Though LeBron James graces the front of our new issue, you probably noticed that the cover shot of him is far from new. That’s because it was taken 11 years ago, during a photo shoot that ran in SLAM 54‘s pages, the same pages on which the Akron native’s first ever national magazine feature was printed. And with SLAM 159 on sale now and Bron coming off one of the biggest performances of his career, we figured there was no better time than now to finally publish the full story online. Enjoy.—Ed.

words Ryan Jones | photos Atiba Jefferson

“Are you the one I’m asking for the autograph?”

This from the waitress working the dining room at the Diamond Grille, the old-school steakhouse standing on a hill just seconds from downtown Akron, OH. There are four people seated in the booth, only one of whom is 16 years old, 6 feet, 7 inches tall, and dressed like he just stepped off a basketball court. That would be LeBron James, and yes, he is the one.

Apparently, the guys in the kitchen recognized the kid when he came in, and they’re hoping to get a signature from Akron’s most famous young resident. LeBron obliges, inking a couple of napkins for the dudes in the back. Curious, I ask him if requests like this—the thought of guys twice his age asking a high school sophomore for an autograph—have ever messed with his head. “Yeah, it used to. It really did,” he says. “But I’m used to it now. I got it down pat.”

Maybe so, but he hasn’t perfected the skill just yet: A peek at the napkins shows two signatures so diverse, you’d hardly believe they were written by the same hand. I call him on it, pointing out that, if I didn’t know better, I’d assume one of the autographs was a fake.

“Yeah, I know. That’s good,” he says, drawing laughs from around the table. “That’s so somebody can’t really forge it. They’ll do one of them, and then they’ll go, ‘Oh, wait…’ So that’s good.”

LeBron James is 16 years old, 6 feet, 7 inches tall, and he’s worried about protecting himself from autograph fraud. Well, not worried so much—kid’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s having fun with it—but it’s an issue nonetheless, an undeniable part of his reality. Thing is, he’s a celebrity—small-scale for now, but probably not much longer. He just finished his sophomore season, and yet he might just be the best high school basketball player in America.

For our purposes, the story starts a couple years back, when Dru Joyce brought his man ’Bron down to the court at the Akron Jewish Community Center for a Sunday night run. About 5-2 at the time, Joyce was a baller nonetheless, a gym rat who became a regular at the Sunday night skills sessions run by a former D1 college coach, full-time stock broker, Keith Dambrot. So Li’l Dru brought LeBron, and eventually talked his boys Sian Cotton and Willie McGee into coming down, too. Four junior high kids of varying size and skill, AAU teammates who played for Dru’s and Lee’s pops on the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars, they stuck together, and they planned to do the same in high school. As it happened, Dambrot had recently accepted the head coaching job at St. Vincent-St. Mary HS, a small Catholic school with a decent hoops rep. His timing could not have been better.

“I really didn’t have to convince them,” Dambrot says, explaining how the quartet decided to bring their burgeoning skills to St. V. “Dru was the impetus. Dru just decided, and that’s how it worked.”

Indeed, it was the smallest of the crew who made the call. “We all pretty much knew we were going to St. V, but we weren’t totally sure,” Dru says. “I thought Coach Dambrot was a real good coach and I could learn a lot from him—that all four of us could.”

As freshmen, the self-dubbed “Fab Four” arrived at St. V expecting to play a supporting role on an already talented team. They did more than that, especially LeBron. Teaming with his cousin, all-state senior Maverick Carter, LeBron helped lead the Irish to a 27-0 record and the state championship. It was a shocking debut for this lanky rook, unless you’d been paying attention. Those who had really weren’t surprised at all.

“He’s pretty much always been ahead of everybody,” Dru says of LeBron. “I remember in eighth grade, we went down to the AAU Nationals, and he just dominated.”

Li’l Dru’s father—Big Dru to you—remembers those exploits well, having coached those Shooting Stars teams to three 10-top finishes in five trips to the national AAU tourney, and he saw early on the potential LeBron oozed. “You could always see it, even as a young kid,” says Big Dru, a St. V assistant who became head coach after Dambrot took an assistant’s job at the University of Akron last month. “LeBron has those kinds of things every coach wishes they could take credit for, but you just can’t.”

It’s the total package, the prototype ballplayer’s build—long arms, huge hands, and the potential to grow another inch or two before he’s done—LeBron has the superior athletic ability, court vision and instincts to go with it. All of which explains why men not generally given to hyperbole—men who should know better—can’t help but shower LeBron with praise.

“He’s the best high school player I’ve ever seen,” says Terry Pluto, longtime sports columnist at the Akron Beacon-Journal. “I’m very guarded about saying that, because the last thing he needs is any more hype. But I really have never seen a better one. Assuming he stays on the path, we’ll see him playing in the NBA.”

Last year, Pluto asked Howard Garfinkle about LeBron James. As founder and director of the venerable Five-Star Camp (which James attended last summer), Garfinkle has seen most of the best high school players of the past three decades. Singling out Elton Brand, Grant Hill, Stephon Marbury, and Rasheed Wallace among the dozens of prominent Five-Star alumni, Garfinkle said this: “LeBron played as well or better than any of them when they were sophomores at my camp. It was ridiculous. He totally dominated. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Then there’s Dambrot. “I kind of view him a little like Magic Johnson, in that he can really pass,” the coach says. “Then, he’s a little like Kobe, and he’s got some Tracy McGrady in him, too.” Asked if he was worried that such comparisons might warp LeBron’s ego, he replied, “It doesn’t bother me, because I think he IS one of the top five players in the country. I know I have my personal biases, but this guy…this guy is so talented. He’s just a great player.

“Most guys that dominate at his age do it athletically. LeBron has done it with skills and knowledge,” Dambrot continues. “He just understands the game. A lot of it’s instinct, but the other thing is, he’s very bright, so you tell him something once, and he understands. Athletically, he keeps getting better. He just keeps growing and maturing, and he’s gotten tougher every year. There’s not one thing he can’t do if he wants to.”

Proof? With his ’cuz graduated and that unbelievable Five-Star performance still fresh, LeBron chose his sophomore season to blow all the way up. He averaged 25 points, 7 boards and 6 assists for the year, but more impressive, he led the very young Irish to a 26-1 record and their second straight state title, winning Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award along the way. Naturally, LeBron’s season was packed with highlights, but none shone brighter than this one: Oak Hill Academy 79, St. V 78.

It was mid-January, and Oak Hill, loaded with high school All-Americans, took the nation’s No. 1 ranking into Columbus, OH. LeBron greeted them with 33 points, and if he hadn’t missed a pair of late free throws and a running 20-footer at the buzzer, the Irish might’ve finished the season with a No. 1 ranking of their own. Afterward, Oak Hill’s Kentucky-bound swingman, Rashaad Carruth, called LeBron “the best I’ve ever played against.”

“The way I played that game, it just felt like, can’t nobody stop me, no matter who guards me,” LeBron admits. “I feel like I got better every game after that. I just kept working harder and harder.”

And in doing so, he convinced a whole lot of people that his last game as a high school player will probably be his last as an amateur. Ask Dambrot, Big Dru, and even ’Bron himself, and the consensus is undeniable: If things keep going the way they’ve been going—and if, as Dambrot claims, he’s only “70 percent of where he’ll be as a player”—it’s hard to imagine him playing a minute of college ball. The good news for North Carolina, Michigan State, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Cal? You’re on LeBron’s short list. Bad news? The NBA is on that list, too, and the L pays better.

Back at the Diamond Grille. LeBron, disappointed that the word “hamburger” doesn’t appear on the menu, settles on a plate of fried shrimp. So he’s a picky eater—he barely touches the stuff once it arrives—and he doesn’t talk much, at least not around relative strangers or SLAM writers he just met a couple hours ago. But he’s cool: smart, laid back, and quick with a deadpan one-liner. Basically, he comes off like a fairly typical 16-year-old kid, his height and massive earning potential the obvious exceptions.

And, refreshingly, he doesn’t seem to be too impressed with himself. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to his Big Dog status. After a ragged pickup session at the St. V’s gym earlier in the day—during which he coasts disinterestedly on both ends, then dryly blames my presence as the cause for his subpar play—LeBron sits near Dambrot at the top of the bleachers. The team’s state title rings have just arrived via FedEx, and they sit in a box a few rows below. When one of his teammates digs into the parcel for a peek, LeBron shouts sternly from his perch, “Put it back.”

“Why are you worried about my business?” comes the indignant reply. “This ain’t your team.”

“Yes it is my team,” ’Bron fires back. “Put it back.”

It’s a joke, mostly, but of course there’s a ring of truth to it. Still, Dambrot maintains the team has avoided jealousy or beef, saying, “I think it’s because of him. If your best player’s not a hard worker and doesn’t share the ball, it creates issues. But he doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body. The kids like him.”

Adds Li’l Dru, “He’s always been pretty level-headed. He’s got a good sense of humor, and he cares for his friends.”

Blame those qualities on his mom. Barely in her mid-30s, Gloria James seems to like being the mother of the most popular kid in town—not in a banner-waving, Ann Iverson sort of way, but in the sense that she clearly enjoys hanging out with the kids and being involved with the team. Friendly and youthful, she comes off as much LeBron’s best friend as his only parent. “I love his mother,” says Dambrot. “And you know what I like best? She puts her trust in good people.”

At dinner, Gloria sits with Eddie Jackson, a long-time family friend whom Gloria unfailingly calls “LeBron’s dad.” Though not ’Bron’s biological, Eddie is a long-time presence and a provider, and along with a small group of friends and family—the St. V coaching staff, LeBron’s youth coach, Frank Walker and uncles Terry and Curt James—has filled the roles of father figure, big brother and advisor. It’s not your typical nuclear fam, but it works.

Generally content to let LeBron speak for himself, Gloria and Eddie chime in only once during the dinnertime Q&A. When I ask if they’re prepared for the influx of hangers-on and long-lost family members sure to appear as LeBron’s fame grows, Gloria is blunt.

“If they haven’t been down from Day One, they can’t get on the bandwagon now.”

“You’ve gotta be like that,” Eddie adds with a nod.

“Luckily though, everybody we deal with, it’s not people asking him for things,” Gloria says. “I don’t think we have to worry about that too much.”

By all appearances, she’s right. Surrounded by people who truly seem to be looking out for his best interests, and owning a game that’s prepackaged for NBA use, LeBron shouldn’t have to worry about much. If he can keep his head straight and his game tight, his future looks even brighter than his present—assuming those two aren’t essentially the same thing. With that in mind, almost as a joke, I have to ask: “Say someone comes to you next year, after your junior year of high school, and tells you you’ll be a Lottery pick if you come out right now. What would you do?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he answers after a pause. “I really do know, but I really don’t know.”

“Alright,” I follow, “pretend like you know.”

“It all depends,” he says. “I need to get a lot more information from everybody, and sit down with my family and make that decision. If it happens, it happens.”

Just to make sure he knows what I’m asking: “You know I said after your junior year, right? I mean, can you actually imagine leaving high school early?”

Again, he flashes his wit, and even Gloria has to laugh.

“I wish I could finish high school right now, tell you the truth,” he says. “That ain’t got nothing to do with playing basketball.”

He’s 16 years old, just a kid who can’t wait to get out of high school and get on with his life. To which we say: Patience, man. The future will be here soon enough. In the meantime, work hard in school, work on your game, and definitely work on your signature.