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Spotlights danced around Arco Arena as the long intro to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" was pumped through the sound system. Camera phones were barely in existence, so most fans just stood and stared at LeBron James as he braced himself for what was the most pressure-filled game of his life to that point.
It was Oct. 29, 2003.
A month earlier, Nike had picked up James and several of his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates and flown them to Sacramento, Calif., in a private jet to shoot a commercial on the same floor with some of the Sacramento Kings players he was now about to play against. It was a unique marketing idea to add to the moment and so the spot could be showed during the breaks, but it also added some awkwardness. The theme of the ad: How James would handle the pressure of that night.
|Waiting to make his debut was the hardest part -- then LeBron showed his stuff.|
Before the game, the Maloof family, then owners of the Kings, publicly thanked NBA commissioner David Stern for the "gift" of giving this game to Sacramento.
Dozens of cameras and more than 100 media members came into the arena floor ... to watch James warm up. It was so densely packed that the entrance to the court from the locker rooms was blocked and irked teammates had trouble even getting into the bowl.
This was the tension at that moment and, thanks to Tracy McGrady, it unexpectedly stretched longer. McGrady was leading a late 10-0 run nearly 3,000 miles away and the Orlando Magic had forced a sudden overtime with the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. ESPN wanted the whole country to see the spectacle of James' debut, so the order came to delay the tip.
Alone near center court, James just sat on the scorer's table, chewed on his nails and tried to breathe.
"I was nervous," James said earlier this year as the 10th anniversary of his first game approached. "I couldn't sleep the night before. I take a nap before every game my whole career. I didn't get a nap that day.
"I couldn't even stretch. There was like 150 cameras on the court. I don't know how they let that happen. It was like 190 cameras in the locker room when I got there."
James was one of the most anticipated rookies ever to arrive in the league and also one of the more controversial. He was stuck in an intersection of hype, jealousy and an age debate. Now 10 years later, it is hard to imagine there were many detractors, but some high-profile names spoke out against the very idea.
At the time Phil Jackson said 18-year-olds like James didn't belong in the NBA. "I don't care who they are, it doesn't matter if they can play or not," Jackson had said.
James was also carrying the weight of a record $90 million deal with Nike and other endorsements that made him worth nine figures before he'd played this game. To add some perspective, three-time champion Kobe Bryant signed a deal with Nike within a few weeks of James in '03 ... for $45 million.
The number stunned casual fans, created some sharp opinions and followed James around for months leading up to this debut. To add some context a decade later, last year Nike had sales of $300 million for James' signature shoe while Bryant's version sold about $50 million worth, according to industry tracker SportsOneSource.
Then there was his less-than-inspiring first preseason. During two scrutinized exhibition games two weeks earlier in Los Angeles, including one on national TV, James shot a combined 8-of-31. He barely cracked 30 percent shooting during the preseason and teams were already backing off him and daring him to shoot.
|LeBron James finished with 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals in his Oct. 29, 2003, debut.|
After noticing a light pregame shooting workout before an ensuing preseason game in Bakersfield, Calif., one national writer asked if the hype surrounding James was an acronym for "Hey, You Practice Enough?"
All of that was rattling around James' head as he waited for the Knicks and Magic to finish -- the Magic won, by the way, Keith Van Horn's 29 points not being enough for the Knicks -- so he could finally start his career.
"Some of the people just wanted him to fail," said Kevin Ollie, James' teammate at the time and now the head coach at the University of Connecticut. "And he challenged that energy, he challenged that effort. He wanted to say 'I'm great.'"
What followed still ranks as one of the more impressive performances of James' career, not because of the overall numbers or the calendar but the personal stakes. Especially those first 12 minutes, those were enough for most people involved to remember them for a long time.
James has had plenty of great first quarters by now. Two years ago he actually made his first 10 shots and scored 24 points in the opening quarter in a game against the Chicago Bulls. But no first quarter in James' life will match up to what he did on Oct. 29, 2003, when he answered the immense expectations with brilliance and effectively announced his presence to the NBA.
The lineup of highlights from that first quarter is remarkable, even with the knowledge that he'd win four MVPs and two titles in the ensuing 10 years.
10:32 – A lob pass to Ricky Davis for a dunk.
8:58 – James makes his first shot, a jumper on the baseline.
7:46 – James ditches Kings guard Mike Bibby, in what would become a quick theme, and makes a driving leaner.
7:03 – In a shot that then teammates recall to this day, James nails a fading, high-arcing jumper over 7-footer Brad Miller. The ball angled over the corner of the backboard before swishing. James ended up on the Cavs bench as teammates looked up at him with their mouths open.
4:49 – Attacking in transition, James drives for a layup and Kings coach Rick Adelman decides he's got to take Bibby off him.
3:17 – James draws two defenders and dishes a no-look bounce pass to Carlos Boozer for a dunk.
3:06 – James jumps a pass headed for Doug Christie at center court for a steal and drives for one-handed dunk.
2:43 – James picks Christie's pocket for another steal and is on his way to another breakaway dunk. But he turns and stops to toss a pass to Davis so he can have a free dunk.
"I have a new favorite player," TV analyst Sean Elliott says after seeing the play.
James ended the quarter with 12 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals. He went to the bench gasping for air, the speed and intensity had zapped him. But he couldn't hide the satisfaction that was on his face.
"It was like a long-awaited day for everyone," James said. "Not just me. Everyone was waiting to see what I was going to do."
The Kings were ahead 39-32 after the quarter -- the Cavs' defense was atrocious and Adelman's version of the Princeton offense was in high gear -- but it was hard to realize it. James had done what had seemed impossible; he'd exceeded the expectations.
|LeBron James leaves the court after his debut, having lost the game but winning some converts.|
"When we first entered the arena nobody knew exactly what LeBron was going to do," then Cavs coach Paul Silas said. "I thought he was going to be good, but not nearly as good as he was. It was unbelievable."
When it was over, James had 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals. He was two months and one day short of his 19th birthday. It wasn't just the greatest debut by a teenager in league history, it was one of the best debuts period. The Cavs briefly had the lead in the fourth quarter, but the Kings, who were on their way to a 55-win season, won going away 106-92.
But it was hard to focus on the individual game's outcome. Even though they were a little miffed so much attention was being paid to an opponent in their own building, the Kings could not help but react to what they'd seen.
"It was the first I've seen of him, and I was real impressed," Kings center Vlade Divac said. "He's the real deal."
"He's a talent, look at how he plays," Kings guard Bobby Jackson said. "The best thing about him is how he distributes the ball. He does it extremely well."
"For the first game, you had to be impressed," Adelman said.
Ten years later, only three players who appeared in the game are still active: James, Boozer and former King and current Boston Celtic Gerald Wallace. It remains an authentic historic game, its lore growing with each significant accomplishment in James' career.
Every year when James makes his annual trip to Arco Arena he reminisces about it. Last season he attended a benefit on an off night in the city with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and told stories about it. Memorabilia from ticket stubs and programs to replica shoes from that night remain on sale at eBay.
"I have no idea how I played that game at a high level," James said. "I guess I was just excited to play the game and I didn't care about anything else."
ESPN Features Producer Barry Abrams contributed to this story.