It was the summer of 2000 and LeBron James had just finished his freshman year at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. He was emerging as a player to watch and keep tabs on in the Midwest, but it would be one more year until the high school and grassroots world really knew who he was and two more years before the entire world would know him as “The Chosen One,” gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and his high school games being broadcast on national television.
At the end of July, 15-year-old James was in Northern California playing with the Oakland Soldiers in the Elite Eight tournament. The opposing team, Belmont Shore, was from Southern California and coached by Dinos Trigonis. Trigonis started coaching in 1993 and knew all the up-and-coming California prospects.
Belmont Shore had a comfortable lead at halftime, up 15 points. It wasn’t until the second half when the Soldiers started playing a kid Trigonis had never seen before. The game completely changed with this young player falling out of bounds making shots, driving the lane then dunking on people and hitting deep 3-pointers.
“I was kind of surprised thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Trigonis told Yahoo Sports. “He probably had 20-plus points and they smoked us in the second half and they ended up winning the game. It wasn’t until afterwards when I heard the name for the first time, LeBron James.”
That same summer, Eric Bossi, 247 Sports’ national basketball recruiting director, was starting his career as a basketball recruiting analyst and was doing some digging and research on the high school state tournament in Ohio and came across James.
“I thought, ‘OK, this guy is going to be pretty big time,'” Bossi told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously not to the extend that he was a household name yet, but he was on my radar and I had to find a way to see this kid play at some point.”
Both Trigonis and Bossi remember James and Lenny Cooke going head-to-head the following summer in 2001 at the Adidas ABCD camp and say that’s when things started to shift for James. Cooke was the headline player, averaging 25 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks per game during his junior year at Northern Valley High School in New Jersey. He was slotted ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire in the high school rankings. In the final seconds of the game, Cooke’s team was up by 1 point and had the ball. Instead of fouling, James stole the ball from Cooke, scored on a fast break and won the game, leaving the camp with MVP honors.
“That game put him on the map for everybody,” Bossi said. “That moment made him an immediate superstar.”
During his junior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary, James averaged 29.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists and started to gain worldwide attention as the next one up, the next Michael Jordan.
“At this age, LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in 37 years in this business, including Kevin [Garnett] and Kobe [Bryant],” Sonny Vaccaro told Sports Illustrated at the time. Vaccaro famously signed Jordan to his first shoe deal with Nike and founded the ABCD camp.
The summer before his senior season, James broke his left wrist, sidelining him from all the major AAU showcases, camps and tournaments. Bossi was sitting with a slew of college coaches at the Nike camp watching some of the top high school prospects when someone walked in wearing a throwback jersey, nice jewelry and sunglasses. It was James. By that point, it was clear to every top college coach that James would be going straight to the NBA in less than a year.
“He just looked like a star and was there just watching games,” said Bossi.
That night after the camp was over and everyone cleared out, James was on the court by himself shooting 3s with a cast on his non-shooting hand. He was draining shot after shot with only a couple people hanging back and watching.
“It was me and Roy Williams sitting there watching him for 15 or 20 minutes with nobody else in the gym,” Bossi added. “I looked over and said to Williams, ‘What are you still doing here, Coach?’ and he just turned to me and said, ‘This is the only way I’m going to be able to see him play live,’ knowing he wasn’t going to play in college. You have a legendary coach like Roy Williams and he knew exactly what was in front of him and just wanted to hang out and watch LeBron shoot jump shots with a cast on because he was that mesmerizing of a talent.”
During his senior year leading up to the 2003 NBA Draft, James and his teammates were showcased in multiple games on national television. One of the events was Trigonis’ Pangos Dream Classic at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in early January. The event was sold out with over 13,000 people in attendance. Nike CEO Phil Knight, Denzel Washington and Dustin Hoffman were just some of stars who sat courtside with several NBA executives also in attendance. One particular VIP got a last-minute ticket, thanks to James.
“It was a couple days before the event and my phone was just blowing up with ticket requests,” Trigonis remembered.
He was driving James and his teammates to lunch and James was sitting next to him in the front seat. Trigonis was on the phone and someone was trying to get tickets for their client, an up-and-coming rapper. The VIP list was jampacked and Trigonis didn’t see a way to make any room for this music artist he didn’t know.
“As I’m talking, LeBron nudges me with his left elbow and asks, ‘Who is that? Who wants to come to the game?’ And I asked for clarification and told him, ’50 Cent, ‘and his face lit up and he said,’ I love 50, that’s my guy! ‘ And I instantly said over the phone, “You’ll have two tickets for him at the door. See you there.” ”
St. Vincent-St. Mary defeated Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) 64-58 with James getting his teammates going after struggling from the field. James finished with seven assists, some of them of the spectacular variety, and had a game-high 21 points. Five short months later, James would be the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.
It is now 20 years later and Bossi and Trigonis are two of only a handful of people who covered and saw James as a high school prospect and are now watching his son, Bronny, navigate the high school and grassroots space with his dad cheering from the sidelines. Bronny is one of the most popular high school basketball players in the country, amassing 6.9 million followers on Instagram and already signing a lucrative shoe deal with Nike. A few weeks ago, Bronny was named as a McDonald’s All-American, following in his father’s footsteps. James was more than a proud father posting on social media after the announcement“Ayyyyyyyeeeeee Bronny!!!!!! Congratulations Son! So damn proud of you! Continue to be you through it all no matter what!! You’re truly AMAZING!!!”
Bronny is nowhere near the talent and prospect James was when he was in high school, but he’s taken everything in stride, despite all the criticism and immense pressure that comes with being LeBron’s son on the basketball court.
“I think Bronny’s IQ is much better and higher than people think,” Trigonis said. “He can play.”
“He plays a team-focused game, defends at a high level and has a solid jumper,” Bossi added. “Both LeBron and Bronny are powerful, have strong builds and are big-time athletes. Obviously, Bronny is significantly smaller than dad, but their mannerisms are the same in the way they stand and run and some of the moves Bronny has shown on the court are clearly from dad.”
Bronny’s recruitment has been kept under wraps his entire high school career, but Ohio State, USC, Oregon and the G League Ignite are programs thought to be in the mix.
James has made it very clear that he plans on playing with his son at the NBA level. At 38 years old, he might be pushing 40 if Bronny makes the NBA, but age doesn’t seem to be an issue for James. Even after passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s scoring record Tuesday night, James told TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal that he knows he still has a few years left in the league.
“I know I can play a couple more years,” James said. “The way my body is reacting to me throughout the season, I know I can play a couple more years. It’s all about my mind and if my mind is still into it and I’m still motivated to go out and compete for championships, because I feel like that’s what I can still do for any group of guys or any franchise. That’s my mindset and if my mind is sharp and I feel motivated to go out and prepare every single day then I can continue to play this game.”
James made history breaking a scoring record no one thought would be broken and continues to defy every expectation that’s ever been put on his shoulders from the time he was in high school. In two short years, James could be breaking another record, this time playing alongside his son di lui as the first father-son duo to share an NBA court.