At this point LeBron James’ legend is sealed, but it wasn’t all that long ago that “King James” wasn’t a three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP, but instead, in his own words “Just a kid from Akron.”
That’s right, for all we’ve learned about LeBron in the last decade and change, it was back in 2003 that he was just first coming into the sport’s world’s consciousness as an uber-gifted basketball prodigy at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio. And as it turns out, one of the best coaches in college basketball had a chance to work him out as he prepared for the draft.
That coach is Texas’ Shaka Smart, who recently told an incredible story about LeBron, when he appeared on a recent episode of “The Sidelines Podcast: With Evan Daniels.”
Right as Lebron finished his senior year of high school, Smart began as an assistant coach at the University of Akron. And there, fellow assistant Keith Dambrot – LeBron’s former high school coach – brought a young Shaka along, to get James ready for the draft. Here’s the story (with the full audio above):
“That really, was just being in the right place at the right time,” Smart told ‘The Sidelines. “I was very fortunate in that; when I got hired at Akron, Keith was an assistant. I didn’t even know him [Dambrot]. Literally, my first day on the job is the first day I met him. And he said to me about two hours after I met him, he said ‘Listen, when it gets to be lunch time, I want to take you to meet somebody.’
So it gets to be noon, we get in the car, we drive to this rec center gym in Akron. It’s a weekday and nobody is there; all the kids are in school. And we’re standing on the court in the rec center, and there’s kind of glass doors, and we’re just standing there talking to the guy who ran the rec center, and we could see a hummer pull up. And LeBron James walks in, and so Keith throws a ball at me and says ‘Come on, we’re going to work out LeBron.’ This is in May of 2003, so he’s a senior in high school, he’s already signed with Nike, $90 million contract, he’s about to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
Talk about unbelievable, huh? Not bad for your first day on the job? Let alone, your first assistant coaching job at the Division I level, which is was for Smart.
So, what did Smart think of LeBron? Did he know he was witnessing right in front of his eyes?
The answer is yes. But it’s not necessarily for the reason you might think.
“So for the next two months or so, until he started his NBA summer league, we are, really, Keith is, with me as his assistant, are working out LeBron. It really was an unbelievable experience.
I did feel like ‘man, this guy is something other than anything I’ve ever seen.’ Not so much of what he could do physically, but because of his mind. It was unbelievable what you could hit him with, and the way he could take it in and transfer it in to transfer it to what he did on the court.”
For anyone who has followed LeBron’s career, Smart’s comments aren’t all that surprising, considering that he is believed by many to be one of the smartest players in the league. The stats – LeBron regularly is among the NBA’s league leaders in assists – show that he sees the game on a different level, and everyone who knows him well (including Smart) talks about his mind as much as athletic ability.
In terms of what has happened since, Smart says that the two still see each other occasionally on the summer circuit, and LeBron even texted him after he made the Final Four with VCU.
But their relationship started that summer back in 2003, in a gym in Akron.
You can listen to the rest of the interview with Shaka Smart above.
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