It took just 12 minutes for LeBron James to put the NBA on notice
Ricky Davis, Chris Webber, David Stern and others recall the first quarter of the most anticipated debut in league history
If anyone could understand the task before LeBron James, it was 6-foot-10 Hall of Fame center Moses Malone. Malone, who died in 2015 from cardiovascular disease, was one of basketball’s most celebrated giants: a three-time NBA MVP, 13-time All-Star and a Finals MVP. Despite intense recruiting from the University of Maryland, Malone went directly to the professional ranks, in part to help his family. This was in 1974, and he was straight out of Virginia’s Petersburg High School.
James — only months removed from his graduation from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio — was about to make the most anticipated debut in basketball history. He’d soon become the first prep star to start in his professional rookie opener since Malone did it in October 1974 with the ABA’s Utah Stars.
So in the fall of 2003, Nike flew Malone to Sacramento, California, to meet with James before the first regular-season game of his career. The legend and the teenage prodigy sat for lunch at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ team hotel hours before tipoff. They spoke for an hour. “The first-game jitters — that’s the main thing he was concerned about,” James said then. “How you handle it, by staying focused and just competing. Don’t back down from anybody.” James said he’d been hearing that a lot. “But when you hear it from one of the greats,” he continued, “it makes it sound even better.”
So much hysteria surrounded James’ debut, there was a commercial produced about it — before the moment even happened. Weeks earlier, ahead of the release of his first signature sneaker, James starred in the now classic Nike “Pressure” commercial. It featured his Cavs teammates Dajuan Wagner, Carlos Boozer and DeSagana Diop, as well as Kings announcers Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds, actor Damon Wayans and the legendary George “The Iceman” Gervin.
In it, James, guarded by Sacramento’s Mike Bibby, temporarily freezes before smiling and barreling toward the basket. Originally, James was directed to blow by Bibby, but the veteran point guard wasn’t having that. “I said, ‘You guys want somebody else … I’m not gonna let anybody blow by me,’ ” said Bibby. “I don’t care if it’s LeBron James or Doo Doo Williams. I’m not gonna look like a dummy on TV.”
James handled stardom so well as a teenager in part because it seemed like his birthright. He’d been revered in Ohio basketball circles since the eighth grade, when he dunked for the first time in a students vs. teachers game at Riedinger Middle School. In the 2001 ABCD Camp championship game the summer before his junior year, James’ team defeated a squad led by shooting guard Lenny Cooke, then the top high school player in the country. At 16, James was the first underclassman in nearly two decades to be named a first-team All-American. The final basket of his performance? A 3-pointer in Cooke’s grill to win the game — and a personal 24-9 scoring advantage. That sliver of time catapulted James to phenom status, and the bright lights haven’t been shut off since.
Sports Illustrated blessed James with an iconic cover. His high school games were televised, and called by Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas. James’ favorite rapper Jay-Z, during The Black Album era, became a big brother and mentor. The Cavaliers decided it was worth a $150,000 fine (and a two-game suspension for coach John Lucas) for working out a 17-year-old James — and he dominated in games of 5-on-5. James was drafted No. 1 overall by those same Cavs a year later. “Pressure,” he said in the spring of 2003, “been following me my whole life.”
And the legend of James was also evolving behind the scenes. “We were in practice one time, on the same team,” said teammate J.R. Bremer. “He was running the wing, and I threw him an alley-oop. When I threw it, I said, ‘There’s no way in hell he’ll be able to catch this.’ I’d never seen anyone literally jump over somebody. He still had to catch the ball with one hand, and bring it to two. It was impossible for that to happen. … He jumped over Kevin Ollie.”
James was the first star of the internet era — every move documented, analyzed and critiqued. This happened even in the pre-social era, via message boards, grainy videos and chat rooms. Teen James generated $142 million in endorsements before logging his first NBA minute — including a $100 million deal with Nike. “It was clear Nike was on to something big,” said former NBA commissioner David Stern. “They were placing a very large bet on the success of this young man.” Barbershops, salons, bars, school lunch tables and college campuses buzzed: Who’d be the better pro? James? Or Carmelo Anthony? The LeBron hype machine was firing on all cylinders.
And then, at last, on Oct. 29, 2003, there he was — at Sacramento’s (now closed) Arco Arena. The stage was set for James to become either the game’s next transcendent force — à la Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. Or its next bust — à la Pervis Ellison, Michael Olowokandi or Kwame Brown.
James and the Cavs were the back end of an ESPN doubleheader. The Kings’ championship dreams had been dashed the season before by Webber’s knee injury in a second-round seven-game series against Nick Van Exel, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. James’ arrival also coincided with the 180th consecutive sellout crowd at Arco.
“This guy had been anointed since he was in the eighth grade,” said former Kings forward Tony Massenburg. “And the dude was literally living up to it. So by the time you get to his first NBA game, and you’re part of that atmosphere, it’s circuslike. It was like we were looking at the young Michael Jordan.”
Some rooted for his downfall. Others wanted to see if he was worth all the praise. But for one person in particular, it didn’t matter if James became the next Jordan or the next Magic. Malone just wanted what was best for the kid. “These high school players, I want them to do good, because they represent me,” said Malone, the 1983 Finals MVP. “One day there maybe can be another high school player going to the Hall of Fame.”
This is the story of the first quarter of James’ career. Whether player, coach, friend, fellow athlete, reporter or photographer, even 15 years later, people remember those 12 minutes on Oct. 29, 2003, as a quarter that changed the game, and the world.
Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during LeBron James’ rookie season.
NBA Young Boy: ‘He was ready, man.’
From England, Germany, China and elsewhere, more than 340 members of the media were on hand. Ken Griffey Jr., Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia and Dusty Baker were among the stars who trekked to Sacramento. NBA.com billed the game “King James vs. The Kings,” and ESPN cut from its opener, the Orlando Magic vs. the New York Knicks, which was in overtime at Madison Square Garden. And while the Kings were coming off a 59-win, Pacific Division title season, the Cavs, in what’s widely considered a blatant tank to secure the No. 1 pick, had won only 17 games. “We had a great team in Sacramento that year,” said Massenburg. “But opening night in Arco Arena … it was all about LeBron James.”
Man, it was a zoo. Every reporter, every person you could think of was at that game.
My dad’s been a Kings season-ticket holder — well, he was. He passed … so I kept the tickets in his honor. I don’t go that much. I give them to the church … to friends and relatives … but I said, ‘I’m gonna go to the game,’ because I’d heard about LeBron James.
People had been telling me that this kid was gonna wind up being the best ever. I said, ‘OK, let me go see what he’s got.’ … It was opening week, so I probably went to five games. … This one was highly anticipated, it’s fair to say.
I’m a basketball fan at heart. I had formed a relationship while in the Bay Area with the [former Kings owners] Maloofs. They’d always take care of me if I came up to check out some of the games. I remember that game vividly.
Everyone was all excited. The Maloofs were running around like expectant parents.
We all went to shootaround, and back in that day nobody except the New York writers went to shootaround.
I happened to be on the catwalk and took a photo of this big group around this young guy. He got Michael Jordan treatment almost. … That was the way people would swarm around Michael when he came.
I’ve never seen that many media at a game before. I was with the Cavs for two years, and we weren’t that good. Then we had LeBron.
“Big as Shaq was — and I was in the same draft class with him — it wasn’t that.”
At that time, they donned him the future of the NBA. [Michael Jordan] had just retired, and Kobe [Bryant] was already in the mix. Everybody just wanted to get a glimpse of him.
It was just a game with a rookie — and there are always going to be great rookies in the NBA. But it was hyped to the greatest extent I could possibly imagine.
Everyone wanted to see if this high school kid was really this good. Or was he that good because he was a man-child playing against other little boys in high school?
Brandon Weems’ house, R.I.P. to Ms. Brenda Weems … we watched the game in their basement. They had food, it was like a party. … We was locked in and excited to see what LeBron was gonna do. I hoped that he played well enough to silence the critics. I knew he was gonna be judged by how he played the first time he stepped on the floor. I was nervous for him.
I wasn’t nervous at all. It was like Christmas!
It seemed like that first game took forever to arrive … kind of like a kid waiting for Christmas. We wanted to see how the young fella was gonna play.
The atmosphere … I hadn’t experienced anything like that with a rookie. I mean even [Shaquille O’Neal]. Big as Shaq was — and I was in the same draft class with him — it wasn’t that.
You felt like it was something that was gonna go down in history.
There was that — I don’t wanna say ‘anxiety,’ but more like curiosity. How is he gonna react?
“At 18, he came into his first NBA game, on the road, and he was ready. He was ready, man.”
A few NBA players literally told me that he was gonna go to 10 championships. … How can you say this about a person out of high school?
I come out, and we’re doing our warm-ups. I’m looking across the court, like, ‘Where is he at? Where is he at? … OK, headband, there he is.’ I’m watching this dude in the layup line putting his head above the rim on pretty much every dunk that he did.
He had more juice than anybody on the court.
I’m looking at the shoulders on this dude … first thing I noticed.
He wasn’t filled out the way he is now. … He was going to get bigger and broader. It was like, ‘Holy Moses! … This is going to be some specimen.’
He looked confident, like he was supposed to be here, like he was used to all the hype, and he was gonna go out there and show out. … He was young, so he didn’t really show too much of his emotions. He was quiet, to himself. In the locker room he was fiddling, but outside of that, you really couldn’t tell if he was nervous.
He didn’t do anything out of the ordinary … except bite his nails, which he’s done for years.
I knew he was nervous.
He played in summer league, but those still aren’t NBA games. You could see his athleticism and his talent in training camp and preseason. But you just really don’t expect someone who’s 18 to dominate amongst men in his first game.
How poised he was. … At 18, he came into his first NBA game, on the road, and he was ready. He was ready, man.
Cleveland’s starting point guard Dajuan Wagner, the team’s No. 6 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, started his second season in the league on the injured list with an ailing knee.
I remember one of the announcers saying LeBron could end up playing point guard before it’s all done. And we were all like, ‘Yes, he’s the point guard.’ Regardless of what you wanna call him or what he’s listed in the box score, he was the point.
We didn’t have a point guard, but he was my point forward.
The Pass-First Point: ‘An alley-oop to Ricky Davis.’
This wasn’t a tuneup for the rookie they already called “The King.” In the first test of his professional career, James would go blow for blow with one of the league’s heavyweight teams. As Sacramento got out to an early lead, James traded body blows, getting a feel for the game.
We start the game and I posted him up. … I caught the ball … go to bump him and give him a move and he didn’t move! As I’m doing it, I’m thinking, Damnnnn!
LeBron was tough. Any player he was guarding, he worked them out.
He was physically overwhelming for guys even then. He was like M.J. and Clyde Drexler but bigger, with a little bit of Magic, but more athletic than Magic. It caught everybody off guard.
He was just trying to find his way and his rhythm as he started his career out. You could just see all these things unfold as the game was going on.
He was verbal, directing à la Magic — Let’s go! … Watch that! It was impressive. Normally you’re not gonna get that out of a rookie.
Actually, his first NBA [offensive] statistic was an assist … an alley-oop to Ricky Davis.
Ricky was the leading scorer on the team. They weren’t gonna put me on Ricky because my strongest point wasn’t defense. They put me on LeBron, to see how things would unfold. We didn’t know how he was gonna come in and play.
For LeBron to put that ball right on the money, with all the nerves, all the pressure, all the hype … it proved everybody wrong. It proved that the kid could pass.
LeBron had to run all the plays. And he would do it … exactly the way I drew it up and asked him to do, from the get-go. It was just unbelievable.
Sometimes you get into the game and get a little antsy. You try to do too much. His maturity and poise allowed the game to come to him. He was just making the right decisions from the very beginning.
I remember thinking, This kid plays like a two- or three-year vet.
I remember being very appreciative for his smoothness as an art form: rebounding, blocks, steals and assists. He just had everything.
So unselfish, yet so dominant at the same time. He had an aura … an energy around him — that good things would happen. I’ve never been around a player like that.
LBJ on that Break: ‘A perfect storm … a steal and breakaway.’
With James averaging eight points and shooting 33 percent from the field during the preseason, skepticism had ramped up. Was he overhyped? Could he shoot? A Cleveland-area writer noted his preseason play “would not keep a normal rookie on the roster.” James deadened that talk quickly. He connected on his first three baskets — all jumpers. “For all of you who think I can’t shoot,” he said after the game, “thank you a lot.”
I told him, ‘You gotta shoot the basketball. We’re not gonna win unless you do … start shooting.’
He’s 6-8, which is tough to guard for a guy my size, at 6-1, 6-2. So we tried to bait him a little bit, to where he’d shoot a jumper instead of going to the basket.
LeBron had broken a finger in the state playoffs his senior year, so he didn’t shoot a lot of jumpers. And so people started to say he couldn’t shoot. That was strange to us, because we’d seen him hit 10 3-pointers in a game in high school.
The way we were playing him was to see if he could make jump shots.
Once his jumper started falling, we knew everything else was going to come into place.
“Actually, his first NBA [offensive] statistic was an assist … an alley-oop to Ricky Davis.”
Him coming out like that, we had to play him honest … He wasn’t fazed by anything. He scored … shot jumpers … he played good defense …
The play I remember the most is the pass he intercepted.
I was at the top of the key and the ball … it’s coming back towards me. And Peja, he knows I got an 18-year-old kid on me. He’s full of testosterone and just throws it. No pass fake, no fake backdoor cut … and LeBron shoots the lane.
I was behind the basket … I knew it was coming.
It was a perfect storm. It was a steal and breakaway. He could do whatever he wanted.
I just look at Peja like, ‘Dude, what are you thinking, man? … You gotta know he’s about to shoot the gap!’
Yeah, Doug does say that.
You should’ve seen the bench getting ready to stand up, and I heard the crowd just making a noise like, What is he about to do? … What is he about to do?
The whole arena was basically looking for something.
There were 11 remote cameras trained on the basket. … [James] went in the perfect way and had the ball stretched back, so there was nothing interfering on any angles.
He went with his signature cock-back. … I’d seen him do it in high school, but it was on TV, and not that high.
We were all elated. That dunk eased all the tension. You felt good for the kid.
The energy was electric. It was like everybody coming there to witness that — and that’s part of his mantra. For me, I was a witness.
Everybody wanted to see that. They wanted to see LeBron on a breakaway for a big slam. … Fans paid to see that.
I’m forever running behind LeBron on his first dunk …
Once he gets that good throwdown, it seems like all that pressure was off. LeBron looked like he had been there before.
I remember … everybody saying, ‘Yes … this is the real deal.’
Ain’t No Fun if the Homies Can’t Have None: ‘Ricky could jump out the gym, too.’
James creating his own version of Michael Jordan’s Jumpman logo was sensational. But it’s the very next sequence that made clear who James is as a player and teammate. On the play after the dunk, James poked the ball away from Christie and began sprinting up the court. Carlos Boozer grabbed the loose ball and immediately threw it to a streaking James. Davis trailed behind. And what happened next has people in awe to this day.
He had a wide-open break and he didn’t dunk.
I was sprinting down the court not thinking to get the ball … I’m sprinting — ready to celebrate what he was gonna do.
All you had to do was be able to run the floor and catch. … LeBron could pass better than almost anybody I’d seen — with both hands, left or right.
He passed it to Ricky with two hands …
I was ticked off that he passed that one off to Ricky. I wanted more pictures of LeBron.
Ricky could jump out the gym too … and LeBron was always looking out for the betterment of the team. He could’ve dunked that one but it was better for him to give it to Ricky and get him going.
He throws it back to little ol’ me, and I do my thing.
Most young players wouldn’t do something like that. They wanna dunk. He knows he’s gonna be on ESPN, on all the highlights, just because he is who he is. And he [passed it off to Davis]? I said to myself — I can remember — ‘That’s pretty impressive.’
He gave guys a pass when he could’ve just dunked down the middle of the lane. … It was like, ‘Wow … he’s a great leader.’”
When you see something like that happen, it just shows you the unselfishness. A lot of people have criticized him for being too unselfish at times. But from that point on, he’s never really changed from being who he was …
The type of person LeBron is … it’s not all about scoring. It’s not all about the flash. It’s about making sure everybody feels involved.
“He had Karl Malone’s size with Magic Johnson’s ability …”
It’s one of those things where it’s not fun if you’re doing it alone. To go through experiences with people makes it that much more special and creates that many more memories. We were blessed to have great coaches who helped us understand no one is bigger than the team — even though LeBron is the best player ever.
The thing that Michael Jordan got criticized for over the course of his career was passing and utilizing his teammates — LeBron had that the very first night he stepped foot into the NBA. To not be coached up to do that, but to have that instinctively … like Magic Johnson … like a point guard? That, to me, stood out. He had Karl Malone’s size with Magic Johnson’s ability to find teammates and make people better.
James finished the first quarter with 12 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals — a great game for many a pro. Cleveland took a brief fourth-quarter lead, 85-83, on a J.R. Bremer 3-pointer, assisted by — who else — James. And then Sacramento’s fluidity, chemistry and experience in big-time games allowed them to coast to a 106-92 win. But the best player on the floor, and by a considerable margin, was the 18-year-old supernova from Akron. James’ 25 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals rank among the best rookie debuts in sports history. He’s right there next to Willie McCovey and Wilt Chamberlain in 1959. Next to Fran Tarkenton 1n 1961, Iverson in 1996, Cam Newton in 2011 and Robert Griffin III in 2012. Per Elias Sports Bureau, James is the youngest player (18 years, 303 days) in league history with at least 25-5-5, and by a considerable margin — three years ahead of Willie Anderson (21-302) and Grant Hill (22-30). James’ first night on the job also placed him with the aforementioned Hill and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of only five players in the last half-century to tally at least 25-5-5 in their NBA debut. The future of the league had arrived. An entire country, begrudgingly or not, became witnesses.
After that first quarter … I was like, ‘Damn, he might be better than I thought he was.’
Believe the Hype: ‘I always tell people I think God just made him.’
Only one of the 69 ESPN-broadcast NBA games from the previous season had a higher rating than the debut of King James — the first meeting between O’Neal and Yao Ming on Jan. 17, 2003. Across the country, 2.49 million households stayed up to watch him in the pressure cooker. They went to work or school the next morning tired yet energized. Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach had seen enough. “He’s for real,” said the nine-time championship-winning coach. Silas predicted that in less than five years James would have the league chasing him. The verdict had already been rendered. James wasn’t just built for the moment. He was the moment.
We were hype! We were running around the basement. We was jumping up and down. Because you never know how careers are gonna turn out. No matter how much hype he had around him, you don’t know what’s gonna happen until it happens. You can’t anticipate. You can’t project. You can hope. But you don’t know.
He definitely lived up to the hype.
I’m sitting there like, This dude is unbelievable.
I thought he lived up to the hype in the preseason. It was just a matter of time before he came in and got comfortable.
He was comfortable. You could tell he was gonna be good right away.
I was on the bench with a couple of other players, and we just looked at each other in amazement at how LeBron was able to play that night at 18 years old. … You don’t expect him to get into the NBA, and day one, Game 1, have the impact that he had. I can’t recall another player being drafted out of high school that’s done that. It took other players some time to actually be able to do what LeBron was able to do from day one.
I expected it to be a little harder for him, but I watched him run us like a hot knife through butter. … Nobody could stop him. If you were close to being fast enough, you weren’t nearly his size. And if you were strong enough to keep him away from the basket, you weren’t nearly fast enough …
He was running the ballclub: shooting, rebounding … all kinds of things. He was so good. We didn’t have that many great players with him, but he was outstanding. He did everything he could that first game.
The whoopty-doo layups with the left hand to finding the open man to the crazy dunks … it was nothing new to him. Basketball is what he does.
His 25 could’ve been 35 if he really wanted it to be. … He didn’t really go M.J. … like, ‘If it takes me going for 40, I’m going for 40.’ I just saw a brother who wanted to play within the game.
We won pretty easily. But afterwards, we all talked about LeBron and how special he was going to be.
It was an extraordinary event considering it was a young man who was playing his first NBA game.
The kid was mature. I looked at how he was handling the situation. At the time … he was literally the biggest, most hyped 18-year-old in the world. I don’t think there was an 18-year-old in any sport who had more attention and spotlight on him than LeBron James did, and I watched how he handled that on his first night on the stage, and I walked away thinking this guy is beyond his years, and his talent is quite frankly like something I’d never seen.
Even watching him now and looking back trying to remind ourselves of 2003/2004, he was always prepared for the moment.
One of the most remarkable things about LeBron is how great he is — yes. But, wow, he matched the expectation of being that great — who does that?
LeBron’s special. I always tell people I think God just made him. It happens once in 100 years.
There was a sense that we were never going to be able to do this justice because of our deadlines … [like] it’s too bad the game is all the way out here because we’re never going to be able to explain this whole thing.
“Pressure been following me my whole life.”
That moment is up there. But at that time, you gotta understand that nobody knew for sure that he would have the career or legacy that he’s turned out to have. He was really built up and was gonna be a really good player, but you didn’t know that he was gonna be arguably a top-three or -four player of all time.
Whether it’s 50 years from now or 60 years from now, I was on the court, and on TV, for the first game of one of the best ever, if not the best ever, to play.
I did not view the game as a transcendent NBA moment. … Guys have great games. He had a great game at a very young age. But I wasn’t prepared … to make the judgment that this would shape his career, or this was a sign that he would be perhaps one of the greatest players to ever play. … I couldn’t have anticipated then the player he would be become. But what do I know? … What was going through my mind the entire game was, This kid really has game.
I’ve been a fan ever since.
I was as impressed with his first game as I am with his career today.
He’s still always going to be my rookie. No matter what. No matter how big of a superstar he is, how many championships he’s got — he’s still gonna be my rook.
After we lost, LeBron came in the locker room and, being the leader that he is, he said, ‘Tough one, guys, but we’ve got a game tomorrow.’ He didn’t sulk on a loss in his first game. He was ready to try to come back and get a win the next day.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
J.R. Bremer: Named to the 2003 NBA All-Rookie second team; currently living in hometown of Cleveland while still pursuing a professional basketball career in Europe, having last played in 2017 for Limoges CSP in France.
David Stern: Retired on Feb. 1, 2014, after serving as commissioner of the NBA for 30 years. He was succeeded by Adam Silver.
Terrell Owens: Class of 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee; second in NFL career receiving yards.
Mary Schmitt Boyer: Left The Plain Dealer in 2014.
Chris Webber: Five-time All-Star in 15 NBA seasons before retiring in 2008. He’s spent the past decade as an NBA on TNT/NBA TV analyst. His No. 4 jersey was retired by the Sacramento Kings in 2009.
Rocky Widner: Sacramento Kings team photographer since 1985.
Romeo Travis: Has played professionally overseas since 2007, when he went undrafted to the NBA; Now plays for the Magnolia Hotshots in the Philippines after becoming a champion and finals MVP of the French League in June.
Willie McGee: Director of athletics at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron.
Ricky Davis: Traded to Boston Celtics on Dec. 15, 2003, less than two months after season opener; played 12 NBA seasons for six different teams, and now is the co-captain of the Ghost Ballers in the BIG3 league.
Mike Bibby: Played 14 NBA seasons for six different teams; head basketball coach at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix since 2014; volunteer assistant coach for Memphis Grizzlies in the 2018 summer league and co-captain of the BIG3’s Ghost Ballers.
Tony Massenburg: Shares NBA record (with Chucky Brown, Jim Jackson and Joe Smith) for most franchises played for with 12; appears as a Washington Wizards analyst on NBC Sports Washington.
Peja Stojakovic: Retired three-time All Star and 2011 NBA champion with the Dallas Mavericks; His No. 16 jersey was retired by the Sacramento Kings in 2014; named Kings’ assistant general manager in May.
Ira Newble: Lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, where he’s focusing on family and raising his kids after coaching in the NBA’s D-League from 2011 to 2016.
Paul Silas: Former NBA head coach who led four different franchises in 12 seasons; last coached the Charlotte Bobcats from 2010 to 2012.