While LeBron James was a junior in high school, still thinking about whether he’ll take his talents to the NBA or head off to college, the Cleveland Cavaliers already had their beady eyes set on the 17-year-old. So much so that they invited the basketball prodigy to an illegal workout with its very own players on May 22, 2002. For all their antics and efforts at getting a first-person view of the teenager, they got fined $150,000.
An early case of tampering?
In a report by the Associated Press from that time, the NBA fined the organization for violating league rules and suspended then Cavaliers coach John Lucas for the first two games of the 2002-03 NBA season. The report read in part:
“In a statement, the league said Lucas was fined for ‘violating league rules prohibiting contact between NBA teams and players not yet eligible for the NBA draft.‘”
The league’s rules stated that ‘teams may not directly or indirectly have or engage or attempt to have or engage in any discussion, communications or contact whatsoever with any player who has remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility or is otherwise ineligible to be selected in such draft.‘
“The Chosen One”
The Cavaliers organization must have caught on to the LeBron hype train during that time. Since a few months before the illegal workout, James graced the cover of the Feb 18, 2002 Sports Illustrated issue, which tagged him as “The Chosen One.” It detailed why James, even as a junior, could make waves with the big boys. His athletic gifts were obvious. But his intelligence for the game — which already lined up with the greats — was his real selling point.
So you can’t blame the Cavaliers for inviting the hometown boy over for a workout. However, if they were smart enough, the organization could’ve just sent over some scouts to the pick-up games that James played in together with NBA All-Stars.
Maverick Carter, LeBron’s longtime friend and business associate shared that James was already going toe-toe with NBA All-Stars in pick-up games when the forward was just 16. Carter said James didn’t necessarily stand out. The phenom was still in the midst of developing his game.
James himself confirmed this story. He even said that he teamed up with none other than his hero Michael Jordan in one of these pick-up games. In case you’re wondering, no, they did not lose a single game.
That $150,000 fine and the two-game suspension were worth every penny in hindsight. James stayed in high school for another year and, in April, declared for the 2003 NBA Draft. After which, the Cavaliers were gifted with the number one pick in the lottery. And we all know what happened from that point on.