The weekend Bay Area trip that helped make LeBron James a star

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OAKLAND, Calif. – Marc Olivier, coach of the Oakland Soldiers AAU team, had a 15-year-old basketball prodigy named LeBron James in the back seat of his car one day in July 2000. Olivier had picked up James and his buddy from San Francisco International Airport and was struggling to get the boys to talk.

"I didn't know him and he didn't know me. He was quiet," Olivier said. "I had to kind of break the ice. When we got in the car we already were in San Francisco. So I said, 'Have you guys ever heard of the most crooked street in the world? …Y'all want to go?' "

Olivier took the boys to Lombard Street, and "that kind of broke the ice."

LeBron James played for the AAU Oakland Soldiers when he was in high school. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
LeBron James played for the AAU Oakland Soldiers when he was in high school. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

While James was a local basketball star in Akron, Ohio, at that time, he was largely unknown to the rest of the nation when he came to play in a tournament for the AAU Oakland Soldiers in 2000. The Soldiers were founded in 1990 in the Oakland suburb of Richmond. Twenty-five years later, it has now grown into an AAU powerhouse with alumni that include James, Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings, Leon Powe, Aaron Gordon, Chuck Hayes, Jabari Brown, Kendrick Perkins and Stanley Johnson.

Fifteen years after first playing for the Soldiers, James returns to the Bay Area to lead his Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

"It's amazing because that part of his life he never talks about publicly," Olivier said. "But I thought we had some good times and we still talk about it."

Oakland native Chris Dennis was living in Akron in 1998 when he went to see his brother play in a youth basketball league with other middle school kids. He noticed that one of his brother's teammates was not only bigger, but much more advanced skill-wise. He also already possessed a strong basketball IQ. That kid was James, and Dennis called Soldiers co-founder Calvin Andrews to tell him he had just found a star-in-the-making.

"I told him that I saw a kid that will be better than Jason Kidd," Dennis said. "He just blew me off, but I didn't give up on it."

Not giving up, Dennis brought a VHS video highlight tape of James after his freshman year in high school for Andrews and Olivier to see in the Adidas suite during the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. While the tape was being played, Andrews said Adidas' top basketball executive, Sonny Vaccaro, started watching.

"Sonny walks by and asks what we were watching," Andrews said. "Once we told Sonny it was a freshman from Akron, Ohio, he walked away very uninterested. The kid looked good, but no one was overly impressed."

Dennis made it his personal mission to try to get James a bigger spotlight – and he wouldn't give up on seeing him in a Soldiers uniform.

"I saw a ranking of the top freshman of his class and LeBron wasn't in it," Dennis said. "I was like, 'I got to help change that for the kid.' He deserves much better than that."

Dennis also talked to James' then-high school coach Keith Dambrot about playing for the Soldiers. While Andrews eventually started to warm to the idea, he worried that the local kids playing might have animosity toward an outsider like James. The Soldiers also didn't have the budget to fly him in.

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After being pushed further by Dennis, Andrews said Dambrot, then-University of California-Berkeley men's basketball coach Ben Braun, Andrews and Olivier eventually talked about what good could come from James playing for the Soldiers. Andrews agreed to make a Soldiers roster spot available for James at the Elite 8 Tournament in late July 2000, but would not pay for his travel. After Olivier agreed to host James and his high school teammate and friend Dru Joyce Jr., the trip was set.

"I don't know who paid for it, but he got here," Andrews said.

James and Joyce stayed with Olivier, Olivier's 8-month pregnant wife, Shelley, and his two preteen sons Marc Jr. and Lance at their suburban Oakland home. James and Joyce quickly felt at home with the family.

"They slept on the couches because I had a three-bedroom house with two kids," Olivier said. "My wife even took them to Berkeley to get some pizza."

James finally put on a Soldiers uniform to play with their under-17 team, which included forward-center Chuck Hayes, now a 10-year NBA veteran, during the 2000 Elite 8 tournament in Berkeley. Andrews said he could immediately tell James was special because of the way he quickly learned the plays and counter plays.

Adidas sponsored James' AAU team. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Adidas sponsored James' AAU team. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

"I was like, 'Wow, this kid is a freshman and he can do it like this,' " Andrews said. "He was like 6-4, decent build but wiry. His game consisted of jumpers, layups and solid basketball then."

Hayes said he and his teammates initially weren't that welcoming to James.

"Me and some of the older Soldiers players were kind of offended because he was younger, not from the Bay Area, let alone NorCal," Hayes said. "But after the first game, his game spoke for itself and we all came to the conclusion that this young fellah from Ohio was the real deal."

At that time, Powe was often viewed as the No. 1 player in the nation in the class of 2003. Powe also was a little bothered by James at first because James was playing on the under-17 team in a tournament while Powe was on the under-16 team. Powe said he and James talked trash to each other as both teams played in the championship game.

While Powe's team won the tournament, he quickly learned that James could threaten his ranking.

"I was ranked No. 1 in my class," Powe said. "And then LeBron came I was like, 'He's cool. He's solid.' Then we played a couple games and I was like, 'Man, he's really good.' After four or more games went by, I said, 'Coach Marc, I need to talk to you for a second.'

"Coach Marc said, 'What's up big fellah?' I was like, 'This dude isn't in my class is he?' Marc said, 'Big fellah, I am afraid so.' "

Powe said he and James became friends quickly and hung out during his following Bay Area trips. Powe said he would take him to play pickup basketball and eat at restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland. James' silly side also entertained Powe.

"He was real funny," Powe said. "One time we were in a layup line for a game and he was eating an ice cream cone in one hand and dribbling with the other."

Andrews and Olivier made a trip to Akron to watch James play during his sophomore year at Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School and stayed at Dambrot's home. Andrews and Olivier said they met James' mother Gloria and James' other close friends.

"That was when the bond got tight," Andrews said. "That was when Glo said, 'These dudes are cool.' That solidified our relationship with the kid being a Soldier."

James' first major tournament for the Soldiers was during the Pump N Run Tournament in Los Angeles in March 2001. Andrews said James grew to 6-7 and was "jumping out the gym." Olivier said James' problem at that time was he was silly and didn't play hard all the time. But after James got fouled real hard in one game, Olivier said he started to dominate and the Soldiers won the tournament.

"That's when the world started seeing LeBron James," Andrews said.

Said Olivier: "LeBron put on a show."

By that time, James' popularity was growing fast nationally. Aware Nike was also growing interested in James, Andrews said he and Adidas representative Chris Rivers tried several times to try to convince Vaccaro to come watch him play.

"Sonny told me, 'I'm not going to [expletive] Akron,' " Andrews said. "Me and Chris Rivers eventually convinced – the key word, 'convinced' – Sonny to see this kid."

Andrews, Rivers and Vaccaro decided to have the Soldiers put together an unpublicized two-game showcase at the University of San Francisco in May 2001. Andrews said Adidas paid for James and his family. Dambrot and another Saint Vincent-Saint Mary coach, Dru Joyce to come to the Bay Area. Vaccaro and his wife, Pam, also made the trip, as well as other Adidas basketball representatives.

"That was the weekend that changed everything," Andrews said.

The James crew and Vaccaro stayed at the Oakland Downtown Marriott, which also has a facility on the premise that hosts the Warriors' offices and practice court. The night before James played in front of Vaccaro, Andrews said he and Rivers visited him in his hotel room. Rivers also surprised James with his own personalized Adidas shoe that read "LBJ #23" on the back.

Andrews believes that was the first personalized shoe ever made for a high school basketball player.

"Chris says, 'Let us show you how we roll,' " Andrews said. "He took one shoe and tossed it to the kid. LeBron caught it and said, 'Oh my God.' He was ecstatic. It had his initial and number on it. He couldn't believe it.

"Chris said, 'I will give you the other shoe if we all agree you're with the Adidas family.' He said, 'I'm with the family. I'm with the family. I want to play in these tomorrow.' So we gave in and gave him the other shoe."

Vaccaro watched from the stands the next day as James took the court. But in the first game, James did not play well or look motivated. He also looked uncomfortable in his Adidas shorts.

LeBron James and Jaidan Olivier. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
LeBron James and Jaidan Olivier. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

"You could tell by his body language that Sonny was disappointed," Andrews said.

Sensing James was ruining a potentially lucrative opportunity, Dambrot took him outside the gym and gave him some choice words. James came back and dominated the next game.

"The first game he was fooling with his shorts, wasn't playing really hard and wasn't playing really good," Dambrot said. "I just remember going into the hallway and saying, 'LeBron, look, I am not going to tell you what to do. That's a pretty powerful guy watching and you are out there [expletive] around. You need to play a little bit.'

"He said, 'Coach, my shorts are bothering me.' I told him, 'You better stop playing with your shorts and start playing a little harder.' He went back out there and played like he is capable of playing. …I told him there is going to be a lot of money determined by what [Vaccaro] thinks of you."

The next morning, Andrews said Vaccaro secured an Adidas shoe and apparel contract for James' high school, the Soldiers and his in-state AAU team, the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars. Andrews said Adidas also decided what tournaments the young phenom would play with the Soldiers and the Shooting Stars and paid for all his travel expenses. Gloria James was also a fixture on AAU road trips after that.

"After that, things were never the same," Andrews said. "Adidas stepped in and took everything to another level."

James and Powe were teammates during the prestigious 2001 ABCD camp in Teaneck, N.J., and considered the top two players of the class of 2003, respectively, at the time. Powe said after they lost their first three games he and James told their shot-happy point guard that he better pass the ball. James took over point guard duties after that and they won the rest of the way.

"When LeBron took over point guard it was all she wrote," Powe said.

James and Powe also played together with the Soldiers during the Elite 8 tournament at the Rec Center at Cal-Berkeley. By then, James was a mega prep star and lots of media were in attendance. With a sellout crowd watching, he led the Soldiers to the championship.

"[Former UCLA coach] Steve Lavin said, 'I don't know why I am trying to watch this guy. He's never going to play in college,' " Olivier said.

James would play his last tournament for the Soldiers in Houston of April 2002. The Soldiers assembled one of the greatest AAU teams of all time with James, Powe and Kendrick Perkins, along with several other top 100 players.

"LeBron dropped like 55 points on Dwight Howard and them," Powe said. "[James] did fadeaways, step-backs, spin-around fadeaways, left fadeaways, 3-point fadeaway and get to the lane. He got on the fast break and did the East Bay funk dunk putting the ball through his legs. This dude was incredible.

"He was so big then that we needed security. They had to sneak us out the back door. It was big. Huge. Everyone was going crazy."

Said Perkins: "He was just a physical specimen, but his IQ of the game at that time was through the roof. I knew at that time he was going to be a great pro."

Powe and James were teammates with the Cavaliers during the 2009-10 season and occasionally would reminisce about their Soldiers days.

"He would tell everybody, 'That was Leon's team, man,' " Powe said.

Andrews said that James last attended a Soldiers game five years ago, but his mom still comes to games on occasion. James also visited with Olivier and met his 15-year-old daughter Jaidan for the first time after the Cavaliers played the Warriors in Oakland on Jan. 9.

"LeBron always told me he wanted to meet my daughter that my wife was pregnant with when we met him," Olivier said.

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