SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When LeBron James thinks back to his first NBA game some 13 years ago, he remembers specific sequences. He remembers the teammates he played alongside. He even remembers his stat line, nearly to a T.
“I had less tattoos and more hair,” James said prior to Cleveland Cavaliers shootaround Wednesday in preparation for the game against the Sacramento Kings that night. “And my jersey was a lot bigger at that time, I had less weight. But for the most part it’s been a great run so far in my career.”
With the Cavs set to play their last game at Sleep Train Arena, formerly Arco Arena, before the Kings move to the brand new Golden 1 Center in the fall, James reflected on Oct. 29, 2003 -- the night he made his league debut in Sacramento.
“It was great,” James said. “Obviously the fans, they came out for that game for two reasons. They wanted to see if I was worthy of what everybody was talking about, but also they had a great team at the time, still. That team was winning a lot of ball games at that time, still, and they had an opportunity to have a great run, so it was just great to be a part of the atmosphere. It was my first time in the NBA and then to be able to be a part of an atmosphere like this, it was pretty cool.”
A look at the box score from that night shows just how much has changed. Of the 18 players to get in the game that night, only James is still playing. The others have gone on to a variety of pursuits. For instance, Kevin Ollie is the head coach of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, no longer a backup point guard on the Cavs' bench. Vlade Divac is now the Kings’ general manager rather than their starting center. Peja Stojakovic is their director of player personnel and development, instead of their sharp-shooting wing.
The Cavs lost 106-92 that night but James put up 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals (when he rattled off his stats from memory on Wednesday, he shorted himself a rebound). The iconic image from the game remains him soaring through the air, ball cocked way behind his head, ready to throw down a right-handed breakaway dunk. However, James said he remembers another play more.
“I made my first shot,” he said. “It was a fadeaway baseline jumper right over there by our bench. That was probably the toughest shot I took all that night, besides my left-hand finger roll on the break, I think in the second [quarter]. Usually you try to get like a layup or a dunk, I made a jumper and that just kind of settled me down. To get a fast-break dunk in that game, we were kind of making a run, we were making a run to get back into the game at the time, it settled me in.”
James actually followed that dunk with another steal, but rather than add to his highlight reel, dished it off to Ricky Davis.
“It was just my unselfish ways,” James said. “I had already gotten my fast-break dunk and our scorer at the time was Ricky, so, you know, let’s try to get him in a rhythm.”
The 31-year-old James, with some gray in his beard and wearing a baseball cap with a curved rim (colloquially known as a “dad hat”), said he has gone back to watch the tape of that game a couple of times in the past decade-plus.
“Just seeing how for an 18-year-old kid there really wasn’t much I could tell him at that point,” James said of himself. “He was just excited to be on the court, and he was just having fun. This was before social media and all that [sort of thing], so he didn’t really have to worry about anything, just go out and play and live with the results, live with whatever happened, and he’s continued to do that.”
James said he already got a glimpse of the Golden 1 Center construction on his way to shootaround from the team hotel on Wednesday morning. He’ll be sure to take one last look at his surroundings Wednesday night.
“It’s impossible for it not to happen, knowing that we’ll be playing in another arena next year when I come here and play,” James said. “Like I said, this building means a lot to my career. When I -- I don’t know if it’s a movie made of me or my book gets [written about] my NBA career getting started, this will be the first place it starts, here at Sleep Train ... or Arco Arena. This will always be the beginning of it.”