Shortly after gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, James was booked to appear on "Countdown To Signing Day", a college basketball recruiting show on Fox Sports Net which I hosted for several years in Atlanta. James was projected to be the sure-fire number one player taken in the following year's NBA draft, so there was no way in hell he was ever going to put pen to paper and sign a letter-of-intent to play college basketball.
However, Scott Alexander, the executive producer of the show, convinced James to fly to Atlanta to appear on the signature program of the network. Of course, Alexander had to agree to pay for the flights of two of James' friends, as well, because after all, when you are "The Chosen One", one must have a small posse, even if you are just 17.
James arrived for the show on time, but quickly chided Alexander for not sending him first-class plane tickets, the first sign that we had a real live diva on our hands. Alexander responded, "LeBron, you're not going to ever have to worry about flying anything but first-class next year."
I must admit, I didn't know a whole lot about James before meeting him. The recruiting show was one of five I was doing on a day that took me from 10am to 2am and I had covered so many of the "next Jordan's" in my career, that I wasn't particularly phased by "The Chosen One."
I can't say I was too impressed with his wardrobe for his appearance, either. James showed up in a Chicago Bulls jersey with half of Mr. T's starter kit around his neck, and his hat turned backwards. The kid flies all the way from Akron to be on a television show and he's wearing that?
I guess when you're the "Chosen One", you can choose whatever you want to wear. I kiddingly said to him, "If you want to change into your coat and tie, the dressing room is just the hall." Of course, he looked at me like I had three heads with a spike protruding from the middle one.
When James got on the set and we proceeded with the show, he was poised and pretty polished, except for the fact that he was slumping over just a bit in his chair. He did look like a 5-year old in his uniform sitting next to Bobby Cremmins, the basketball coaching legend, who acted as our analyst. Cremmins, with his gray-white hair and stylish wardrobe, certainly made him look a lot older than he really was when sitting next to James
I felt ridiculous asking him where he might be attending college, but after all, this was a college basketball recruiting show and it needed to be asked. For the record, James said he was looking at UNC, Duke, and Ohio State. But it was like A-Rod saying he wasn't going to use steroids again. You just knew it wasn't going to happen.
After the show was over, James posed for photographs with many of the employees who came to be a witness to greatness. I don't normally pose with any athletes, much less one who is just 17-years old and has yet to play a game of any significance, but I put down
my guard because I had a slight feeling that he just might live up to all the hype some day and it would make for a great keepsake.
James certainly did, but it wasn't all that easy. I'm not a big NBA and rarely watch games, however, I did watch his ascent to greatness with a keen eye. When he left Cleveland the way he did, with the whole "Decision" fiasco, I can't say I was surprised. When you're called "The Chosen One" at just 17-years old and have been coddled all your life, all sense of reality can be lost.
I thought back to the time when he got upset with our producer because he didn't get to fly first-class and felt his behavior regarding the "Decision" was just an extension of that. I don't really think that LeBron had a problem with the coach tickets he was sent, but I think his friends got in his ear and said, "You are King James, you should be flying first class. Don't let them disrespect you like that!"
Every time James opened up his mouth and said something stupid, I cringed. But again, he lost all sense of reality years ago when Sports Illustrated put him on that cover and proclaimed him "The Chosen One." When he got on that stage in Miami and predicted the Heat would win maybe 5, 6, or 7 NBA titles, I nearly lost my cookies. James bought into everything that had been said about him and forgot to get a filter for the things that came out of his mouth
But James learned the hard way. He became one of the most hated athletes in the country simply because of his arrogance and the way he handled things. James has gotten much better at the public relations game and has taken his game to an entirely different level, one in which few athletes, not even Jordan, have ever gone before.
He is no longer "The Chosen One", but rather, "King James". It's still a little too much, however, that's the way of our sports world where we deify athletes and then try to tear them down. It's not often you can say, "I knew him when..." but it does make me chuckle a bit when I think of the time I knew him back then.