LOS ANGELES – The sun had already set when LeBron James and his classmates had driven to the beach in a limousine Cadillac Escalade. They had come directly from the airport, with 50 cents from the speakers.
"It was dark as hell," Willie McGee, one of the other players from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, recalled in a telephone interview. "I had never seen the ocean before."
It was January 2003. An 18-year-old senior on the threshold of world fame, James came with his team on this auspicious trip to Los Angeles for a nationwide television game against Mater Dei High School, a basketball powerhouse based in Santa Ana, California , But first the beach. Unlike James, most of his teammates visited California for the first time.
As for the game itself, played at Pauley Pavilion on the U.C.L.A. Campus, in fact, James shot the ball badly in a narrow profit. But his battles hardly mattered: for one night, on the grandest stage of his embryonic career, in one of the most glamorous cities in the world, he was the biggest star of all.
"I remember, not because it's a great game," said Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike and Adidas manager who sat on the court, "but because it was historic."
James, 33, spent the The city has been wandering around the city for many years since making this formative trip to Los Angeles. Strange and varied ways to make cameos at the Staples Center for games against the Lakers and the Clippers. He founded a production company in 2008 to feed his passion for television and film and reap the wealth they could bring, and later opened an office on the Warner Bros. property. He bought a multi-million dollar house here in 2015, then another one this summer.
Over the years he has found the weather pleasant. He developed an interest in the art scene of the city. His wife likes it here. He recently brought his children to school here. And now he has the NB.A. by joining the Lakers and immediately throwing them back into the postseason image while introducing himself as a mogul.
"We made a decision," James recently told reporters, referring to his family, "that this was our next trip."
James, a four-time NBA The most valuable player will be his regular season debut for the Lakers on Thursday night when they visit the Portland Trail Blazers. He insisted that his decision to sign with the Lakers this summer was a basketball move – he wanted to challenge the challenge of resurrecting a famous franchise, his friends and colleagues say – but there is no doubt his longtime ties to Los Angeles and his appeal to the place, a symbiotic relationship that can be traced back to his teenage years.
"His home will always be Ohio," said Mark Olivier, one of his former youth coaches, in an interview. "But this is a new phase of life for him."
James' first encounter with Southern California – specifically the Southern Californians – came in eighth grade as his summer league team, the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars, made a 20-afternoon drive to Orlando, Florida to attend a national tournament participate. In the championship game, the shooting stars plunged into a juggernaut: the Southern California All-Stars, who had several sets of eye-catching uniforms and the bouncer for the match. James, who later wrote in a memoir that he thought the California players were ridiculously arrogant, missed a 3-pointer at Summer, and his team lost.
The game remained with James, who described his feelings in "LeBron's Dream Team": "How Four Friends and I Bring Home a Championship," which he wrote with Buzz Bissinger.
"I've been since James, "James wrote," It's a cool and beautiful place filled with wealth and glamor and secret places tucked away in the pockets of the Hollywood Hills. But right here and there I hated Southern California. "
A year later James made his first trip to California to attend a tournament in Berkeley for the Oakland Soldiers, an elite Amateur Athletic Union program, and the story of how he came to play for them is complicated – many things with James are complicated – but a friend of one of the founders had seen James play in Akron.
James made at least two trips to play for the soldiers, including one for a tournament at California State University, Dominguez Hills At the gates of Los Angeles, the secret was: James was the country's best high school player.
"He has gone crazy in this tournament," said Olivier, a former Soldiers' president Seeing that the game was easy for him. "
Olivier said he was hoping to bring his players to Disneyland – they always talked about it, he said – but their schedule was full and the traffic unbearable. So they decided on a water balloon fight in their hotel. Olivier had the impression that James had enjoyed his time in California.
"The weather," said Olivier. "The weather, the weather, we have no seasons here, how can you not like it?"
When James was a high school graduate, St. Vincent-St. Mary played a national schedule – and demanded 15,000 entrance fees. Dinos Trigonis, a talent evaluator in Los Angeles who helped create high-profile high school games, thought the award was worth luring the team to Los Angeles to meet Mater Dei.
Trigonis knew that several players from Mater Dei had played for the Southern California All-Stars, the team that James had defeated in eighth grade. So Trigonis has the payback factor to St. Vincent-St. Mary and the coach of the team, Dru Joyce II.
"You never forgot," Trigonis said. "In their minds it was almost like a rematch."
The day before the game, there was a press conference at [Lawrence's] a steakhouse in Beverly Hills. James and his teammates wore matching tracksuits. Despite their apparent beauty, they were still teens from Akron. McGee recalled that he was unimpressed by the concept of the Prime Rib.
"I'm talking about a big, stupid, stupid steak," he said. "I remember that Coach Dru was like," Yo, that's a $ 50 plate! "But all the seniors were upstairs, and we looked at each other like," Man, we do not want that. "Then we went to Burger King or something."
James was still irrevocably approaching the glamor of the great sport. At his press conference, he was asked about his diamond earrings.
"They each cost 25 cents from a gumball machine," he said blankly.
James seemed to be moving between playfulness and irritability over the weekend. Until then, he was in the glow of the headlight, the alleged No. 1 in the NB.A. Design with own Sports Illustrated Cover. He adapted to fame, and there was no turning back.
At that time, Joyce expressed concern that all the attention was too much and too early, and that James was an easy prey for nefarious powers who did not have the best intentions. After all, James was just a teenager. But he was worth millions.
On Matchday, James dressed to the locker room owned by Jason Kapono, then a star for UCLA, before taking the place in front of a capacity with television actors, agents and sneakers executives who were trying to sign him. "I remember seeing Urkel on the sidelines," McGee said, referring to a character in "Family Matters."
The game aired by ESPN2 seemed almost incidental. James had 21 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 turnovers in a 64-58 win. The journey left an impression.
"Come on, now," McGee said. "At home in Ohio, it was winter, and we had a chance to go to California, man, we were in love."
A few months after defeating Mater Dei and a few months before the Cleveland Cavaliers, he made it 2003 for the first election in the NB.A. James returned to Los Angeles with a group of friends for a playoff match between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.
James, who was courted by potential sponsors, just wanted to sign a seven-year deal with Nike for more than $ 90 million, among the first of many partnerships that would demonstrate his business acumen.
Travis, who came along on the trip – "The Lakers were blown out," he said – remembering that they stayed in the same hotel as the Spurs, who caused a thrill because Tim Duncan was one of his favorite players.
Travis, McGee and James keep in touch with some friends from Akron about group texts. Travis, who plays professional basketball in the Philippines, said he heard rumors in the winter that James could go to the Lakers, which was not entirely surprising.
As much as James has used his fame and as much as he enjoys – he performed on stage with Drake during a recent concert at the Staples Center – there are moments when he longs for privacy, said Travis.
"For a famous man, LA is one of the best places because there are so many other famous people," Travis said. "When he goes to a restaurant and there are 10 other famous people, everyone gets like" Oh, it's LeBron, "and they go on their day because they're used to it."
He added, "It's just a bit of a normalcy that he has not had since he was 16 years old."
At the same time, James has numerous business interests in Los Angeles, including his production company (SpringHill Entertainment) and a digital platform (uninterrupted). His companies have development projects with networks like HBO, Starz, Showtime and Netflix. He also plans to pursue his acting chops in an upcoming reboot of "Space Jam".
Yet James has consistently opposed the perception that he's moved here because of Hollywood. It is worth noting that he said he plans to spend his summers in the Akron area, where he still has a house.
"My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers," James said. "As far as my business is concerned, these things were done long before I came here to be part of the Laker franchise."
So James has another full season ahead of him, with dreams to attract a new crew known heights. He lives with his family in the district of Brentwood, not far from the beach, where his last trip began a long time ago.