I first met LeBron James during his senior year of high school, when LeBron and his mother were still living in subsidized housing, on a hill in west Akron,Ohio. Even when Gloria James’s addiction demons kicked in, she told me she made sure money or food stamps went to the family who housed and fed her little boy when LeBron was just 8 years old.
I met the family who took him in, including Frankie Walker, who showed him how to use his left hand, who purposely never told him how good he was, and whose wife, Pam, made that withdrawn child smile big when she plopped a German chocolate cake on the table for his ninth birthday.
I also met Chris Dennis, the family friend who handled all the business early on, who made sure he got LeBron to Sonny Vaccaro’s camp.
Dennis, who does marketing in the Cleveland-Akron area, was the guy who originally secured the domain name LeBronJames.com early in high school to protect his image. He managed his Web site and helped broker a deal between LeBron’s former agent and a company that ended up paying LeBron seven figures over three years, still unprecedented at that age.
They all formed a protective, if invisible, circle around a golden child so, as his former high school teammate Maverick Carter told me, LeBron would never “lose his glare.”
If you would have told me then that the same kid would grow up to become one of America’s most disliked athletes, that he would be the big-city villain standing between Kevin Durant and small-market Oklahoma City’s NBA Finals dreams, I would have said you are crazy and asked: What’s not to like about his story?
Yes, even at 17, he knew he was famous and destined for the NBA and some of his words felt pre-packaged and programmed. But without the Hummer to drive to school, beneath the tats and jewelry, he was every teenager, U.S.A. — trying to come across much more confident than he really was, wearing a mask of certainty to hide the fact that some nights as a child he had no idea where he would sleep.
Beyond “The Decision,” which he even now regrets, what happened? How did we lose sight of where he came from, how a kid who never knew his biological father, who was never incarcerated, much less arrested for anything, become so reviled? How a latchkey child ended up being raised by a village of extended family that made sure he wouldn’t be another lost soul in the streets.
“Y’all helped create the monster,” Frankie Walker, now 52, said by telephone Monday afternoon from Akron. “Y’all created the ‘King James.’ When it don’t go the way you wanted it to, he didn’t win the championship right away, you changed it up, brought him down.
“Didn’t you make foolish decisions at 21, 22? Everybody has made ’em. But his were magnified. Y’all created the monster. When you build ’em up like that and you put millions on top of that, you not talking about a broke monster; you talkin’ about a rich monster.”
Chris Dennis has another opinion: The circle isn’t the same. For a kid like LeBron who was an only child, who was basically head of his household before he was 10, there would always be voids that needing filling.
If Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other of the game’s champions embraced the bad-guy role, LeBron shunned it — to the point of volunteering this past season that, sure, he could see himself playing in Cleveland again after all the ugliness associated with his departure, even though no one asked the question.
“He wants to be liked, that’s who he is,” Dennis said. “All the different schools he went to as a child, moving all the time, he became a chameleon — he learned to fit in.
“The bravado and the posing after every play isn’t him. I know that’s what everyone does now, but that’s not who LeBron is, trust me.”
Walker spoke to LeBron before the playoffs began, but they don’t talk as much. Dennis, who stopped running his basketball camp before the 2007 NBA Finals, saw him last fall when Durant had come to town to work out with LeBron and the two played in a flag football game together.
The circle is different now. Carter is still head of Team LeBron, which also includes childhood friends Randy Mims, Rich Paul, the agent Leon Rose and William Wesley, “Worldwide Wes,” friend to the stars.
“You can only be what you’re surrounded by,” Dennis says. “You don’t have a strong male figure in your life, what happens?
“ ‘The Decision?’ There’s no way that would have happened if he had a dad. Things would have never been formulated like that.”
Walker, whose son Frankie Jr., recently opened a shoe store in Miami with LeBron, said, “To this day, I tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. Whether he likes it or not.”
“When he was playing for me in rec league, I gave the whole team the MVP. I did that for a reason, to keep him grounded, to show him it’s not about you — it’s about team. That was implanted in him at 8 or 9 years old. That’s one of the reasons why he’s unselfish.”
Told that Dennis said LeBron’s circle doesn’t seem interested in putting strong male figures around him to check his ego, Walker added, “I’m not going nowhere. And he know that.”
They both openly root for LeBron to win his first title, but Dennis worries for him.
He wonders if the people that surround him now would ever allow LeBron to have a real spiritual component in his life — if they truly believe in a higher power that doesn’t wear No. 6 on the back of his Heat jersey.
“I doubt it; look who he’s surrounded by,” he said. “I wonder how much he really controls now or if he’s just being led around by people who compartmentalize other people in his life — to make sure they don’t get too close to him anymore because they think that makes them less valuable to him. I’ve been put in a certain box. Frankie’s been put in a certain box. A lot of people who helped him growing up are like that now.
“Sometimes, I think it’s almost a Michael Jackson thing — where he’s this adult being treated like a child by all the people around him who make sure he doesn’t grow up and become all that he could.”
Frankie Walker isn’t sure of all that. He knows, for whatever reason, the kid who finally trusted his family to take care of him while his mother “got better” has yet to be shown in full.
“Forget about the ’ball, I’m extremely proud of what he has done,” Walker said. “He’s taken care of his family. He’s staying out of trouble. I don’t have to go visit him in no prison or jail. He’s doing something he’s supposed to do as a black man in this society — and that’s be a good father to his kids.
“If you knew what LeBron went through and you knew what he became, no way in the world you could root against him. Still don’t understand it.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.