Lost stories of LeBron James, part 3
Ohio native James Blair needed LeBron to know how much his state missed him
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 28 NBA Preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 28 NBA Preview. Subscribe today!
INSIDE CLEVELAND'S Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron James is leading a historic 27-point comeback against his old team. It's March 20, 2013. Cavaliers fans are enraged, Heat fans are enthralled, the cops are distracted and LeBron James' Biggest Fan has decided the time is right -- he's going to make a run for it.
James Blair is more nervous than he has ever been. He hesitates at the top of the aisle and wipes his sweaty hands on his khakis for what feels like the hundredth time. He can't shake the anxiety.
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He has prepared extensively for this moment, his big opportunity to show the world how much he loves his hero, a chance to make a face-to-face case that King James must return to his rightful throne in Cleveland. He knows the risks too. Blair, 21, has studied footage of other sports daredevils on YouTube and watched an endless stream of drunken fans being tackled, handcuffed and humiliated.
Yet here he is, in the same spot he scoped out a month ago -- Section 123, Row 14, Seat 9. He's diagrammed in his head the security posts along the court; he's plotted out vendors whom he could duck behind for cover; he has on the white J.C. Penney V-neck T-shirt he recently bought for the sole purpose of writing a message to LeBron; he's hit the bathroom (his thought: If I get tased and end up pissing my pants on TV, that would not be good); he's handed off his belongings to his twin sister, Nicole, who's at the game with him. She knows the whole plan, down to the exact spot where her brother parked the car. "You'll probably be driving home without me," Blair tells her.
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He has been tweeting all day that he is going to make a run at LeBron, and Blair isn't about to let down his 1,000 followers. Now he gathers himself and sends out one last tweet: a shot of police idling, oblivious to what is about to unfold in front of them.
Nicole watches him prepare. Her brother has always been a big dreamer who knows how to work the angles. This scheme, though, seems too elaborate for even him to pull off.
But as the Cavs dribble down the court, she sees Blair rear up to bolt down the aisle. Her stomach churns as panic sets in: Oh gosh, this is really going to happen.
"IT'S SWEET AS HECK," Blair says as he unrolls a 12-by-12-foot canvas poster of LeBron James. If James Blair had a life motto, that would be it.
On this August day, months removed from that tempestuous March night, Blair is safe and sound inside his parents' home in Ashtabula, an hour northeast of Cleveland. He works part time at his uncle's fiberglass shop and takes physical therapy courses at a local college. Today he's wearing his favorite white No. 6 Heat shirt, flashing two earrings and a half-grown soul patch.
He bought the poster on eBay for $100, and it spans the entire TV room, draping over furniture like a boat cover. It's too large to hang up inside the house, so he keeps it rolled up like a rug. His room is already squeezed for space: The walls are adorned with LeBron posters and illustrations, the corners are filled with boxes of unopened limited-edition figurines, the space beneath his bed holds St. Vincent–St. Mary's yearbooks from James' prep career, his closet bursts with 30 LeBron T-shirts and every LBJ-brand sneaker ever produced. His attic is a small warehouse for even more collectibles. It's a dizzying display to a fresh set of eyes.
Family members shake their heads about his LeBron fandom, but Blair has a knack for winning over people with his "It's sweet as heck" attitude and childlike appreciation for the things he loves. He hasn't failed enough in life to know that interrupting an NBA game will probably end very badly. "He doesn't have fear," Nicole says. "He just thinks that everything is going to be okay. And I can tell you that he has the best luck in the world. It's amazing the things that happen to him."
Make no mistake, though: Blair is a smart young man. He was his high school valedictorian, and during his graduation speech, he instructed his class of 256 seniors to place a hand on the person to his or her right. "Now I can say that my speech touched everybody in this place," Blair said. He then turned his back to the crowd, snapped a selfie with his phone and posted it to Facebook.
By that point in his life, he had been completely captivated by LeBron James, the hometown prodigy. Blair drew so many pictures of James in art class and referenced him in school papers so often that teachers started referring to Blair as "King James."
You can imagine, then, how The Decision shook Blair's faith. When James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Blair, by his own admission, shut down. He spent two days mourning in silence, then decided that though he loved the Cavs, he could not deny his allegiance to LeBron. "He kind of hurt me at first," he says. "But in the end, I've been a supporter of his since day one, so I'm always going to support him wherever he goes."
When LeBron returned to Cleveland for the first time, in 2010, Blair went and watched as the rest of the crowd rained down boos on him. He felt the same hurt they all did, and he longed for the day when James would become a free agent and come home to Cleveland. The difference was, as his fellow Cavs fans vented at James, Blair was plotting to get him back.
He started online, tweeting thousands of times about the brilliance of LeBron. On #teamlebron, an unofficial fan site that is promoted by LeBron's official website, Blair got his own page, with photos and a bio. He took a tour of Team LeBron's headquarters in Akron, where he sat in LeBron's gold-color office chair and posed for photos of himself hoisting LeBron's ESPY award.
But Blair never got in front of LeBron to make the case that Cleveland needed him -- heck, Blair needed him. Tired of working around the edges, Blair made his own Decision: He had to meet the man himself, King James, and the meeting had to be a spectacle.
WITH NINE MINUTES left in the fourth quarter, the Heat rally is in full swing. LeBron throws an overhead pass to Ray Allen, who sinks a three to put the Heat up 83-79 and inch the team closer to a 24th consecutive victory.
Blair moves closer to the floor, lurking in the aisle. When Allen's shot hits, some Heat fans stand to cheer, giving Blair cover. He sprints down the stairs, passes the end of the player tunnel, squeezes through a space between the Heat bench and the media table and reaches the hardwood untouched. Blair runs right up to his childhood idol and taps him on the back of his arm. "Hey, LeBron!" Blair shouts.
James looks back with wide eyes. Players move away and Blair backpedals toward midcourt. He stretches out the front of his shirt, calling attention to a message he has scrawled on it for LeBron to see: we miss you on the front, 2014 come back on the other side.
Within seconds, a security guard has Blair wrapped up and is dragging him off the court. A sinewy 6'1", Blair squirms his body around to face LeBron one last time. And that's when it happened, when another idiot on the court turned into something else.
LeBron walks toward Blair and raises his hand in a "wait a second" motion. James high-fives his Biggest Fan and pats him on the head, palming it like a basketball.
The crowd cheers. In that moment, Blair becomes more than just a court streaker. He represents everybody in that building who has not seen a sports title in almost 50 years, those who wish they could corner LeBron and tell him how much he hurt them … then beg him to come back. And with one head pat from The King himself, that return feels just a little more possible.
As he's pulled off the court, Blair feels the crowd's roars, and one word flashes through his brain. "Crazy," he says. But, it turns out, the craziness has just begun.
IN AUGUST 2011, Cleveland Browns guard Jason Pinkston was jogging off the practice field when a screaming fan caught his attention. Pinkston, a rookie fifth-round pick, stopped, curious at the rare fan who even knew he was on the team.
"Hi, I'm James Blair," the fan said.
Pinkston had no idea he was actually the target of a fan's well-orchestrated sting operation. Blair had noticed that Pinkston was one of the few Browns players who regularly interacted with fans on Twitter and decided to target him in hopes of cozying up to Browns players. He positioned himself directly in front of the players' entrance, where Pinkston couldn't avoid him. Just work my way closer and closer, Blair thought.
And shockingly enough, it actually worked. The two talked for a few minutes, and after that Blair started tweeting with Pinkston. That led to playing online video games together, which led to text messaging, which led to friendship. When Joe Haden and Josh Gordon had a joint birthday party last year, Pinkston brought Blair as his guest. "There are some athletes in the NFL who forgot that at one point in their life, before they were a rookie or a freshman, they were a fan," Pinkston says. "That's one thing in my life I've never forgotten."
And on March 20, 2013, Pinkston is a fan himself, watching a riveting Heat-Cavs matchup, the hottest ticket in town, when he sees his pal Blair run onto the court. After the game, he reaches out to Blair's parents, who are reeling. As usual, when it comes to their son's antics, they feel a mixture of anger and "wow, only James could have pulled that off." Pinkston offers to put up $400 for Blair's bail money, and his parents accept. Now, 23 hours after he was arrested, Blair is out, charged with criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. Bail, it turns out, is only $382. "I actually made $18," Blair says with a giggle.
As soon as he gets back to his parents' house, Blair takes to Twitter, where he's at 4,000 followers and growing. Blair sends a tweet directly to LeBron: "appreciate you showing love when I came on floor last night follow back homie," he types.
Ten minutes later, LeBron responds with "Yesir! Brave guy," and an email arrives in Blair's inbox -- King James now follows him.
Blair freaks out. He screams and runs with his laptop to his sister, who reads the tweet and screams too. LeBron is now an official member of the James Blair fan club. Blair lies in his bed that night, unable to sleep, with one thought running through his head: Wow, this is sweet as heck.
OVER THE NEXT few months, Blair's life gets only sweeter. On Twitter, he surges past 7,000 followers. Media requests seeking interviews with him flood in. He receives several inquiries from T-shirt makers who want to produce and sell copies of his shirt. When Blair appears in front of the judge two days after the incident, she asks him, "You're the LeBron fan, huh? You really want him to come back?"
He has gone from a LeBron fan to the LeBron fan, reconciling Cleveland's pain of 2010 with the hope for 2014. And with that title of James' biggest fan comes responsibilities. Like being in Miami for Games 6 and 7 of last season's NBA Finals.
Again, friends and family shake their heads when they hear him plotting … well, even Blair admits he doesn't know what might happen once he gets down there. Nobody wants to pony up a few thousand dollars to accompany Blair on yet another LeBron chase. Besides, family members wonder, Blair's luck has to run out sometime, right?
When he finds no takers in Cleveland, he floats his plan on Twitter, and Kenford Abrams, a 34-year-old New Yorker who has become captivated by Blair's saga, wants in. "We were so into this mission and going down there and seeing LeBron celebrating in the championship," Abrams says.
After the Heat win Game 7, Blair and Abrams go to the team's championship party the next day. They drink $13 beers all night until finally a commotion draws their attention to an elevated VIP area. There, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Drake are celebrating. Blair, one floor below the Heat stars, wiggles his way closer.
Blair looks up at the DJ booth and spots Steph Floss, the Cavs DJ, whom Blair has -- of course -- befriended on Twitter and partied with in Cleveland. Apparently, Floss has been flown to Miami for the party.
What ridiculous luck.
The next few moments will come together like a perfect pick-and-roll. Floss directs LeBron's gaze to the dance floor, where Blair is waving. LeBron smiles and salutes Blair. For the first time, they share a private moment. (LeBron will later recall that night and tell Sports Illustrated, "Yeah, that's James Blair, he's my guy.")
Blair smiles back, and those Coronas taste just a little bit better the rest of the night. "After the incident in Cleveland, a bunch of people -- haters and the naysayers that just always want to talk crap -- were like, 'Oh, he'll never even remember who you were after that,'" Blair says with a grin. "So the fact that he still remembered my face and knew who I was and could point me out was like, 'Wow, he knows who I am now.'"
AS HE SITS on his bed, with a LeBron James Fathead soaring above him, Blair has one regret: He hopes the Cavs security team didn't catch too much heat. "I planned it out so well," he says. "It's not like they weren't doing their jobs."
He sounds sincere, but he also sounds like a man who wants his one-year ban from Cavs games lifted on March 20. When asked for comment about Blair's stunt, a Cavs PR person addresses arena security in general, saying simply, "We exceed what the NBA requires." He declines to comment further, because "everything we say about LeBron gets interpreted into 2014 free agency."
For now, Blair is finishing his final year of physical therapy courses and trying to increase his access to LeBron. He's had no correspondence with James since the Heat team party. A source close to James' marketing team says the player's interactions with Blair have been a controversial topic among Team LeBron, the NBA and the Heat. Ultimately, because of LeBron's fondness for Blair, no consensus was reached. "This kid ran onto the court," says the source. "Do we want to be seen as condoning this stuff? I really think that after LeBron did what he did, what do you do then?"
Still, no matter the verdict on how Blair is treated going forward, rest assured he's not going to back off. His big-picture plan, the one so crazy that only James Blair could accomplish it, is to have a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with LeBron someday. "I think the goal is pretty much done with everyone knowing that I am probably the biggest LeBron fan that is out there," Blair says with a look of satisfaction. "But I still would obviously like to meet LeBron in a different setting, where I actually get to talk to him besides right before I'm going to jail."