Beneath every great man's accomplishments lies the foundation from which he was able to draw strength, stability and inspiration before launching himself toward his dreams. For NBA superstar LeBron James, that essential foundation was not always in place.
LeBron spent the early years of his childhood bouncing from school to school, fighting to adjust to his new surroundings. He estimates that he and his mother moved 12 times before he turned 10 [including seven times in one year], making it nearly impossible to settle in and make friends. Though astonishingly talented, the young phenom was in desperate need of companionship, brotherly bonds and guidance—a dangerous void given the inner city streets just outside the door of each friend's apartment or home he happened to be occupying.
Fortunately, before LeBron could be lured into the squalid street life, the game he loved and excelled at helped him form and strengthen the relationships he needed. Soon, a solid, tight-knit crew of friends and eventual high school teammates was in place. As these friendships matured, each member of the loyal group contributed to and participated in LeBron's ascension to amazing heights—in basketball and in life. To this day, these bonds provide the NBA's greatest player with the friendship, support and motivation he needs to continue accomplishing goal after goal.
Don't be fooled, though, by this seemingly cliché set-up of superstar and friends. The four guys in LeBron's family-like foundation have no intention of standing in the background, watching No. 23 chase his dreams. And although being one of LeBron James' best friends certainly has its benefits [e.g., the freshest Nike gear, courtside seats to any game, and the opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Hov and B], the free ride and coattail-clinging end there.
From the moment LeBron James, Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee arrive, it is clear that this is not a real-life version of Entourage: amazingly close group of guys grow up together, one guy hits it big, remaining guys tag along for the ride of their lives while living vicariously through aforementioned superstar. Not even close.
LeBron and his inner circle—affectionately known as the Fab Five—consist of five highly motivated individuals, each of whom possesses the vision and drive to achieve his own personal, lofty goals. As we shake hands with the five imposing figures, we meet two overseas professional basketball players, a current college football player, a recent college grad who has plans to earn a master's degree, and, of course, an NBA MVP.
"It's fun to see how we continue to be successful without each other in the sports world and in life," LeBron says. "All five of us are leaders in our own ways. We all have individual leader[ship] traits, and that's how all five of us got here. Have you ever seen Captain Planet? You know when they all put their rings in the middle and just form one team? That's exactly how it is."
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but a dose of down-to-earth friendship and ribbing can do wonders. When LeBron is on the court, at a press conference or simply in public, he carries a huge burden. He's a role model to kids everywhere who want to be him; he's a hero to basketball fans across the world; and he's the man responsible for bringing a potential NBA Championship to a title-starved city. He is King James, a global icon.
But when LeBron returns to a familiar setting with his best friends, he doesn't have to be King—or even the center of attention. He's just a guy who chucks insults at and jokes with his buddies and gets it right back. He can recharge, ground himself and relax. He's simply "Bron."
"Bron said it best when he got back from his past trip," a smiling Willie says. "We won't see each other for a long time, but when we all get back in the same room, it just turns back on. That chemistry, the friendship, the bond, the joking, the laughing and not taking stuff personally; it all comes back. Once you've got it, you know you have it."
Romeo adds, "Time can't separate our friendship. Everyone is busy with their own lives; but at the same time, when we finally get back together, we're just like brothers."
LeBron interjects, "It's like TiVo. You just press pause and come back to it whenever you want." When we met up with the guys, everyone, including LeBron, was a target for the one-liners that were flying around the room. Jabs were taken at "stanky" breath, which requires a mintflavored mouthguard, funny-looking feet, which resemble elephant tusks, and recently gained weight, which should be "supported" up top.
"He grew on us; he's an acquired taste." "Yeah," LeBron adds to Sian's statement about Romeo, who was the last to warm up to the bonds offered within the Fab Five. "He's almost like sushi. It's not for everybody [laughs]."
As with most encounters among competitive, talented young men, things didn't click right away for the youngsters. However, as time passed, shared qualities sparked a connection and drew the group together. "It was just that all of us had that winning attitude and competitiveness," says Dru. "We all had that as players, so that's what attracted us."
Dru, the son of legendary Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School basketball coach Dru Joyce II, became one of LeBron's first close friends around the age of eight. "Dru and I met playing in the rec league at the rec center; it was called the ARB," LeBron recalls. "He played for the EJ Dream Team, which was the second best team [laughs]. I played for the Summer Lake Hornets, which was the number one team. Dru played a game at our gym, but we weren't playing against them. They came out onto the court, and they had these red Jerseys with a Jordan logo on it. Wait [turns to Dru], ya'll could've gotten sued for that now that I think about it [laughs]. Or was it really Jordan?"
"It was a left-handed Jordan," Romeo adds, as he and LeBron laugh in unison and mimic a leftie MJ flying through the air with ball in hand.
Romeo and LeBron met while playing together on the East football team in Akron. The two, who played middle school hoops together, then got to know Willie McGee. "I played against Bron and Rome on my middle school basketball team," Willie recalls. "And I had 21, 11 and 6—," Willie says, before he is quickly cut off and corrected by LeBron: "It was 16 points—in a loss."
Dru, who also met Romeo while playing against him and LeBron in middle school, introduced himself by fouling Romeo with a hard, open-handed slap. Sian, who had known Dru through church "from the cradle," has no idea how he met Romeo.
Willie and Romeo met through a heated misunderstanding [maybe purposely orchestrated by Romeo's cousin] that involved each of them thinking the other was talking "crazy" about him. They straightened things out when they finally met face to face.
Once the initial intros had occurred and problems solved, the crew was in place—and it was time to see what the five friends could do on the court.
This is going to be a package deal, and it's going to be one hell of a package. LeBron, Dru, Willie and Sian had been playing for Coach Dru Joyce on a traveling team known as the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars. The crew had made a name for itself in Akron and across the country by racking up more than 200 AAU wins. In 1997, the team qualified for the 12 and Under/6th Grade AAU National Championships in Salt Lake City, then went on to make it to the 14 and Under/8th Grade final two years later in Orlando.
When it was finally time to decide where each member of that team was going to play high school ball, a powerful and history-changing decision was made. Instead of disbanding like outsiders anticipated, the whole Shooting Stars crew would attend and play for Saint Vincent-Saint Mary, a parochial school in Downtown Akron.
During their freshman season, LeBron averaged just less than 20 points per game, and SVSM went 27-0 on their way to a state championship. The next season, Romeo, now a 6'6" beast on the court, transferred to SVSM, further strengthening the squad and completing the Fab Five. LeBron went 25.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.8 apg, and the team added another state championship.
By their junior year, word had gotten out about what the Irish hoops team was capable of, and their schedule reflected it. After battling through the country's toughest schedule [half of their opponents were nationally ranked], Le-Bron, Dru, Sian, Willie and Romeo once again found themselves at Ohio State's basketball arena playing for the state title in front of 20,000 fans. But a third straight championship wasn't in the cards, as LeBron struggled through back spasms and SVSM fell to Roger Bacon of Cincinnati 71-63.
With a hatred for losing any game, let alone a state title contest, the guys roared back with a renewed vengeance their senior season, taking home their third state crown. They captured the national championship that year, as well. In all, LeBron averaged 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and won his second straight National Player of the Year Award.
Of course, a great deal of their sustained success at SVSM can be attributed to the group's combined ability and talent; but without the strong bonds and friendship, the championships would've been out of reach. "It was just chemistry," LeBron says when asked about their on-court success. "In a team sport, if you don't have chemistry, you can't win. You can only do so much with individual talent. That chemistry that we had off the court just automatically came out onto the court. You know where guys are without even playing with your eyes open. You know everyone's strengths, so you're not going to give the ball to a guy if he's not in his comfort zone. It was just easy for us."
The chemistry and hyperawareness of each other created while at SVSM still exist and define the Fab Five. Sian gives us a quick glimpse of how he watches LeBron play for the Cavs: "Sometimes, I'm sitting at home telling my girlfriend, 'Watch, he's going to shoot this when he's coming down the court.' And he'll pull up and shoot it. Or, I'll be like, 'He's about to drop that dime down to Z,' and boom, a no-look pass. She'll be like [imitating his girlfriend in a high-pitch voice], 'How did you know!?' 'Because I can just tell.'"
And what's it like when LeBron watches the other guys play these days? "Honestly, I get mad," he says. "And I know they get mad too, because the chemistry was so strong between us back then. It was non-stop, just like a chain that continued to move. When I see them playing on their respective teams, I'll be like, 'Man, what are those guys doing with ya'll?'"
Taking on the world five guys at a time, the crew plans to sustain their connections while pursuing their individual goals, regardless of where each man ends up. Currently playing ball overseas, Dru believes he has a few more years of hoops left in him. After that, he plans on switching things up and changing over to coaching, aiming to reach the NBA.
Romeo is also balling in a foreign land and plans on playing for at least a few more years. He's also looking to start a foundation in Akron so he can give something back to the community that nourished him.
Willie is pursuing his master's and wants to coach on the high school and college levels.
Sian is currently playing football for Walsh University as a 6'4", 315-pound d-lineman. He's working toward playing professionally, and he also looks forward to being a great family man.
LeBron has big plans, too. "Over the next five years, let's see: I'll be turning 29, 30," he says. "Hopefully, I've got a few championships under my belt. And just continue to be a global icon, continue to inspire kids, continue to lead my kids in the right directions and continue to have fun. I'm all about having fun and living life to the fullest."
Roll Call With LeBron (Watch a video interview about how LeBron James and the Fab Five won a National Championship.)
Romeo Travis "Rome was the mean guy of the crew. He wasn't mean like, 'I'll beat you up;' he was mean like, 'Don't-talk-to-me mean;' like, 'What-are-you-looking-at mean'—mean for no reason [laughs]!"
Dru Joyce II "Now Dru, he's the fiery guy. We call it 'little man complex.' If any guy is taller than Dru, he thinks that guy has something against him."
Sian Cotton "Sian was the intimidator of the crew, because for one, he was the big guy. He's not that mean or 'the enforcer' guy, he's really a teddy bear. But when you look at him, you get a little scared."
Willie McGee "We call Willie 'The Godfather.' He's a year older than us, so he was the mature one. When things went wrong with us, he was always the guy who would say, 'You guys need to chill out.'"
How LeBron James Spent His Summer
In addition to working out and putting in some serious court time, LeBron had a busy schedule promoting two upcoming projects.
When More Than A Game [Lionsgate Films], a documentary about the Fab Five's coming of age, friendship and basketball conquests, comes to theaters on October 2, don't expect to see a Hollywood-style hoops movie. This is their real story about dedication, friendship and adversity experienced by one of the best high school basketball teams ever assembled. Filled with one-on-one interviews with the guys and never-before-seen footage of them playing and hanging out, the movie lets you see and connect with the group in a way you never have before. For LeBron, Romeo, Dru, Willie and Sian, it was a relentless grind before the successes they have achieved today.
Also, be on the lookout in early September for LeBron's book, Shooting Stars, in which the NBA MVP tells you firsthand the story of his childhood, high school and life experiences.
Art of the Dime
While many NBA superstars are defined by a single great ability [scoring, shooting, driving or defending], classifying LeBron in such simple terms is impossible. Although he averaged 28.4 ppg during the '08-'09 season and 35.3 during the playoffs, the accumulation of high point totals is only one component of LeBron's ever broadening game.
LeBron's multi-faceted output, highlighted by his ability to routinely crush triple-doubles, propelled the Cavs to the NBA's best record and brought the NBA MVP Award to rest in his hands. His 7.6 boards per game (9.1 in the playoffs) result mostly from his aggressiveness, beastly athleticism and relentless pursuit of the ball at any cost. His 7.2 assists per game (7.3 in the playoffs) stem from his passing skills, great court vision and commitment to team play.
In fact, LeBron's precision passing and willingness to distribute the ball consistently make his four on-court teammates better. Whether he's employing a crisp no-look pass to a cutting Varejao, a full-court dart to a streaking Mo Williams or an explosive drive and dish to Ilgauskas, LeBron uses his arsenal of passes to put his teammates in a great position to score. "You need to know your teammates and know what each guy can do," he says. "You never want to put a teammate at a disadvantage. With any type of pass, you want to put him in a good position, so he can just catch and shoot."
Here, LeBron lays out the key coaching points and strategy behind his four basic assist-accruing passes.
This is a quick pass, but know your teammate so you can make sure you don't throw it too hard. The ball shouldn't be at his head or at his knees; it should right at his chest, so that he can just catch and shoot.
This is a more sophisticated pass. You can use it to trick the defense by splitting defenders or going around or under them, especially if the defender is a guy who plays with his hands up top a lot. Don't bounce it too high so that it goes over the guy's head; make sure it's above his knees. It should be one bounce, then right to his chest."
This is a great pass when you are being defended, and you need to pass over the defense. That's why it's also called a skip pass. Don't try to use this when you're standing a few feet away from the guy. You need range, so you have to be a good distance away to make it work.
This is the pass you want to use when you have a teammate streaking down the court, and you need to cover ground with the ball to hit him on the run. You can't make a chest pass that far. Use one hand and put it on the money, just like a baseball.
Putting It Into Play
LeBron recommends using the following drill to perfect passing technique once his coaching points have been assimilated.
Fast Break With Pass Finish
Begin underneath one basket with a teammate on the opposite side of the lane. Simulate an opponent's shot, grab the rebound and begin a two-man fast break toward the opposite hoop. Adhering to the coaching points LeBron outlines, perform a chest, bounce, overhead or baseball pass to your teammate to set up an easy, fast break lay-up as he runs the wing. Alternate the type of pass necessary by varying your distance from your partner at the point of passing. Add defenders as you progress.
Watch a video interview with LeBron James discussing his future basketball goals
Check out the newest basketball shoes and basketball clothing, including all the latest from Nike basketball.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock