The NBA Finals are here, and LeBron James is making a run for the championship. Ahead of what will be an unforgettable series, take a look back at the Akron-native’s transformation into the legend he is today.
For the ninth time in the past ten years, LeBron James will play in the NBA Finals. The 2020 championship series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat kicks off on Sept. 30 at 9:00 PM Eastern, marking the end to a season no one will ever forget. While the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed havoc on sports, it seems that one thing has remained the same: LeBron James is a titan on the court. He has averaged 26.7 points per game in the 2020 playoffs, per NBA.com, with 10.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists. With LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma leading the team, the Lakers are the favorites to win the title and give LeBron his fourth title. Ahead of tipoff, take a look at how LeBron started a journey from rookie sensation to G.O.A.T. contender.
When LeBron James steps on the court of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside of Walt Disney World tonight, he will have more NBA Finals appearances than 27 NBA teams. That’s pretty amazing, considering he didn’t make the playoffs in his rookie career. LeBron started to build a buzz around him during his time at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He declared himself eligible for the 2003 NBA Draft, and his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, selected him as the overall No. 1 draft pick. He didn’t disappoint. LeBron scored 25 points in his first professional game, setting a record for the NBA (most points scored by a prep-to-pro player in his debut), and ultimately went on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Sadly, the Cavs ended the season with a record of 35-47 and failed to make the playoffs.
LeBron wouldn’t make the playoffs until his third season with the Cavs – and even then, it was a short post-season stint. LeBron and the Cavs faced the Washington Wizards in the first round of the 2006 Playoffs, beating the D.C. team before losing to the Detroit Pistons in the second round. Things would be different the following year.
When LeBron James joined the Cavs, it was a transformative moment. Though they ended the 2003-04 season 35-47, it was an 18-game improvement from the previous year. In 2005, they missed the playoffs, but their record rose to 42-40. In 2006, they made the playoffs but got bounced in the second round. It would be 2007 when LeBron James finally made it to the NBA Finals for the first time. After claiming the Eastern Conference championship, the Cavs went on to face the San Antonio Spurs – and they lost. Badly. The Spurs swept the Cavs in four games, and LeBron wouldn’t return the NBA Finals until 2011.
LeBron would be named the NBA Most Valuable Player in 2009 and 2010, but his frustration over not winning the Championship resulted in the iconic phrase: “I am taking my talents to South Beach.” This phrase, uttered in the hourlong 2010 television special The Decision, confirmed that LeBron – an unrestricted free agent at the time – would leave Cleveland and join the Miami Heat. The Florida stay would prove fruitful for James. With Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade joining the squad, many viewed this super team as stacking the deck. The Heat made it to the NBA Finals but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
While critics reveled in LeBron’s loss, he shut them up the next year. After eight years in the NBA, LeBron James finally won a championship by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. He and the Heat did it again in 2013, putting away the San Antonio Spurs to go back-to-back. The three-peat was denied by the Spurs in 2014, with San Antonio defeating the Heat in five games. Afterward, LeBron opted out of the final year of his contract with the Heat and announced he would be rejoining the Cavaliers.
Upon returning to Cleveland, LeBron revitalized the team vowed to bring the title to his hometown. He led the squad in the 2015 NBA Finals against the surging Golden State Warriors. It was a noble battle, but the Dubs ultimately defeated the Cavs in six games. The two teams squared off again in 2016, and it looked like the Warriors were going to repeat. However, the Cavs did the impossible, coming from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. It was Cleveland’s first professional sports championship in 52 years.
LeBron and the Cavs attempted to replicate that success but fell to the Warriors in the following two years. In 2018, after losing the finals, LeBron opted out of the final year of his contract with the Cavs and became an unrestricted free agent. Instead of using a primetime special to announce his next move, he – through is management company – announced that he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. He joined the legendary squad for the 2018 season, but a groin injury forced him to miss 17 consecutive games. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs that year. But as seen with Cleveland, James ushed in a transformation, turning the sluggish Lakers into a team that could claim its 17th championship.
That alone would make LeBron James an icon, but he has become a pop culture fixture thanks to numerous endorsements deals, commercials, and appearances on TV shows and movies. He had a notable role in the 2015 comedy Trainwreck. A Space Jam sequel starring LeBron was long-rumored up until it was confirmed in 2018. In May 2020, LeBron unveiled the title (Space Jam: A New Legacy) and logo. The film is set for a 2021 release.