AKRON, Ohio – LeBron James’ friends read The Letter on July 11, too. And that’s when they found out James was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even his oldest, closest friends. Even those who spent the week of The Decision, Part II, in Las Vegas with James.
"I didn’t know," Dru Joyce III, James’ teammate from elementary school through high school said. "I really didn’t."
"I had an idea but I wasn’t sure," Romeo Travis said. "I honestly wasn’t sure."
Two nights before, Joyce and Travis entered the Cashman Center in Las Vegas with James for some pickup basketball against the high school players participating in the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy. They were greeted by cameras, reporters, all eyes on the guy who, at the time, was the world’s most powerful and most popular free agent.
Joyce and Travis are used to it, though not necessarily from their own professional careers in Europe. The cameras have been following James since the first season the three played together at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2000-01. LeBron’s latest free-agent frenzy just happened to coincide with the first week the three, plus Willie McGee and Sian Cotton — they dubbed themselves The Fab Five during their days at St. V-M — could spend more than a few hours in the same place at the same time.
So, they all went to Las Vegas.
To relax. To catch up. To talk about what was next.
"The reason I wasn’t sure where LeBron was going is that every time it came up in conversation, he would say something to kind of debunk what we thought," Travis said. "We did get him talking about Cleveland and coming home and he would talk about it, then he’d say something like, ‘Well, Cleveland is too young, that’s a long climb to the top in the East.’
"And the next time Miami would get brought up he’d start talking about going home and how the Cavs having all those young players was a good thing.
"He was talking to friends and still trying to throw us off. He’s good, man."
Joyce and Travis had been home for a day by the time the news leaked via that letter early in the afternoon of July 11. The previous night, James had flown back to Miami with a slightly more famous now-former teammate, Dwyane Wade.
And just like they’d done throughout the week in Vegas, Joyce and Travis kept hearing their phones buzz. Inquiring minds wanted to know.
"I tried to pick up the signs, see which way he was leaning," Joyce said. "He wouldn’t give us the answer. He didn’t want anything to leak out. I tried to get a feel, sure, to see where his mind was but we didn’t go out there for the intent of being part of the decision. We went out to have a good time together in Las Vegas. When you get older it gets harder to get everybody together."
Through the years, they’ve kept in touch through texts and phone calls. Through a fantasy football league. Through sporadic times when the whole crew could be back in Akron — Joyce plays in Germany, and Travis has played seven seasons throughout Europe — and through the occasional vacation.
This one, though, was a little different.
"LeBron had us up at 9 a.m. working out," Travis said. "So as far as partying in Las Vegas, I’ve had better weeks."
One text message came to Travis from the mayor of Akron. The mayor, too, was getting antsy.
"I couldn’t believe people actually cared that much," Travis said. "I guess I’m still trying to grasp just how big LeBron is in that way.
"I’m an athlete and a fan and it still didn’t make sense to me how invested people could be in that whole ordeal. I give credit to LeBron and his (business) guys because they created that big media storm for a week, week and a half, then they just kind of calmly rode it out. They trumped the World Cup. It’s the World Cup! And that was second (in the headlines) to one guy making a decision on where he’s going to play basketball. So, I guess LeBron really is that big of a deal.
"All of us never really get to hang out. We laughed a lot. We had a great time."
They replied to a lot of texts, too. And went home wondering.
"People were catching me off guard," Joyce said. "People would walk up to me and ask, ‘Where’s he going?’ I’d be like, ‘Where’s who going? I’m not going anywhere except maybe to the pool.’
"I said the same thing to everybody: ‘I don’t know.’ I’m sorry, but I didn’t know."
This week, Joyce and Travis are running their own youth basketball camp in Akron for the first time. It was planned long before any decision was made. Travis has his own foundation, called Returning The Favor, that’s worked to feed kids and provide things like school clothes and school supplies in neighborhoods where the kids might not have them. Joyce said he still enjoys playing but aspires to coach, and is deciding between sooner and later when it comes to his coaching career.
"It’s our time now to grab hold of the youth," Joyce said. "We’ve had great opportunities and we hope we can continue to use basketball as a vehicle to create more opportunities for this next generation. I’ve had to admit to myself a lot of times that this is a blessing and I’ve been blessed to be around great people who have taught me this game and make relationships through this game that go beyond it.
"Basketball has taken me around the world."
Before he was their coach for their final two years of high school, Joyce’s father, Dru Joyce II, coached their local youth and AAU teams. He’d drive James home from practice — to wherever home was. James and his mother, Gloria, moved often. For a time, James went to live with another family.
Now, the LeBron James Family Foundation supports kids across Akron. And James’ friends are following his lead.
"I don’t want to put a number on it but I think LeBron has changed tons of lives here," Travis said. "I could put a generation on it more than a number on it. There’s a generation of kids now about to be adults, and of kids just growing up watching him, knowing his story…he gave a lot of people hope. And hope is what a lot of people need to start changing whatever bad situation they’re in.
"Kids here come from public housing. They come from single-parent homes. I did. He did. And with that hope comes…the ability to say, ‘Hey, it can still be OK. There can be a light at the end.’ He’s touched my life directly so I know. And I know I’ve been able to help people directly, too. But indirectly, in general? Tons of people have been helped in one way or another by LeBron. And he’s far from done.
"His legacy is one of sharing."
When pressed, Travis told his own story, of "eating hot dogs three times a day" until he was almost 10. By the time he reached high school, his mother — she raised four children herself — had graduated college and moved her family into its first house.
Now, Travis said he’s four classes from joining his mother, two sisters and brother as college graduates.
"LeBron being back is just for good for the city," Travis said. "I’m happy he’s back but I’m more happy for the area and the economy and people having a sports team that can make them happy. People here love their sports and I want those people to have a winner.
"This is Northeast Ohio’s moment."
Joyce said he’s never thought about the possibility of one day coaching James’ sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce. But given that James gave more than $1 million last summer for a new gymnasium at St. V-M and another $250,000 for new Nike uniforms for every athlete at the school, "I think I can see them putting on a Saint V jersey," Joyce said, laughing.
"My dad (still the head coach at St. V-M) probably likes that thought."
And though James was careful not to tip off anyone — even his closest friends — before officially deciding he was returning to the Cavaliers, those friends knew that home held special appeal for James.
"Even with all the media swirl, all the scrutiny, there’s a comfort here for LeBron," Joyce said. "And I think there’s always going to be a comfort level here for him. Even when he was playing in Miami he had his house here. He’d ask about how people were doing back here.
"This is a special place to him. If there is such a thing for him, there is a sense of normalcy here.
"I think he’s achieved some bit of a normal life through his wife and his family. He loves those kids, man. When he’s chasing them around or watching them play basketball, he’s not thinking about who’s watching him or how much money he has or what people think about anything that’s gone on.
"We all need that. When you get older, you want that normalcy."
Said Travis: "I think he understands that if he everything he does becomes about that LeBron James Empire, he’s going to get lost in that world. You ever think about how hard it is for LeBron to be semi-normal? To be humble? But he has to have that. And I think here he can live better at least a little outside that bubble.
"Having a wife and those two kids, with one on the way, that’s good for him. Coming back to take on that challenge, that’s good for him, too."
It’s a new challenge, certainly, but it’s one those who know him best think James is both eager to take on and prepared for as he returns to the place it all started.
"There was a sense of maturity in that letter (announcing his decision), but it was more than that," Joyce said. "It was heartfelt. It left everything out on the table, nothing unsaid.
"He does have a lot of responsibility and he does a good job of shouldering it. I think he accepted that a long time ago and it’s shown through the years. Going back four, five, six years and then it got blown up when he left like he did, I think he’s been willing to accept the criticism and the responsibility for all the good and the bad times. For all the teams he’s been on.
"He’s the star and he knows that. He’s willing to put his name on his work and I think he’s even getting better at that now."