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LeBron James Shoots For The 'Stars'
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LeBron James Shoots For The 'Stars'

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LeBron James Shoots For The 'Stars'
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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, LeBron James, has been a sports star ever since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 17, when he was still in high school. He was the number one NBA draft pick out of high school. At 19, he became the youngest Rookie of the Year in NBA history. That was in the 2003-2004 season. At the end of last season, he was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player. He plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James, who will turn 25 in December, grew up in Akron, and that's where his new memoir, "Shooting Stars," is set. It's about growing up poor, the son of a single mother. And it's about his friendship with the boys who became his teammates in junior high and how they managed to stick together, go to the same high school and become state champions. The book is co-written with Buzz Bissinger, who wrote "Friday Night Lights."

LeBron James, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you remember the very first time that you dunked?

Mr. LeBRON JAMES (Basketball Player; Co-author, "Shooting Stars"): Yeah, I was in eighth grade, and my middle school every year has a teachers-versus-students game. You know, they play the basketball team. And in warm-ups, I have no idea what got into me, but it was so - it was so electric in this gym. I think this gym holds probably, like - oh, it holds probably, like, I'd say probably about 45 people in there. That's a lot, right, for an eighth-grade game, 45 people?

And, you know, the crowd was, you know, the students was having a great time, and, you know, we got out of school early. And in the warm-ups, I just decided I don't know, I was going to jump as high as I could and try to dunk. And I did it. You know, I went up and dunked the basketball. I don't know what got into me that day. And then when the game started, I got a breakaway and did it again, and the crowd went crazy. And that was, like, one of the best moments of my whole life.

GROSS: You're one of the people who went very suddenly from poverty to wealth. You write in your book, you know, your mother had you when she was 16. Her mother died when you were three. It was hard for your mother to support you. You had to keep moving a lot because of eviction notices and, you know, rent problems. Did you think of basketball as a way out, as more than just a game?

Mr. JAMES: Oh, I think it is more than a game. Basketball, and I think sport period, gives you an opportunity to forget about anything that may be going on in your life, back away from that particular sport that you may be playing. You know, I definitely used the game to get my mind off some of the bad things that may have been going on as a child.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. JAMES: You know, just things you never want your kids to see, you know, violence and things like that. You never want your kids to see that. So, you know, I used the game of basketball to keep me away from that.

GROSS: Your mother, when she was having a hard time financially, thought it would be best for you if you lived with another family for a while, while she tried to get things together. Tell us a little bit about the Walker family that you did move in with.

Mr. JAMES: It was a great family, you know, and without them, I wouldn't be in this position I am today. You know, they welcomed me like I was one of their sons, and, you know, they already had a son and two daughters. And, you know, to open their arms up and to treat me like I was one of their firstborn, I think, you know, I think that I owe them a lot of credit for what they did.

GROSS: Mr. Walker was a basketball coach. Did you already know him from basketball?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I had known him from football first. He was assistant football coach on a Little League team I had played for first, and then the basketball season came on.

GROSS: So how was it arranged? You know, like, why that family?

Mr. JAMES: I have no idea how it was arranged. You know, my mother just told me I was going to be living with a coach of mine, and, you know, I had never asked my mom why or anything like that. I just - you know, I've always trusted her judgment.

GROSS: Now, how did you meet the three players who, along with you, became known as the Fab Four, three players that you went to junior high and high school with and became real winners together.

Mr. JAMES: Well, I met Little Dru through the same Little League team, through the same league. It's the ARB. It's the Akron Recreation Bureau. And Little Dru, just so happened, played on our rival team. We was the Summer League Hornets, and he played for the Ed Davis Dream Team All-Stars. So we were rivals, and you know, we met through that way. Willie played on my team. He played on the Summer League Hornets with me, and I met Romeo on the football team, where I played before basketball, on the East Dragons.

GROSS: What was it about this group that made you work so well together? Like, what was - describe something about, like, the chemistry on and off the court that made you work like that.

Mr. JAMES: Well, the chemistry off the court is why we were so good on the court. You know, we looked at each other as brothers. I mean, at the time it was the Fab Four. It was myself, Dru, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee, and we, you know, we used that off-the-court friendship, that, you know, going to - I don't know - going to McDonald's together, playing basketball outside together, you know, driving to West Virginia to play in the AAU tournament, you know, things like that. And then when we got on the court, it was, like, okay. This is the easy part.

GROSS: Little Dru was called Little Dru because he was little. He was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He was, like, 5'3" or something when you were in high school?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, when we was freshmen. No, that's, that's good for him. When we was freshmen, Dru was about 4'11"…

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. JAMES: …when we were freshmen in high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. JAMES: When he came off the bench that year, our freshman year, and he was a heck of a shooter. And you know, anytime you left him open, he for the most part wasn't going to miss, and, you know, he did that from game one all the way to the last game of the season in the state championship.

GROSS: So you, Dru, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton wanted to go to the same high school together so that you could continue to be teammates. And you went to a high school that no one expected you to go to. Everybody expected you to go to - is it pronounced Buchtel?

Mr. JAMES: Buchtel.

GROSS: Buchtel, which you describe as the school of choice for black athletes. It was a public school, but instead you went to a predominately white, Catholic school, St. Vincent's. Would you explain how you ended up, the four of you, going to St. Vincent's?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we ended up going to St. Vincent's because Little Dru at the time, remember I told you he was only about 4'10", 4'11", he didn't think Buchtel was going to give him an equal opportunity to play for them. And when Dru realized that, you know, he was, like, you know, I'm not going there. He had started going to this Sunday night clinic that our high school coach eventually, Keith Dambrot, was holding. And he'd seen how much confidence he had in Dru, and Dru was like, hey, I'm going to St. V, guys. And it was - it was tough at first, you know, because we knew really nothing but Buchtel at the time.

I mean, we went to all the Buchtel games and all the Buchtel events, the football games, everything, and we were - our minds was going to Buchtel. So you know, when Dru just made that decision, you know, it was difficult for us. But, you know, when we finally sat down and really came together as friends, we was like, hey, we, you know, we need to stick together, and, you know, we're going to let you make this call, Dru. We're going to follow you.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that some people turned against you when you decided to go to St. Vincent because they thought you were turning your back on the African-American community. Could you describe that period and what your response to that was?

Mr. JAMES: Well, it was difficult. I mean, in the summer of - let me see - I went to - in the summer of '99, I think that was my freshman year. That summer before, you know, in between the eighth grade and ninth grade, you had to - you know, even though we had decided to go to St. V, we were still playing in the black community. We were still playing basketball against those same kids and those same adults that really wanted us to come, you know, to Buchtel. So it was difficult, but I think our friendship and what we had with Coach Drew was way more powerful than anything anybody else had ever said for us or, you know, about us.

GROSS: You started winning and becoming pretty famous when you were in high school. In your junior year, you were the cover story in Sports Illustrated, and the headline was: The Chosen One. One of the controversial things from your early life, from your high school years that you write about a little bit in your book, is that when you were 18, for your birthday, while your mother still had no money, and you were still in high school, she bought you a $50,000 Hummer, and got the loan with the money that you were predicted to earn because everybody knew you were going to be an NBA draft. And that was pretty controversial because a lot of people assumed it was, like, an under-the-table gift, a real gift from a shoe company or an NBA team -would've been illegal. But, you know, the loan was investigated by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, and they say it was legit. Why did you need a $50,000 Hummer?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I didn't. It was a gift. I didn't ask for it. My mother felt, you know, I was special. She always wanted to do something special for me. And, you know, she did something that was very legal, got a bank loan and, you know, the bank, you know, just basically (unintelligible) that they would be fully paid back. And, you know, and she bought me that for my birthday. And it was a surprise to me when I seen it in the driveway.

GROSS: You know, the funny thing about that, it's such an odd gift because she's getting you this $50,000 car based on money you're going to earn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I know, huh?

GROSS: You're the one who's going to be paying that loan.

Mr. JAMES: So it was like I'm paying for it myself, huh?

GROSS: Yeah, you're paying for that birthday gift.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: At that point, at that particular time, it's the point that count. It's the thought that count. It's the thought that count.

GROSS: So did you have to pay off the loan when you joined the NBA?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yes, we did. Yes, we did.

GROSS: And did you still have the Hummer by the time the loan was paid off?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I still have it.

GROSS: You still have it?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I still have it.

GROSS: Was it, like, a keepsake or something?

Mr. JAMES: No, I've changed it a few times and painted it a few times, but I still have it.

GROSS: Are you still driving it, or do you just keep it as a…?

Mr. JAMES: No, I still drive it every now and then.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So you won the state national championship your senior year. So the bet paid off. The fact that you and your three friends decided to go to St. Vincent together, it paid off. And then, you know, you were an NBA draft. You joined the Cavaliers when they were in last place. I know you're very fond of Cleveland. You grew up in Akron. Why would you want to join a team that was in last place?

Mr. JAMES: Well, first of all, if you - you know, I had no choice. You know, that's why it's called a draft. They pick who they want, and…

GROSS: Good point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: …and things like that. But the fact is, when I was drafted to that team, I felt like I could make an impact. I felt like I could help. You know, they only won 17 games the year before I got drafted. But, you know, I felt that my talents could help that franchise. And, you know, I think the city of Cleveland has some of the best fans that the world has to see, and, you know, I was happy to go into that experience and take my talents to that team, also.

GROSS: I'm sure it was your dream to be in the NBA. When you go there, how did it compare to what you expected?

Mr. JAMES: It was everything and more. I always wanted to be in the NBA and have a uniform with my name on the back - that say James across the back of the jersey. And I can remember my first NBA game, which we played in Sacramento. And to just be out there and to see the fans and to see, you know, the cameras, and to see my teammates and see the opposing team on an NBA floor in an NBA game, it was, like, wow. It was, like, my, like, please don't pinch me because I know I'm dreaming.

GROSS: Now, Shaquille O'Neal is joining the Cavaliers. So now there's going to be two really dominant, famous players on the team. And everybody's speculating about how you're going to feel about that.

Mr. JAMES: I feel great. You know, this is a team sport, and to add someone like that to the team is great. I mean, he has all the accolades that you could ever want and more as an NBA individual and as a team player. So I'm looking forward to the challenge. I think he adds something to our team that we haven't had, and I can't wait until the season starts so I can get out there and play alongside him.

GROSS: Do you know him? Do you know him well?

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I know him really well. Yeah, I know his family and his kids. I love his kids. You know, I love him. Man, he's like the godfather in the NBA. If you don't - you know, he's like the Don Corleone. If you don't know him or respect him, then something may happen to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is LeBron James, the NBA's Most Valuable Player, and he's got a new memoir called "Shooting Stars." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James. He was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA this past season, and now he has a new memoir called "Shooting Stars."

Let me ask you: I know - this is just a clothing question. So I ask this as a woman who finds it very difficult to find clothes in my size, which is a problem I suppose you've had being, like, six-foot - I forget what - eight?

Mr. JAMES: 6'8", yeah.

GROSS: So when you joined the NBA, you were probably able to get your clothes made for you. Is that what you do?

Mr. JAMES: Yes. I don't anymore. I mean, sometimes I do. I mean, I get some suits and things like that tailored, but I can go in the store and sometimes find some clothes.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. JAMES: I can go in the store and find some jeans and find some shirts. I wear true-to-size clothes, though. I don't wear that big stuff a lot of people wear. I wear true to size.

GROSS: Oh, you mean, like, the pants that are - your backside…

Mr. JAMES: Like the 5X, 6X T-shirts and all the pants that's hanging below people…

GROSS: Dragging it on the floor…

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I wear, you know, a 2X T-shirt. I wear 40 jeans, and, you know, I wear it just how it's supposed to be worn.

GROSS: All right. You know your one-handed, full-court shot?

Mr. JAMES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How'd you develop that?

Mr. JAMES: Um, I don't know. It's just - I guess I'm the chosen one, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I guess Sports Illustrated was right.

GROSS: There you go. Now, describe the feeling of taking a shot, and the ball's, like, circling around the rim and then it, like, falls out instead of going in, and the game's really close.

Mr. JAMES: Now, that's happened multiple times. It's not a pleasant feeling, you know, especially when you feel like that was the one. You know, you shoot the ball. All - basketball players know when that shot feels great, you know, and then the ball gets on the rim, and it plays with the rim, and it just, like, goes in, and then it feels like an imaginary hand punches it back out of the net. That's, like, it's not a really good feeling at all.

GROSS: And I want to ask you about something else controversial that's happened pretty recently. You have something called the LeBron James Skills Academy, and a college student attending the academy dunked on you. And it's been reported that Nike, who was sponsoring this, confiscated - I don't know if it was the cameras or just the videos that captured that moment. And so in some people's minds, that's a symbol of your vanity, that you wouldn't allow that to be seen, and in some people's minds, it's not about you, it's about Nike, and it's a symbol of a form of corporate censorship. What is that incident about to you? What's your version of the story?

Mr. JAMES: It's just about people just looking in - when you have nothing more to write about, sometimes people just look for anything. The summer is dead. No basketball is around, so they need something to talk about.

Nike has a no-videotaping policy. It's simple. I mean, if you have a no-videotaping policy, why are you videotaping? So, you know, the kid, which is - really, he's really good, by the way, kid goes to Xavier. And you know, he caught me slipping a little bit, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: Before that day, you can easily go on YouTube and find me getting dunked on by a few more players in the NBA. And, you know, if you even want to look a little bit more, you can find me even dunking on a few players.

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I think that may be possible. You may be able to find that. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, you said that you think what makes your approach to basketball different, like, your approach is based on, like, your mental approach to the game. I'm paraphrasing here, but it was something like that. So what do you mean by that?

Mr. JAMES: That my mental aspect of the game is what?

GROSS: That that's the key to your…

Mr. JAMES: Oh, it is. I mean, I think the game more than I really play it. I mean, I can play the game pretty good, too. But I really think the game and approach the game mentally more than physically, you know, and that's watching film. That's knowing your opponent's likes and dislikes, his pros and cons, what he like to do, what he don't like to do, who are we playing against this particular team. You know, what do they like to do? What do they don't like to do? And that's the way I approach the game. I feel like skill-wise, I'm going to be okay. Who's going to out-think the game more than the next man in front of him?

GROSS: You know, we've been talking through the interview about the three other friends, teammates, who you went to junior high and high school with. What are they doing now?

Mr. JAMES: Well, my four best friends right now, Dru Joyce is playing professionally in Poland. Romeo Travis is playing professionally in Germany. Sian Cotton is playing football at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, and also in school. And Willie McGee is getting his - is going to graduate school at the University of Akron and also working with the men's basketball team.

GROSS: Have you watched your friends play in Poland and Germany?

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: And are the rules any different there?

Mr. JAMES: No, a lot different, a lot different. Yeah, I've watched them on the Internet. Sometimes, their game is, like, replayed on the Internet. And then there's a Web site I can go to, like eurobasketball.com, and they replay their games, which is pretty cool seeing those guys still play.

GROSS: Tell us about what your mother was like when you were growing up.

Mr. JAMES: My mother was great, very fiery, very demanding - demanding greatness, really, honestly. She was - it just seemed like, it seemed like she had everything in control, even though it seemed like the world may have been coming down on her at times. She never let anything get to her, even in the worst times, the best times. She always stayed calm and collected and made sure that her son was always happy and did whatever it took for me to be happy, and I respect that. I respect that in her not only as a mother but as a friend. As a leader, she set me up for life early on because I was able to notice how great and how calm she was, even when times seemed like they was the worst.

GROSS: You said your mother was demanding. What did she demand of you?

Mr. JAMES: No, she just - no, she never demanded anything out of me. I could just see her fire. She was very, like, demanding to herself. Like, she was going to find a way to make everything be right.

GROSS: When you think back to the fact that she was 16 when you were born, do you see that in a different light than you did when you were young, just in terms of what she had to deal with at the age of 16?

Mr. JAMES: When you're a kid - right, when you're a kid, you don't really know how young your mother is, or is it that young - too young.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. JAMES: You only know that as you get older. You're like wow, my mom was what when she had me? She was really 16 years old? That's a sophomore in high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I couldn't imagine having no kid at 16. I mean, I ended up having my first kid at 18, but you know, it was - that's was like - for a woman it has to be more difficult. It's way more difficult than for a man to have his own kid by himself. So that's - she's amazing. She's one in a million, I guess, or in my words, one in a billion these days.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JAMES: Oh, well, thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: LeBron James' new memoir is called "Shooting Stars." Here's a track called "LeBron's Hammer." It was written and performed by Buckethead and is dedicated to James' 24th birthday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "LeBron's Hammer")

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