Witnessing the boy King

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The Kingmaker had flown in to see the would-be King, a private workout in San Francisco for then 16-year-old LeBron James in front of Sonny Vaccaro, the powerful adidas basketball czar.

Although he was just a high school sophomore at the time, James was of great intrigue to Vaccaro. In nearly four decades of running all-star games and talent camps, Vaccaro had seen nearly every great player when he still was in high school. He famously had shocked the industry by signing Michael Jordan to Nike and Kobe Bryant to adidas. His influence in basketball was immense.

So this, in many ways, was the moment James' life was going to change, the first step from budding Ohio legend to the nine-digit shoe contract, the "global icon" vision and Thursday's NBA finals debut where at 22 he leads his Cleveland Cavaliers against the San Antonio Spurs.

Back in 2001, though, there on the humble home court of the University of San Francisco, James would play in a full-court pickup game featuring a mix of high school and college players, including USF guard John Cox, who is Kobe's cousin.

Vaccaro took a seat alone under one basket and watched. He couldn't believe James' size – 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds already – and he couldn't believe his speed and agility. Then, just a few plays in, James grabbed a strong rebound, took two dribbles up court and rifled a bounce pass that went "about 75 feet" to a teammate who streaked in for an easy basket.

And that, for Vaccaro's veteran, well-trained eye, was enough.

"I walked out and called Bobby Hartstein (a New York basketball bird dog and former high school coach of Stephon Marbury) and said, 'Bobby, I just saw the greatest high school player I've ever seen.' "

Hartstein, back in Brooklyn, was stunned.

"I said, 'Sonny, I think you're getting a little carried away,' " Hartstein said. " 'Who is this kid?'

"Sonny said, 'His name is LeBron James. When you see him this summer (at the ABCD Camp) you tell me what you think.' I saw him at the camp and said, 'Sonny, what is he, 30 years old?' That's how old he looked. But he was everything Sonny said he was. He's turned out to be everything everyone said he would be. And he's a great kid, too."

For Vaccaro, 67 and now happily retired from the shoe business, his summer ABCD Camp (which he founded in 1984) and his spring prep all-star game (which began in 1965), his last great find still is bringing him satisfaction.

"I'll never forget that pass," Vaccaro said Wednesday from his home in Calabasas, Calif. "The thing (was) everyone knew he was playing for an audience. Whenever a kid plays for an audience, and I've done this a few times (through the years), they try to (impress) by scoring. They hit three jumpers in a row and then they come down talking. They're kids.

"LeBron knew it was all about him, but he felt no need to do kids' things," Vaccaro continued. "This wasn't some AAU up-and-down. It wasn't about his shot. It was passing. The only other time I had seen that was when Kobe first came to ABCD, he was 15, had lived his whole life in Italy. (It was his) first games in America, and he made some great passes."

James, because he played for an adidas-sponsored traveling team, was already headed to the ABCD Camp just outside New York City. That's how Vaccaro got the inside track and personal scrimmage.

But immediately, Vaccaro knew this wasn't just any camper. Sonny and his wife Pam soon entertained James, his mother Gloria and father figure Eddie Jackson at their home. Adidas then signed LeBron's high school team, Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary's, to a shoe and apparel deal worth $15,000 that first year, which Vaccaro still considers one of the greatest bargains in sports marketing history.

Meanwhile, Vaccaro turned up the adidas marketing machine to begin hyping James. Vaccaro pushed the kid to reporters and talent scouts. There were press conferences, personalized shoes and buzz. At ABCD he was a superstar, Vaccaro setting up big matchups against the other great players in the country whom LeBron dominated.

That helped spring James, still just a high school junior, to the cover of every national web site, Slam and even Sports Illustrated.

There was a backlash, of course. On Wednesday, Vaccaro was pulling out old newspaper stories of people claiming James was overrated, that Vaccaro had ruined him and that it was all too much, too soon for this kid.

"Just about every major NBA writer, every TV type (ripped) me and LeBron," Vaccaro said. "They doubted his ability. I just felt bad for them. They hadn't seen him and they just acted like they had. If you had seen him, you couldn't say that. They didn't know what they were talking about.

"Yeah, we ruined him all right."

As a senior, everyone did see when ESPN, in a controversial, groundbreaking decision, nationally televised one of James' games ‐ complete with both Dick Vitale and Bill Walton as color commentators. St. Vincent-St. Mary's blew out top-ranked Oak Hill Academy, leaving Oak Hill's longtime coach Steve Smith, who had eight high-Division I prospects on his team, to shake his head and shrug, "He's the best I've ever seen."

There is no doubt LeBron James would have been a great player without that pickup game in California, without Vaccaro and the adidas muscle. But he wouldn't have been King James as quickly.

"Sonny did so much for me," James said a few years back. "He made so much of this possible."

That included driving up the price of James' shoe deal to unheard sums. Foolishly, adidas dropped out early, unwilling to listen to Vaccaro and invest fully in LeBron. But the hype sent Reebok and Nike into a massive bidding war that ended with James getting approximately $105 million over seven years from The Swoosh, according to his then-representatives.

All of this for a high school senior, remember.

And so now Vaccaro, who still stays in touch with James and the family, watches the NBA playoffs, watches the greatest high school player he ever saw, blossom into every bit the player he knew he could. And he thinks back to that 75-foot bounce pass in San Francisco.

"That's when I knew," Vaccaro said. "That's when I said, 'This is it.' "