This week, basketball star LeBron James won his second MVP trophy in a landslide vote — joining legendary players Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash in the club of back-to-back winners. He sat down with Terry Gross to discuss his career on September 9, 2009.
LeBron James has been a star since he was a teenager; he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 17, was the No. 1 NBA draft pick out of high school and, at 19, became the youngest Rookie of the Year in NBA history.
Now 25, James looks back on his youth in the memoir Shooting Stars, which he co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winner Buzz Bissinger. Set in Akron, Ohio, Shooting Stars details James' experiences growing up in poverty as the son of a young single mother — and in the sport that opened up the world to him.
As James tells Terry Gross, he thinks of basketball as much 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. ... I definitely used the game to get my mind off some of the bad things that may have been going on as a child."
For James, basketball also linked him to the three boys — Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton — who became his teammates in junior high, and with whom he would play until senior year in high school. Later known as the "Fab Four," the teammates deliberately chose their high school — a predominately white Catholic school — in order to stick together.
"The chemistry off the court is why we were so good on the court. You know, we looked at each other as brothers," James says.
It was during high school that the team started winning and James began to attract the attention of the national media. In his junior year, his picture appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline: "The Chosen One." The following year, when he was still in high school, his mother bought him a $50,000 Hummer for his birthday, using a loan based on the money he was expected to earn in the NBA draft.
James acknowledges that the Hummer was an unusual gift — especially because he was expected to pay off the loan himself after he joined the NBA. Still, he defends his mother's actions, and he credits her for teaching him the calm that he now exhibits on the court: "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 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."
James says his mental approach on the court is more important than his physical game, and he admits that he was overwhelmed with emotion during his first game as an NBA player.
"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 — it was, like, please don't pinch me because I know I'm dreaming," he says.
After joining the Cavaliers as a rookie, James led the team to the playoffs in 2006, '07, '08 and '09. This fall, he'll get a new teammate when veteran Shaquille O'Neal joins the squad. James says he can't wait to share the court with O'Neal.
"This is a team sport, and to add someone like that to the team is great. ... Man, [O'Neal is] like the Godfather in the NBA. ... He's like the Don Corleone. If you don't know him or respect him, then something may happen to you."