It’s possible that no athlete has stood in a brighter spotlight from such a young age as four-time NBA MVP LeBron James. Born in Akron, Ohio, on December 30, 1984, James was a multi-sport star as a kid. Eventually, he became just the second of three NBA players to be drafted No. 1 overall straight out of high school (and the only one to go on to win Rookie of the Year). But even if you’ve followed his career from Cleveland to Miami (back to Cleveland) to L.A., you might not know these 11 details from the story of King James.
1. Two football coaches changed LeBron’s life.
Gloria James was 16 when she had her only child, and when her mother died just a couple of years later, she and baby LeBron lost their entire support system. They spent six or so years bouncing around between couches and apartments in Akron’s projects. Then, when he was 9 years old, he met Bruce Kelker, who was putting together a youth football team. Kelker took LeBron under his wing and the Jameses moved in with him so that young LeBron would begin to have some stability. By the end of that year, another youth football coach, Frank Walker, offered to let LeBron move in with his family. After missing 80-something days of the fourth grade because of their chaotic living arrangements, LeBron didn’t miss a single day of fifth grade.
2. LeBron James made the cover of Sports Illustratedas a high school junior.
In February 2002, just shortly after turning 17, the pride of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was anointed “The Chosen One” in a now-iconic Sports Illustratedcover story (LeBron went on to get “CHOSEN 1” tattooed across his back). If the league would have allowed it, James would have entered the NBA draft that year, but draft eligibility hinged on graduating high school—so LeBron finished his senior year with his high school team, nicknamed the Fighting Irish. They won their third Division II championship, and the hype around LeBron and his teammates meant they traveled for high-ranking games that were aired on ESPN2. Time Warner even offered their games on pay-per-view.
3. A broken wrist sealed LeBron’s basketball fate.
James played both football and basketball through middle and high school, and some have speculated that he could have gone pro with football. But in the June 2002, just before his senior year, he broke his wrist during an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) game. Because of the two-month recovery time, James decided he needed to forego football season so that he’d be fully healed for his senior basketball season.
4. LeBron subscribes to a “Work Hard, Sleep Hard” philosophy.
If you want to be the greatest of all time, you need to get plenty of rest. A whole lot of it, actually. LeBron once copped to sleeping 12 hours per night, though these days he’s more likely to get a solid eight hours, with a nap sometime during the day. That extra shut-eye is key considering just how much mileage the man has logged on the hardwood. As of 2019, in his 16th pro season, he’s already the NBA’s all-time leader in playoff minutes played with 10,049. That’s the equivalent of three extra 82-game regular seasons.
Another thing LeBron keeps in his health routine? A good red. “I’ve heard it’s good for the heart,” he told ESPN the Magazine in 2018. “Listen, I’m playing the best basketball of my life, and I’m drinking some wine pretty much every day.” He does, however, have discerning taste. “Bron has a supercomputer in his brain” on the subject of vino, former teammate Kevin Love said, and their Cavaliers teammates agreed that he’s usually the one they trust to order when they go out. Luckily for LeBron, his new L.A. residence is just down the coast from Napa.
5. LeBron was the first black man on the cover of Vogue.
Only two men had ever made a Vogue cover before LeBron did it in April 2008: Richard Gere and George Clooney. LeBron’s cover arrived with controversy, however. Observers noted how much the Annie Leibovitz pictorial, which featured James alongside supermodel Gisele Bündchen, recalled racist U.S. Army imagery from World War I that used King Kong as a symbol of a “mad brute” alongside a white damsel in distress.
6. He’s been a leader for labor and is no stranger to collective bargaining.
In February 2019, Akron’s finest wrapped a four-year term as first vice president of the NBA’s labor union, the National Basketball Players Association. As the No. 2 man in the organization, he played a key role in pushing for greater benefits for retired players and realizing a huge jump in the league’s salary cap back in 2016 that changed the financial prospects of the upper and middle tiers of pro players (and helped the rival Golden State Warriors cement a dynasty by buying up a roster of top talent).
7. LeBron wasn’t the highest-paid guy on his own team until age 31.
James was the NBA’s highest-paid player overall in the 2016-17 season, but he played a dozen years of professional ball before even being the highest earner on his own roster. He was surrounded by a number of league veterans during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, including an aging and injury-wracked Shaquille O’Neal, and James famously agreed to take less than his full market value in order to form a super-team with the Miami Heat in 2010. He hit the top of pay grade during his second go-around with the Cavaliers, and his new four-year deal with the Lakers puts him on track to be the highest paid player ever.
8. LeBron has helped fight for parity in non-sports arenas too.
When Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer was in salary negotiations with Netflix over her starring and executive producing role in an upcoming biographical series about groundbreaking entrepreneur and first female self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, she was struggling to secure a fair payday. That’s when James and his business partner Maverick Carter, both executive producers on the show, stepped in to advocate on her behalf. “When I asked for certain things, they had to go and say, ‘She deserves these things!'” Spencer said in an interview with The Undefeated. “That type of leadership has been important, and I’m thrilled about it.”
9. LeBron married his high school sweetheart.
Savannah Brinson might have attended LeBron’s rival high school, but when the senior sports star spotted the junior cheerleader, he asked her out. “I knew he loved me when I left my leftovers from dinner in his car,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2010 of their Outback Steakhouse date. “I’d totally forgotten about them, and he brought them to me. I think he just wanted another excuse to come and see me.”
The two have been an item ever since, even after LeBron’s fame shot off the charts; they married in 2013 and have three children. “I just thought he’d be a hometown hero for his era and it would be over,” Savannah said. LeBron, for his part, appreciates their shared history. “[Savannah] was down when I was at my high school, no cameras, no lights. And she was there with me,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “You wouldn’t be talking to me right now if it weren’t for her.”
10. LeBron has been compared to Michael Jordan since he was a kid—first on the court, and now on the silver screen.
The opening scene of that 2002 Sports Illustrated feature—the one when James was a high schooler—showed the teen talking to the superstar as if they were old friends. “The moment feels charged, even a little historic,” Grant Wahl wrote. “Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent.”
Not only has James been living up to the MJ legacy on the basketball court, but he’s hoping to at the theater. The original Michael Jordan kid-com Space Jam was the highest-grossing basketball movie ever, and the LeBron James-starring sequel is shaping up to be a slam dunk as well. A summer 2021 release date has been set (which will mark a convenient 25 years since the first intergalactic b-ball tourney), and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has signed on as its producer.
Of course, expectations are high after LeBron’s surprisingly agile performance as a fictionalized version of himself in Judd Apatow’s 2015 movie Trainwreck. Critic Ian Crouch even argued in The New Yorker that James was the funniest performer in a film that starred two bona fide comic heavyweights: Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Here’s hoping he can hold his own next to the Looney Tunes.
11. LeBron’s son and namesake is also tearing up the basketball court.
LeBron James Sr. once admitted that he may have made a mistake in naming his first born son after himself. The pressure that comes with being LeBron James Jr. could be knee-buckling, but “Bronny” has thrived on the come-up and is emerging as the next big thing. The eighth-grader is already dunking with ease at age 16, and he landed scholarship offers from powerhouse schools like Duke and Kentucky before turning 12. But his protective father—who certainly remembers a thing or two about being endlessly hyped as a teen—is definitely keeping a close eye on his son. “He’s already got some offers from colleges,” James told CBS Detroit in 2015. “It’s pretty crazy. It should be a violation. You shouldn’t be recruiting 10-year-old kids.” But until then, LeBron is happy to sport Bronny gear, the way thousands of other kids wear his.
By Sam Dunn