On a June day outside downtown Chicago in 2001, a 16-year-old LeBron James had just finished a workout at Tim Grover’s Hoops Gym when a high-end sports car pulled up.
James was in town to play in an AAU event and had gone to see the workout guru, who was teaching him how to do some beginner weight training. Several NBA players came to Grover’s gym for pickup games, including Antoine Walker, who was one of James’ first league acquaintances.
When a 38-year-old Michael Jordan emerged from the car, James was in awe. Jordan was a few weeks away from starting his last comeback with the Washington Wizards. They spoke for about 15 minutes before Jordan had to get to work. It was the first time the two had met, and James had a memory for life.
“Michael talked to him about the pressure of dealing with expectations,” Grover remembered. “He told him to take care of his body and to keep his circle small. And he told him to always do his homework.”
How MJ, LeBron match up ahead of King James’ 1,072nd game
LeBron James is set to match Michael Jordan in regular-season games played. How do the two legends’ careers stack up to this point?
LeBron drops 57 in a way he has never done before
LeBron James hadn’t scored 50 points in a game since leaving Miami. But his performance against the Washington Wizards was truly a sight to behold.
On Tuesday, James will play in his 1,072nd career NBA game, tying Jordan. Jordan was 40 at the end of his career. James is seven years younger and still appears to have years left in his prime.
But with James at the same point, the Cavs star has accomplished something Jordan gave to him at a young age: inspiration.
James was part of a generation of young players inspired by Jordan. He wears it on his chest with the No. 23 each night. But now that James is 15 seasons in with three championships and four MVP Awards, he has moved into the Jordan role.
The crop of young players entering the league now grew up watching James, playing his role in video games and pretending to be him on their driveways, just as James used to do with Jordan.
“It still feels surreal that I played against him,” Chicago Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said after facing James for the first time last month. “That’s a dream come true for me because he was my favorite player when I was growing up.”
Lonzo Ball got flak from Los Angeles Lakers fans earlier this year when he said James was his favorite player over Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
“My favorite player was LeBron growing up,” Ball said. “I’m a Laker. I want to go with Kobe. But I’ve been saying LeBron for my whole life, so I’m going with LeBron.”
Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas grew up outside Toronto and was a huge James fan. His Christmas present every year was tickets from his parents to attend Cavs games. His closet was full of every version of James’ jersey. Much like James with Jordan, Stauskas got a chance to meet James and posed for a photo with him after a game when Stauskas was a teen.
A post shared by Nik Stauskas (@nikstauskas11) on Apr 18, 2013 at 5:10pm PDT
“Growing up, I was probably the biggest LeBron fan in the world,” Stauskas said last season. “[Rookie] year, that was the biggest deal to go up against him more than anyone else in the league, just because I really looked up to him growing up.”
James entered the league the year after Jordan retired. He can now see the link with the roles reversed.
“That’s an honor to see young guys wearing my shoes or guys talking about me being an inspiration to them,” James said. “It’s also a tribute to myself being in this league and still being able to do it at a high level 15 years later. Anytime I get the opportunity to see some of the younger guys in the league now play that looked at me as inspiration and used me as inspiration, that means a lot.”
A few months after that meeting in Chicago, James saw the Wizards play the Cavs in Cleveland. That night, Jordan hit a 17-footer at the buzzer to beat the Cavs (again), a splendid clutch shot. It was Jordan’s 972nd career game.
Already a celebrity in Cleveland, James had a pass to be in the locker room area. Jordan, with a mob surrounding him at all times, paused in a hall to reach out and shake James’ hand. They knew each other by then. Jordan even asked about James’ mother. A Sports Illustrated writer was following James, and three weeks later he’d be on the cover as a 17-year-old. It became routine for James to attend Jordan’s games in Cleveland, including one in 2003 that led to the now-famous photo of the two shaking hands.
“I used him for inspiration,” James said. “Without [Jordan] even knowing, he helped me out.”
James has a bunch of his own photos like this out there now. Players he met at camps. Players he recruited for Nike (as Jordan was undoubtedly doing in spending time with James in high school). Players who have been lucky enough to meet him in a hallway after a game, such as a young Stauskas before anyone knew he’d be Big Ten Player of the Year and a lottery pick.
Like many other things, James learned it from Jordan, 1,072 games ago.
“That’s always been a part of my job,” James said. “Without even knowing it, that was always a part of me being a part of this league, to give the next kid an opportunity. To give him hope.”