His teammates called him “Elvis” because of his fame. They laughed when he donned a wig and sunglasses so he could walk around a mall without being noticed.
Yes, LeBron James was big news when he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers 10 years ago, But could anybody have envisioned back then the prodigy from Akron, Ohio, would end up being this legendary of a player?
As a skinny rookie in 2003-04, James averaged 20.9 points, unprecedented for a player straight out of high school. But he shot just 41.7 percent on a team that went 35-47, the only losing season James ever has experienced.
James, of course, developed into a player who would win three MVP trophies and this season is bound for a fourth. He bolted his home-state Cavaliers for the Miami Heat after he became a free agent in 2010 and is now clearly the NBA’s top player.
The 6-foot-8 forward returns Wednesday with the Heat to Cleveland for the fourth time since he left and for the first time in more than a year. With this marking 10 years since he entered the NBA, several players and his coach looked back at his initial season.
“Everybody knew he was going to be a special player, but I don’t know if anybody could have foreseen then that he was going to end up being the best player in the world and bound for the Hall of Fame and all of that,” said Tony Battie, a center on the 2003-04 Cavaliers who played in the NBA from 1997-2012 and is now a broadcaster with the Orlando Magic.
Well, Paul Silas says he did.
Silas, a three-time NBA champion and two-time All-Star, was James’ first coach with the Cavaliers. He was brought in because then Cleveland general manager Jim Paxson wanted a veteran coach with an impressive resume to help nurture James, who entered the NBA as the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft after having led nearby St. Vincent-St. Mary High to three state titles.
“I thought he would be as good as he is, no question about it,” said Silas, 69, who does consulting work for Charlotte after concluding his coaching career last season with the Bobcats. “You could see the talent and the athleticism he had. I thought he would be the type of player he is now, winning MVPs and being one of the best ever.”
But it didn’t happen without some early growing pains. Silas had inherited a team that had gone 17-65 the previous season with a most interesting cast of characters.
Yes, the Cavaliers did have center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and forward Carlos Boozer, who would be selected to multiple All-Star Games during their career. But their coach for the first half of 2002-03 was John Lucas, who later claimed the Cavaliers tanked that season in an effort to get James. They had a notorious head case in forward Darius Miles.
Their leading scorer was guard Ricky Davis, who thought in 2002-03 he could get the one rebound he needed against Utah for a triple-double by missing a shot on purpose at his own basket and retrieving the ball. That resulted in Jazz guard DeShawn Stevenson fouling Davis hard and the Cavaliers fining their player.
Davis, Miles, Ilgauskas and Boozer were among eight holdovers from 2002-03 who joined forces with James to start the 2003-04 season. But it was no surprise Davis would be traded by December and Miles by January.
The mercurial Davis would later say about his stint with James, “I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score.”
Silas wouldn’t give any names. But he said that not long after James showed up in Cleveland, there were teammates who were critical of James when the 18-year-old could hear them.
“We had a few guys that would test him,” Silas said. “They would say, ‘What has he done to warrant all this hype?’ They would say it where he could hear them. There were some problems.
“LeBron got down a few times about it. Sometimes he would just be sitting there and not get up right away for shooting (during a practice). I’d come over and tell him, ‘You have to just forget about that. You can’t worry about that. You’re a professional.’ But (the comments from his teammates) all went away when he started putting up numbers.”
Ira Newble, a forward who was with James on the Cavaliers from 2003-08 and played in the NBA from 2000-08, said he wasn’t one of the players Silas was talking about. But Newble admitted that when signed with Cleveland in the summer of 2003, he did have some reservations.
“I hadn’t followed high school basketball closely, so I hadn’t seen him play much (at St. Vincent-St. Mary),” said Newble, now an assistant for the Austin Toros of the D-League. “So naturally you’re wondering why is this guy coming straight out of high school getting so much hype. You would see him on the news and you would see all the stories about him.”
But Newble, who now calls James a player “no one can guard,” remembers the game in which he became a believer. So does Michael Stewart, a center on those Cavaliers.
Stewart said James had been solid in the preseason but not overwhelming. Then Cleveland opened the regular season Oct. 29, 2003 at Sacramento, one of the NBA’s top teams.
For the debut of the man known as the “King” and the “Chosen One,” there were 350 of media credentials issued, more than the Kings had handed out for some playoff games. James played 42 minutes in a 106-92 loss, shooting 12 of 20 for 25 points while handing out nine assists and grabbing six rebounds.
“That game was crazy,” said Stewart, who played in the NBA from 1997-2005 and is now a businessman in Orlando. “There were reporters and cameramen all over the place. It was a huge media event. That’s when he took it to another level. I’d say that in the preseason he had looked closer to being a college player, which he would have then, rather than than an All-Star. But great players step up when the lights come on and he did that night.’
James followed that up with 21 points at Phoenix in his second pro game. Yes, there would continue to be some growing pains. He shot a combined 6 of 23 and averaging 7.5 points in his third and fourth games.
But James, who didn’t turn 19 until two months into his rookie year, was on his way. His teammates from that season said he became more confident and developed into even more of a team leader.
Any talk about James being overhyped would stop, and James became very popular among his teammates. The only ones still active in the NBA from that season are Chicago’s Boozer and center DeSagana Diop, now with Charlotte.
“We called him Elvis, and he didn’t mind it,” Battie remembers from 2003-04. “That was one of his nicknames, playing off how he was known as the King. We’d say, ‘Hey, want to go get something to eat, Elvis?”‘
Dining out, though, wasn’t always easy for James. He already had star power when he arrived in the NBA, having appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 2002 as a junior in high school.
“We flew into Chicago one night and got into the hotel at about 2 a.m.,” Battie said. “I had played with the Boston Celtics and we had Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, who were both All-Stars. Usually, when you get in at 2 in the morning, there are like five to 10 guys waiting outside for autographs. We got to the Ritz-Carlton and there were more than 50 people there waiting for us. It was a zoo. Then, when we left for the game the next day at around 4, there were hundreds outside the bus.”
While in Cleveland, James faced that madness on a daily basis. So he had to resort to something.
“I remember once he got this crazy wig that he put on so he could go to the mall and nobody would bother him,” Newble said. “He looked like Samuel Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ with the Afro he had. Then he put on glasses. We were all laughing. But it worked. Nobody bothered him.”
On the court, James really began to bother opponents. He was named Rookie of the Year for having averaged more than twice as many points as any previous rookie to come straight from high school. Kevin Garnett had put up 10.4 in 1995-96 and Kobe Bryant 7.6 in 1996-97.
James did this despite mostly having to play the first first three months of the season out of position at point guard. Silas finally was able to move James to his natural position of small forward when the Cavaliers got point guard Jeff McInnis in the Jan. 21, 2004 deal in which they dispatched Miles to Portland.
James that season also averaged 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds. One bugaboo, though, was his shooting. He shot just 41.7 percent, including 29.0 percent on 3-pointers, anemic compared to his percentages this season of 55.5 and 38.9.
“The one thing he needed to work on was his outside shooting, and he worked on that,” Silas said. “I think it really helped that I would have the team take 100 shots every practice and 25 or 30 of those were 3-pointers. But he had a work ethic, and he got better.”
Silas was very impressed with James’ maturity at such a young age. While many players enter the NBA barely knowing what had happened in the league a decade earlier, Silas said James impressed him with his historical knowledge.
“I was really shocked that he knew so much when he came in about guys like Bill Russell and Jerry West,” Silas said of players Silas had battled in the NBA as early as 1964 and had long been retired when James was born in 1984. “He had studied the game and he really knew a lot about it. He would ask me questions about guys like Bill Russell,”
James no doubt liked what he heard. After wearing No. 23 throughout his tenure with the Cavaliers in honor of Michael Jordan, he eventually would switch to No. 6 when he joined the Heat in 2010 to pay tribute to Russell.
The guy wearing No. 23 would go on from his rookie season to do great things in Cleveland. He led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2006-07, won the scoring title in 2007-08 and took MVP honors each of the two seasons after that.
Of course, we all know how it ended. Frustrated at not being able to win a championship, James bolted to the Heat in the summer of 2010, having announced his intentions on the television show “The Decision.” Cleveland fans then burned James jerseys and team owner Dan Gilbert blasted his former star, claiming Cleveland would win a title before he did.
That didn’t happen as James finally broke through to earn a ring last season with Miami. Wednesday will mark James’ first trip back to Cleveland as an NBA champion and he will arrive with his Heat (52-14) on a 23-game winning streak, the second-longest in league history.
Tempers have cooled since James left. With that in mind, Silas said his No. 23 eventually should hang from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena.
“There’s no question it should for everything that he did with that team,” said Silas, who was fired late in James’ second Cavaliers season. “They should retire his jersey.”
It would be an easy decision for that to happen if James decides one day to return to the Cavaliers. Speaking in February 2012, when he made his previous return to Cleveland, James did not rule that possibility out. There’s been speculation it could happen as soon as 2014, when James is able to opt out of his contract.
“I guess anything’s possible,” Silas said of a possible return by James. “But, with the team he’s on right now and the way they’re playing, they have a chance to be one of the greatest teams ever. But it will be interesting. I know that he still has a home in Ohio (Akron) and he loved it when he was there. He loves the area, so it would be a distinct possibly that he might (return).”
Newble was James’ teammate for 4 ½ seasons, the longest anybody ever has played with James in the NBA with the exception of Ilgauskas and current Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao.. He also sees a chance James could go back to Cleveland.
“Maybe,” Newble said. “It’s 50-50. If he’s in Miami and they’re winning championships, it would be hard to leave. But that being said, it is your hometown. He enjoyed being there. He liked the organization. There’s no doubt in my mind that if he ever returned, the fans would accept him.”
“Elvis” might have left the building in 2010. Stay tuned to see if he ever returns.