by George Artsitas
Throughout his career, LeBron James has handled his brief bouts of powerlessness about as well as any King can.
James wasn’t at the copy desk when Sports Illustrated threw his 17-year-old face on the cover with three little proclamatory words, “The Chosen One” serving more as job title than headline. It was never his choice to be The Chosen One.
But eventually James commandeered the nickname as his own, broadcasting it permanently between his shoulder blades with a bold face CHOSEN 1 tattoo taking up most of the real estate on his upper back.
Later, the biggest Decision he’s ever made publicly blackened his image worse than if he joined the Sith, leaving him powerless over the vitriolic spew castigated on him for the next couple of years. So James embraced his new role as villain and trolled America one game at a time until he was handed the Larry O’Brien, smiling wide-eyed like a surprised 5-year-old who had been handed a loaded waffle cone, and the jig was up.
Now that he can count down the months to his 30th birthday, with about half of his career behind him, James admits his status as the go-to guy for ushering in a new generation of younger players is not really up to him.
He’s an ambassador to the NBA’s youth by default.
“I am,” James says, two sacks of ice situated on each knee following probably his worst game of the year, a 94-89 loss to Utah where he finished 4-13 with 13 points. “[Whether] I want it or not.”
As nonchalant as his words come off, James has been anything but apathetic helping out the young class of the NBA. He’s embracing it like the other roles he’s been saddled with before, ready and willing to tuck inexperienced NBA guys under his 7-foot-quarter-inch wingspan whenever nurturing is necessary.
James lays claim to an impressive ring of protégés around the League, expanding the names in his Samsung phone to include younger players who grew up idolizing LeBron and graciously welcome the King’s advice with open arms.
Eric Bledsoe, Kyrie Irving and even Kevin Durant count James as a friend and mentor. He’s talked about freely handing out advice to John Wall and Paul George on the court.
Even with football players—Johnny Football, Braxton Miller and most recently Tony Romo—James admits his offering of counsel is simply innate, and like so many things, out of his control.
“It’s just part of my personality, that’s all,” James said.
In GQ earlier this month, James defined the texts, the little chunks of hallowed advice, as his “secret words.”
So we spoke with three young protégés of James’—Trey Burke, Tristan Thompson and Norris Cole—about what exactly those “secret words” are.
The way the group talked about James, one thing was made certain: he doesn’t seem to rub people the wrong way. No one had a single bad word to say. Not even the slightest quibble. Just a bunch of young kids simply giddy to flip a parasocial relationship they once had into a surreal mentorship meant to guide their professional progress into adulthood.
Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson has known James since back in high school, calling him a “big brother” nearly his entire professional career. So when the power forward was drafted No. 4 overall by the Cavs in 2011, James gave the power forward a dose of brotherly reality.
“Congratulations! It’s just the beginning. Now the real work starts.”
When he was in high school and at the LeBron James Leadership Academy, a gangly 17-year-old Thompson shuffled up to James and small-talked about basketball. Even as a top-10 national recruit in the 2010 class, Thompson was nervous. Stomach bubbling, he eventually asked James for his number for whenever he needed a little guidance with the game.
James happily obliged.
But as anyone whose gotten a phone number knows, getting the digits are just the first step.
“He responded, too,” Thompson said through a chuckle.
Now five years later, after keeping tabs with Thompson up through his short career at Texas and now in his third year in the league, responses from James matriculate through his inbox intermittently.
With Thompson fortuitously drafted to Cleveland—just 30 minutes from James’s house in Akron—either guy can make the short half hour drive to just kick it and kibitz about whatever. There’s no constrictions on where the conversation can go.
“It’s not just basketball, it’s basically life. Anything I want to talk about,” Thompson said. “If I call, I know he’ll pick up.”
The biggest help came during the lockout year, when Thompson was just a rookie, forced to play back-to-backs-to-backs while dealing with the emotional high-low swoon of his first year in the League.
James just reminded Thompson to stay consistent and just play hard. Everything else—numbers and wins—will work itself out.
The entire time he’s been in the League, James has preached one thing to Thompson. As a big man, he needs three moves: a jump hook, a counter and a 15-foot jumper. With how active Thompson is on the floor, James let him know that if he can get the midrange J, it’ll open everything up for the young post.
“I think It’s almost like a cheat sheet,” Thompson said, describing his ability to reach out to the four-time MVP. “Being able to ask him about things he’s went through that I’m facing right now—how he dealt with it—I can kind of piggyback and take from him to help me get through adversity or things I need help with. It’s great to have a resource like that. He’s honest up front and always been available which is big time. It shows a lot about his character, who he is as a person and what a great heart he has.”
“It’s definitely a relationship right there, with the Ohio connection,” Burke says face down in some pre-game chicken curry before he takes on James for the first time in Salt Lake City. He peeks at film in the background of the Heat’s last game out of the corner of his eye between bites, hurrying to swallow before finishing each thought.
“It goes to show what type of person he is,” Burke says. “He’s always willing to share his knowledge about the game, give his feedback and insight. You need guys like that.”
Two Ohio Mr. Basketballs, James (2001-03) and Burke (2011) originally met back when the Utah Jazz rookie was in 9th grade at Columbus Northland High. The Cavs played a preseason game at University of Akron and the little freshman went up to meet the local savior, though Burke doubts James remembers the exchange now.
A few years later Burke ended up as a standout at the LeBron James Skills Academy the summer before he would win the 2013 Wooden Award. Still, no genuine personal relationship sprouted.
It wasn’t until Burke finally found national success in last year’s NCAA Tournament that the other former Ohio Mr. Basketball reached out.
James’ agent Rich Paul—who Burke had a relationship with—handed off the Michigan star’s number to the MVP, and the best individual players in college and the NBA last year started to chat.
Swirled up between breaking out as a star on a national stage and leading the Wolverines to their highest level of relevancy since Chris Webber’s phantom timeout in 1992, Burke can’t pinpoint what the first text he got was. What he does know is that the texts ran through Michigan’s NCAA Championship loss to Louisville, bled into Burke getting drafted ninth overall in last year’s Draft and continue to this day.
With how busy the two are during the season, the frequency of conversations has dwindled. But when news came down that Burke injured his finger this preseason and would be forced to watch the first twelve games of his professional career in a suit on the sideline, James reached out to keep the rookie’s hopes up.
James understands. It’s why he keeps driving home two main pieces of advice: stay healthy and keep grinding. Work hard and work smart. Keep your body as finely-tuned machine so you can use it to its potential. James knows all rookies eventually hit the same wall.
“I went from playing 27 games in high school a season to trying to playing 82 games,” James said. “We all hit a wall. It’s challenging. The traveling, the games, the practices, just the time commitment to being on the floor. It’s very taxing.”
And Burke is always very receptive to the messages. When it comes to his actual textual diction, Burke says James refrains from using emojis and describes his texts as “straightforward and pretty comprehensive.”
But for Burke, the presentation of the text doesn’t matter; it’s the content of the message he wants to file away for later.
“I wanted to get something away form what he was telling me, not just see it as him texting me,” Burke said. “As good as a player he is, I’m gong to have to compete with him a lot—not just this year, but down the line.”
Twenty-four picks after Thompson was selected by the Cavs in 2011, another product of Ohio was down the street in Cleveland, ready to get scooped up by James’s new team.
It was Cleveland State standout point guard Norris Cole, the most famous high-volume haircut since the VHS sleeve cover of High School High.
Riding a solid motor, versatile skill set and the legend of a 40-point, 20-rebound, 9-assist night against Youngstown State, Cole was taken late in the first round (28 overall) by Miami.
After he got the call he was drafted, Cole semi-expected a text from Miami’s most famous local. Eventually it came.
“Welcome to the family.”
Cole is the second-youngest member of the Miami Heat. He still holds the title of last Heat draft pick to play in a regular season game and doesn’t know what it’s like playing in the NBA without James as a teammate.
Anyone who has followed the Heat, noticed the video bombing during post-game interviews, watched their attempts at a “Harlem Shake” video or heard about “Battioke” knows the Heat truly try to act like a tight-knit family.
So even after maybe their worst loss of the year to Utah in early February, the locker room is still jocular.
Guys giggle next to each other on the trainers table. Michael Beasley plops a backpack filled with trendy new bright colored and graphic-heavy camouflage socks in front of Dwyane Wade’s locker. Beasley fingers through what feels like dozens of pairs. Wade smiles back approvingly.
Cole has his own pair with pink-and-purple polka dots meant to match his purple shirt. (“We’re the Heatles now,” he says. “You gotta bring them swag.”)
While Cole straightens out his socks, making sure each dot is symmetrical, at the first mention of James his head instinctively kicks back and a smile beams through his Invisalign braces.
“That’s my boy, man,” Cole said. “We’re from Ohio, baby.”
After the Draft, the Dayton local was immediately invited to James’ house in Akron, just a 40-minute drive down the I-77 from Cleveland State, to play in some open runs with James and Bledsoe, who was coming off his rookie year for the Clippers at the time.
“It’s been all she wrote ever since,” Cole said.
By the time Cole got to Miami, James made sure his new family member got the best. He let Cole steal some of his workout and training methods. He sifted through his contacts to make sure Cole only trained with the best available.
And more then anything, James offered the wisdom that comes along with being a once-in-a-generation athlete.
“Whatever I need, whenever I need to talk to him, he’s available,” Cole said. “He’s always trying to be a mentor. He’s a special player and has some gifts that can’t be taught, so he’s always been open.”
James might have some talents that can’t be taught, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be there to assist any young guys willing to try and learn anyway.
As the defacto guidance counselor of the NBA, he’s available to impart his wisdom whenever it’s called upon.
“If guys want advice, I’m here to give it,” James said.
He says that like he has a choice.