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LeBron’s 2005 ‘Slam’ Cover

Rocking his headband and a crown, the young king was ready to play

Before the four MVP awards. Before the 12 consecutive All-Star games. Before The Decision. Before “Not 1, not 2, not 3 ….” Before all that, there was LeBron James, future king of the NBA. And if his game-changing 2002 “The Chosen One” Sports Illustrated cover was his introduction to the kingdom, December 2005’s Slam cover was his coronation.

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This was three months before his first All-Star Game MVP. Six months before his first first-team All-NBA selection. Eight months before he signed an $80 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And just a season before that coming-out-story performance in Game 5 vs. the Pistons. That was the night that proved LeBron James — not Allen Iverson, not Kobe Bryant, not Tracy “T-Mac” McGrady — was true heir apparent to the throne basketball legend Michael Jordan left vacant almost a decade previously. That game was nine years ago this month. This week — down two games to the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals — the King is fighting for his legacy.

SLAM, launched as a paper product in ’94, put James on its cover five times before he even turned 21. In “Diary,” a running series highlighting top high school seniors, James was the first underclassman to be featured. In 2001, James, at 16, spoke with then-SLAM senior editor Ryan Jones for one of his first national magazine stories. Jones is now a contributing editor to the magazine. “I wish,” James said then, “I could finish high school right now, tell you the truth.”

…three months before his first All-Star Game MVP. Six months before his first first-team All-NBA selection. Eight months before he signed an $80 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

When it came to capturing the irreverence of not-yet-a-man James, Jones knew exactly how he wanted to portray the young phenom. James had been given the “King” moniker back in high school from fans and local sports reporters, and he more than held court through his early seasons in the league. Jones and former SLAM creative director Melissa Medvedich (now creative director at StyleCaster) wanted to replicate a king of diamonds playing card, complete with cover lines acting as a border. The only hurdle was, as Jones wrote in 2009, making the cover photo “corny-proof,” which is borderline impossible when the future lord of basketball is dressed like Joffrey Baratheon.

And while the actual sword, robe and crown that James donned that October day in Cleveland weren’t what readers saw on the eventual cover (“The crown wasn’t much more than like a Burger King crown,” said Jones), James was receptive to the idea. Conceptual photographer Pier Nicola D’Amico wanted to capture James’ emergence. “He was the next great hope for the NBA,” said D’Amico. “I wanted the expression and the moment to be, ‘Hey, I’m comin.’ ”

Slam wanted to replicate a king of diamonds playing card, complete with cover lines acting as a border. The only hurdle was making the cover photo ‘corny-proof.’ ”

To bring the image to life, D’Amico went through “35 layers of editing,” including adding each jewel individually to the crown, and enhancing the Cavs jersey. In the end, he only had 10 shots of James in full royal garb, one of which became the cover. “We all thought this guy was going to be incredible,” Jones says, “so to play up the ‘king’ angle was not a stretch.”

The collaboration ended up being one of both Jones’ and D’Amico’s favorite covers of all time. “[James] was incredibly serious, and focused and determined,” said D’Amico. “It really captured a moment.”

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"