DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Our next guest, superstar basketball player LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has made headlines almost every day this week for different reasons. He's been voted the league's MVP for the second year in a row. He was just named to the All-NBA First Team for the third year in a row. And he's playing in the playoffs right now with an injured elbow. James and the Cavaliers are tied with the Boston Celtics at a game apiece and Game 3 is tonight.
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 and at 19 he became the youngest Rookie of the Year in NBA history.
James told his story in his memoir "Shooting Stars," now out in paperback. James, who was raised in Akron, Ohio by his single mother, also is the focus of "More Than a Game," a documentary now out on DVD, about the tight bond between James his closest childhood friends, who shared not only a love of basketball but also a level of trust.
James has known Dru Joyce, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee since junior high, and Romeo Travis since high school. They all talk about their friendship in this clip from "More Than a Game.
(Soundbite of documentary, "More Than a Game")
Unidentified Male #1: We had a natural feel for each other. I'm not sure what it was. I guess it was just meant to be, but we had a chemistry for each other. It was basketball but it was more a friendship than anything.
Unidentified Man #2: We were all kind of like friends and then we really bonded.
Unidentified Man #3: You know, I wanted to finally have some brothers that I could be loyal to and be trustworthy. I think we all kind of shared that bond.
Unidentified Man #4: I just remember being over LeBron's house one night and they was just talking like (unintelligible) good friends, you know what I'm saying? And it was weird for me for somebody to express theirself to me (unintelligible) another dude - another boy to me like that, you know what I mean? I think it was more giving. They was more accepting, you know what saying? It just got more comfortable.
Unidentified Man #5: The Fab Four, that was like our identity.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with LeBron James last year.
TERRY GROSS: LeBron James, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you remember the very first time that you dunked?
Mr. LeBRON JAMES (Basketball Player): 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 - whoo, 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: 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...
Mr. JAMES: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: He was, what, 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"...
Mr. JAMES: ...when we were freshmen in high school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JAMES: When he came off the bench that year, our freshman year, and he was a heck of a shooter - and you know, any time 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.
Mr. JAMES: Yup.
GROSS: 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.
And 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 won the state national championship your senior year. So the bet paid off.
Mr. JAMES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: 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 like 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 then 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 somebody, like, please don't pinch me because I know I'm dreaming.
GROSS: Now, 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...
Mr. JAMES: Well, that happens.
GROSS: ...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's 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: 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: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. JAMES: Oh, well, thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: LeBron James speaking to Terry Gross last year. "More Than a Game," the documentary about his loyalty to this closest childhood friends, is now out on DVD. And James and his Cleveland Cavaliers play tonight in the NBA Playoffs in game three against the Boston Celtics.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Iron Man 2." This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.