make a bet official you gotta look a man in the eye,” James later said. And that’s exactly what he did; releasing the ball on its arc towards the net before quickly turning to face up the wager, his back to the court as the net rippled and bedlam broke loose.
James, in his 18th NBA season, had turned 36 two weeks earlier. Yet he appears to be having more fun than ever, and is still inflicting misery on the rest of the league.
Here, former coaches, team-mates and opponents chart the rise of this remarkable player; from teenage prodigy to fully fledged superstar and beyond.
Their analysis helps frame the ways in which this unique sportsperson has evolved through the years to remain not only relevant and successful but ahead of the pack.
The Prodigy – 2003-2010
In the summer of 2003, James was putting in extra work before his rookie season. Aged only 18, he had long been regarded as basketball’s next great hope.
He was the cover star of the prestigious Sports Illustrated magazine while still a junior in high school. For years it had been predicted he would be the number one pick in the 2003 NBA draft – and sure enough he was. Selected by his hometown team the Cleveland Cavaliers, rarely has a teenager carried such high expectations into their professional debut.
Throughout that summer, James travelled to the Cavaliers’ practice facility – a 40-minute drive from where he grew up in Akron, Ohio – for intense one-to-one training with Bob Donewald Jnr, one of the team’s assistant coaches.
After one session, coach and superstar-in-waiting chatted during a cool-down routine. “I wasn’t great today,” James said. “It wasn’t a great workout.”
“You were alright. It’s been a long week,” replied Donewald, who had pushed the teenager hard across consecutive days of gruelling work in preparation for the 82-game season. “LeBron, I just want you to be great. That’s why I’m pushing you.”
“I am great,” James responded, a flat, serious expression washing over his face. “If you want me to be the greatest ever, I’m with that.”
No-one was more aware of the future that had been written for him than James himself. No-one better appreciated the work required to fulfil that promise.
“Every cut, every shot, every move he made – you’d have thought it was a Game 7 finals, the intensity with which he went,” Donewald remembers of those early one-to-one sessions. “I’m trying to crush this kid in a workout just to teach him a lesson, and he is bringing it and bringing it.
“Everybody was hard on him too – the players, head coach Paul Silas. They were friendly, but they weren’t going to hand it to this kid, and he didn’t want it handed to him.”
James also understood the highest echelons of superstardom are only attained when the pageantry of elite sport is embraced; that you create your own myth before selling it to the world.