind men. Will blows a gimme and LeBron looks at him in disbelief and says, “You gotta dunk that.” They do eventually score, their one and only bucket, when Fred gets the ball near the foul line with LeBron staring him in the face. LeBron doesn’t move and Fred puts it up, and after the ball falls through, Adam says, “Fred’s like 60 and he just scored on you,” and Fred looks at LeBron and in his gracious southern way says, “Thank you.”
After a stretch of truly embarrassing ugliness, the points start piling up on our side. Turns out LeBron James is a very good passer and sees things on the court that the rest of us don’t see. He threads some very pretty passes to Adam and me, and we manage to hit the layups, and soon we’re up 12–2. “They don’t play no D,” he says. “They don’t play no D. New York Knicks.”
We’re closing in on 21, and LeBron starts spending more time down low, giving the people what they want. Trent, who’s six seven and has played for a quasi-professional team in Bolivia, for what that’s worth, catches the ball on the right side of the lane and turns to bank it in, and LeBron explodes off the floor, smacks the ball off the backboard, and leaves a perfect handprint two feet above the hoop.
We score again and now LeBron’s going, “16–2. It’s a massacre out here. It’s a massacre. Oh, I gotta shoot this one.” He puts up a crazy shot that misses by a mile, and Andy, who let’s just say isn’t the tallest guy you’ve ever met, gets the rebound. “Oh, how’d he get that rebound?” LeBron says, and Adam says, “Nobody expected that shot to be that ugly,” and LeBron gets the ball back under the hoop and leaves from his flat feet and throws down a vicious dunk.
Will says, “Did that go in?”
“Yeah, it went in,” LeBron says. “You got dunked on. That’s how I do. I show no mercy.”
We hit another, and then LeBron backs up to about forty feet and launches a jumper like he’s tossing a Nerf ball. “Let it rain,” he says, but it comes off the back of the rim, and he gets it back and buries the next one. “Game.” He walks toward the camera: “21–2. They never had a chance from the beginning. We tried to hold them scoreless but my man right there”—he points out Fred and smiles—“hit a pull-up jumper from the el-bow.”
postgame, we gather in the media waiting room and drink some Vitaminwater and fire a bunch of questions at LeBron. An edited transcript of that conversation can be read here. So I’ll just let that speak for itself—except to add the obvious, and that is that when you’re in his presence, you cannot believe this guy is only 24 years old. Also, there’s something going on with him that doesn’t translate to a printed Q&A, but you feel it when he’s talking to you. It’s a little hard to describe, and no doubt I’ll look like a butt-kissing hack when I try to. But when he talks about his potential, it doesn’t smack of empty corporate/jock–speak. You can feel the greatness and the desire for more and more responsibility coming o him. When he says he’s “big,” he’s not just boasting. Yeah, he’s a freak of physical perfection, but there’s some elision of nature and nurture going on there that doesn’t just make him unfathomably great at what he does but also makes you believe that ultimately he could be so much more. Maybe it’s simply the combination of personality (humor, intelligence, curiosity, maturity), wealth, and power. I don’t know. I’m just saying there is something special about the guy and that I imagine, or hope, that he’s going to do a lot more for the world than average thirty points a game or make the ad guys at Wieden+Kennedy look like geniuses.
Later that night, after eating dinner and drinking 200 cans of Schlitz at a little place in the Tremont district of Cleveland called the Prosperity Social Club (if I lived in Cleveland, I would go there every day to eat and drink and pump quarters into the jukebox), we went round and round talking about different moments in the game, mocking ourselves and expressing our awe at him and trying to tease out that quality I was just talking about above. We were sitting next to a wood-burning stove, and we looked around and realized there was some sort of LGBT event going on that night. We were the only people in there who weren’t L or G or B or T. There was a lot of ABBA coming out of the jukebox. I imagined there aren’t a whole lot of places in Cleveland that the L’s and G’s and B’s and T’s feel this at-home, and so I also imagined that this was probably one of the few spots in town, and this one of the few crowds, where the fact of LeBron James doesn’t matter a whole lot. I’m stereotyping, I know, but you get what I mean. But then the owner came over to us, a fantastically friendly woman who’d heard about our playing LeBron that day and wanted to know how the game went. Turns out the Prosperity Social Club was in the running to be the location for an ad shoot featuring LeBron, and she was keeping her fingers crossed. It would mean a lot to them.
We finished up and called a van and headed back to the Marriott. It was really cold outside. When we came o the highway, there was the Nike billboard again, lit up and looming overhead. Earlier, coming back from the game, Andy had pulled the Escalade over and Fred and Will had gotten out to take pictures. I’m a lifelong New York Knicks fan, and before going to play LeBron I was getting pretty pumped about the prospect of him coming to New York in 2010 and saving the franchise. But sitting there watching Will and Fred tramp around in the snow to get the best angle, their breath rising in the already dark air, all I thought was, man, I hope you don’t leave Cleveland. I hope you stay here. This is your place. It’s written on your body. Stay with your high school girlfriend and raise your kids in your giant house and win championship after championship and let the side of the Sherwin-Williams building be an evolving piece of public art in a way it could never be anywhere else. You can be so much more, mean so much more, if you stay here. Don’t leave. Just don’t do it.
joel lovell is GQ’s story editor/correspondent.
the postgame q&a
gq: Who’s the toughest guy in the league for you to cover?
lebron james: There are a few guys. Kobe Bryant. Paul Pierce. Dwyane Wade. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul is a tough cover.
Do you like the challenge of guarding somebody small and quick like Chris Paul?
I like the challenge of guarding the best player on the opposing team, no matter who they are.
Best defender in the league on you?
No, the best defender against you.
I’m the only guy who can stop me.
Are those Nikes you’re wearing? [Points to LeBron’s fuzzy old-man slippers.]
These? [Looks down at feet.] Yeah. Them the…Air Soft Slim Cushion LeBrons right there.
You’re about to turn 24. Are you a mentor to other guys in the league?
Absolutely. We got three rookies on our team right now, and you gotta help them through something called the rookie wall, which all rookies hit.
Did you hit that wall today, when you had to practice and then play us?
No, no. I had a reserve tank for you guys [laughs].
If we’d played you five-on-one, what would have happened?
You guys would’ve found a way to score on me. Five-on-one is a huge advantage. But I think I’d have been able to make a couple, too.
Would you have taken it inside against us?
Well, that’s my game. When we get to crunch time, I go inside.
We were ready to take the charge, though.
You would not be sitting here right now if you’d taken the charge on me. You’d be in the Cleveland Clinic.
You always seemed to be, like, 18 going on 38. You never got into any trouble. Who played that mentor role for you?
My mom raised me the right way, to know the difference between right and wrong and be accountable for your own actions. Another thing that helped me is that I got drafted to a team that I grew up a half hour away from. I was able to stay home with my friends and family, the people I grew up with, and have that comfort level. That definitely helped.
Where were you on election night?
In my basement.
Did you have a party?
I didn’t have a party, but I had a lot of friends and family over. Like my father-in-law and a few uncles of mine, and I asked them what did they think about this day—basically, they never thought it would happen. Knowing what they went through when they were younger, they never thought they would see a day like this. It was great to see the joy they had.
What did you think about that day?
I thought it was unbelievable. Being African-American and growing up in the inner city, you only think there are a few ways out. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. You think there’s basketball or doing it the wrong way, and we all know what the wrong way is. Seeing Obama get elected, you’re like, Wow, I can put on a shirt and tie and run for office. If not get elected president, I could be the mayor, or, I don’t know, you can do anything now. It means a lot.
Did you keep your kids up to watch it?
They were up, but they don’t know what’s going on. It’s something I can explain to them down the line, but they didn’t want to watch that, honestly. They want to watch cartoons.
You campaigned for Obama. Did you think twice about putting yourself out there politically?
I did. But it was about what I believed in and who I thought was better. Every time I saw Obama in an interview, he was always on point. I thought he could be the reason that this world could be better. I think because of my age, and plus my voice and the power that I have as a young man being out there, I thought I could make a difference. And he won Ohio, so that felt good.
Had you met him before you campaigned for him?
A few times. We did David Letterman together, and I talked to him on the phone a few times.
What do you think of his game?
I haven’t seen much of it. They say he’s a smooth lefty.
We’re coming out of a period where, for the most part, very few athletes have been outspoken politically.
I think if you want to do it, you should. But you shouldn’t feel forced to do it. If you’re not comfortable getting involved in campaigns, don’t do it.
Are you still in touch with Barack’s camp?
Since the election I haven’t been, but I was right before, and I look forward to seeing him and talking to him.
How does that contact actually work?
We figure out a way. [starts goofing] You know, the wires be tapped all the time with Obama’s phones, and I don’t like everybody up in my business, so I try not to talk to him as much.
You must have tons of people who want you to get involved with their causes. You must have to pick and choose.
Well, I’m a big guy. I go for the big lights.
What’s the story behind your ink?
Everything that’s on my body means a lot to me. I have my family, my companies, what I stand for, where I’m from. Everything that gets me from point A to point B is inked up on my body.
Yeah, I got a few. But they’ve been, uh, covered.
What’s her name?
No, no. It’s just that when I got bigger, when I got really bigger, the tattoos got smaller. I never had to put a girl’s name on me and get it covered up.
We were talking about your getting involved with companies, not just to collect a check but to really be involved in the company itself. How does that affect you as your career goes on? Every decision you make about where you’re gonna play and what you’re gonna do affects not just you but Coca-Cola and State Farm and Nike and…
At the end of the day, they know I’m going to make the right decision for myself and for my family and for the companies I’m with. I never just wanted an endorsement deal where they write me a check and say we need you here these nine days and you have to do what we say. I think I’m much bigger than that, and my personality’s much bigger than that, and I can help them out as much as they can help me out.
Will you need to consider what those companies want when you make your free-agent decision?
They’re gonna back me no matter what.
What kind of input do you have into the creative decisions a company like Nike makes? That latest ad is so beautiful.
A lot. You’re saying the ad with the chalk?
That comes from me. I sit with the director. And before we even get to the director, we have these meetings in Oregon, where the campus is, and we talk about certain ads that we want to do, and I have just as much input as the guy who thought of the ad.
Was Lil Wayne’s inclusion in this recent ad something that came from you?
Yeah, it was. When you do certain ads, you try to have people in there who are relevant—we all know that, in the music industry, Kanye West and Lil Wayne are two of the hottest artists we have right now. I think people can relate to that. You know how you see a lot of celebrities in NBA games? We made it seem like it was a real game. It was a Portland Trailblazers game, and Lil Wayne just happened to be there, and he happened to be wearing my shoes. So we tried to make it relevant to what’s going on.
Wayne’s more relevant than Jack Nicholson, huh?
Uh. Well. Where I’m from, he is. Where I’m from, Lil Wayne is.
A lot of athletes want to make records—
No. I would never put out a record.
I may be interested in a little acting.
Ever get any offers?
I haven’t, yet. Oh, as a matter of fact I have, but nothing that buys my time. My time is very valuable.
Will you encourage your boys to play basketball?
They do already. LeBron junior’s 4. He’s playing in a league called Tiny Tots. It’s fun to go out and watch those kids play. They have no sense of the word pass. They just shoot every time.
Did you ever think it might be putting a little pressure on LeBron junior to name him LeBron junior?
Um. Yeah, I did. I did. But I’m gonna raise him the right way, and he’s gonna make the decisions about what he wants to do. I’m not gonna force him to be a basketball player. I just want him to be successful and happy.
When you talk to him, what do call him?
I call him Bronny.
Is that what your mom called you?
She called me Bron-Bron.
And what does he call you?
Daddy. He know better.
You said in the past you wanted to be the first athlete to make a billion dollars. What was the significance to you of that number?
I was basically saying I want to maximize my potential as a businessman. I don’t want to look back twenty years from now and think, Why didn’t I do this when I had the muscle? It’s not, I made a billion, yay, let confetti rain. It’s all about maximizing potential.