LeBron James has spent nearly half of his life in the NBA.
He was drafted on Jun. 26, 2003, 6,752 days after he was born. Monday, he’ll celebrate his birthday, 6,031 days after walking across the New York stage and shaking then-commissioner David Stern’s hand.
In that time, James has spent more minutes on the court than nearly any other player in NBA history, racking up countless accolades, accomplishments and memories.
With that in mind, we asked those who’ve spent the past two decades crossing paths with James in and around the NBA to share their memories and stories of him as he celebrates his 35th birthday.
What happens on the Banana Boat, stays on the Banana Boat
Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder guard: There are few in the NBA who know LeBron quite like fellow banana boater Chris Paul. Paul has stories for days about LeBron, too many to pick, he says, as he stands shuffling through them in his mind.
“I don’t know,” Paul says, shaking his head. “I can’t think of one.”
It’s probably difficult to quickly edit which ones he’s comfortable making available for public consumption, so Paul takes it another direction. He starts in on the respect he has for LeBron, as a player, as a father, as a man and as a friend.
“I think probably one of the biggest things about Bron, if the man wakes up and uses the bathroom, somebody is gonna analyze how he did it. If he did it good or bad,” Paul says. “For all that he’s been dealt from a young age, just to see how he’s handled everything, man, as a friend and a brother it’s unbelievable to see. People don’t realize how selfless he is.”
He pauses for a moment and thinks.
“But that ain’t for everybody to understand, either.”
— Royce Young
Christmas in Akron
Chris Dennis, James’ former PR manager: “In 2003, LeBron received his first endorsement check, which actually came FedEx to my house from Nike. After I hand-delivered it to him, LeBron took that multimillion-dollar Nike check, deposited it and came out with maybe $2,000 in cash. He never spent or indulged in a frivolous manner when the money came. He did take his closest friend to an amusement park but didn’t immediately purchase any new cars [he did have a Hummer] or homes.
“The following day, Nike dropped so much product on him and his close friends it was like Christmas in West Akron.
“He made sure his guys Randy [Mims], Rich [Paul] and Mav[erick Carter] were set up on payroll without real defined roles, but he knew their capabilities. They were truly surprised when payroll came, especially Rich Paul. He was like, ‘I ain’t done nothing yet.’
“LeBron has always been about business, a true visionary beyond his years.”
— As told to Marc Spears
From this point forward
Paul Silas, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach: When James was drafted No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2003, Cavaliers players, who posted a 17-win season the previous season, made it clear they weren’t banking on a high school kid known as “The Chosen One.” While Carlos Boozer acknowledged that James had great potential, he sniffed, “We have players better than him in his position already on our team.” Darius Miles openly questioned how LeBron would have a major impact but offered to allow him to “just hop on our bandwagon.”
Newly hired Cavs coach Paul Silas knew almost immediately that his players were underestimating James. He was astonished by how quickly James would learn an action, or improvise on a defensive scheme. “I told him something once,” Silas recalled, “and he committed it to memory. His basketball mind was incredible.” Silas decided to make James, listed as a shooting guard, his point forward.
As the season continued, and the abilities of the eventual Rookie of the Year became apparent, Silas would pull his veterans aside and implore them to embrace the cerebral 19-year-old.
“Their egos wouldn’t allow it,” Silas said. “I kept telling them, ‘You have a chance to help one of the game’s future stars,’ but they wouldn’t embrace him. If it bothered LeBron, he never let on. We won 35 games that year because of him. He’s had some outstanding seasons since then, but that first one may have been the most impressive because of how he excelled in spite of the jealousy on his own team.”
— Jackie MacMullan
‘Don’t put me on the highlight reel’
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks forward: “I was with the Nets — that’s how long ago [this game] was. And we were talking about not dunking on each other. It was a very athletic conversation, believe it or not. He was like, ‘Don’t put me on the highlight reel.’ And I said, ‘You don’t put me on the highlight reel!’ But I remember in the game I had a tip dunk. It wasn’t nothing crazy. No ‘ooh, aahs.’ You know when you go for the rebound and you tip it in? And he looked at me, and I was like, ‘My bad.’ I’m glad he didn’t wind up on me after that.”
— As told to Malika Andrews
Get your followers up
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics forward: In April 2012, the parents of a then-14-year-old Jayson Tatum had finally allowed him to open his own Twitter account. Tatum, the godson of former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes, immediately set to the task of getting followers, one in particular.
“@KingJames Follow back it’s Larry Hughes nephew from st. Louis and Abe and Rj Lil cousin and Justin Son Follow Back,” Tatum tweeted.
— Jayson Tatum (@jaytatum0) April 13, 2012
James didn’t respond, but the tweet resurfaced near the end of Tatum’s rookie year when he faced off against James in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals.
“I was trying to get my followers up,” Tatum said recently with a smile, when asked what led him to send that tweet. “But I didn’t really understand how Twitter worked. I knew he ain’t see it. He’s got so many followers he probably didn’t see it, but it was funny that it came back up when we played them.”
Eventually, James did follow Tatum — on Instagram. But while he follows 186 people on Twitter, the Celtics forward isn’t one of them.
Is he surprised that hasn’t changed?
“Nah,” he said with a laugh. “[The media] made a big deal of it when he followed me on Instagram. But [the tweet] just was me being young.
“It was funny.”
— Tim Bontemps
‘No one lets a guy get 40′
Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans coach: Gentry was an assistant on the Golden State Warriors team that faced James’ depleted Cavaliers squad in the 2015 Finals. With Kevin Love out for the entire series and Kyrie Irving lost to a knee injury after Game 1, James was forced to shoulder a heavier-than-usual load, one that nearly toppled the Warriors — and one that Steve Kerr couldn’t exactly account for.
“There was a reporter that asked Steve, ‘You guys seem to be doing a great job of letting LeBron get 40 and keeping everyone else in check,'” Gentry said. “Steve, said ‘We didn’t let him get 40, he took 40.’ We didn’t let him do anything. He did exactly what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. We were just fortunate enough that we did do a pretty good job on the other guys, but no one lets a guy get 40. He did that every night we played.”
James finished that series averaging 35.8 PPG, his highest output in any of his nine Finals series. He nearly became the second player to win Finals MVP despite playing on the losing team.
— Andrew Lopez
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors power forward: On the floor, James and Green are rivals, squaring off against each other in four straight NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018 as Green’s Warriors won three titles. James, then a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, earned the 2016 Finals MVP and won Game 7 in Oakland.
Off the floor, though, James and Green have developed a friendship that extends beyond basketball. Both James and Green are represented by James’ childhood friend, agent Rich Paul, and Green has been a guest on James’ HBO show “The Shop.” As the player empowerment era has grown in prominence in recent years, Green appreciates the fact that James has been at the forefront, setting an example for young players.
“It’s meant a lot,” Green said of James’ advocacy. “[People thought] he made one of the biggest mistakes in his career [in 2010] when he decided to take his talents to South Beach. And it ended up being one of the most powerful moves in sports history today.”
— Nick Friedell
23 and me
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers teammate: “It was the end of the dinner. [James] pulled out a card. He was like, ‘My wife wanted me to give you this.’ I was like, ‘Why is Savannah giving me a card?'”
“‘Welcome to L.A.’ such and such and such, ‘bro.’ I stopped reading. I said, ‘Wait, Savannah doesn’t even call me ‘bro.'”
Davis scanned to the bottom of the card for the signature: King James #6. From inside the to-go bag the waiter had brought over, James whipped out a gold Lakers jersey with No. 23 stitched in purple numerals and the name “Davis” on the back.
“He was like, ‘I know you wanted 23.’ For him to, in an instant, just say, ‘Here. Here’s 23. You can have it.’ … It was a cool moment.”
Note: While league sources confirm the NBA would have bent the rules to allow for James to swap his jersey number without meeting the deadline to file the paperwork a year ahead of time, Nike intervened, citing tens of millions of dollars in potentially wasted inventory, according to sources.
— As told to Dave McMenamin