LeBron James Once ‘Hated’ Southern California. How He Came to Embrace It.

LeBron James Once ‘Hated’ Southern California. How He Came to Embrace It.

LOS ANGELES — The sun had already set when LeBron James and his high school teammates pulled up to the beach in a limousine-length Cadillac Escalade. They had come straight from the airport, with 50 Cent blaring from the speakers.

“It was dark as hell,” Willie McGee, one of the other players from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, recalled in a telephone interview. “But I had never seen the ocean.”

It was January 2003. An 18-year-old senior on the cusp of global celebrity, James arrived with his team on this auspicious trip to Los Angeles for a nationally televised game against Mater Dei High School, a basketball powerhouse from Santa Ana, Calif. But first, the beach. Unlike James, most of his teammates were visiting California for the first time.

“That was one of the best things about that trip,” Romeo Travis, another player on that team, said. “For us Ohio guys, being out there bumping 50 Cent in a stretch limo was surreal.”

As for the game itself, which was played at Pauley Pavilion, on the U.C.L.A. campus, James actually shot the ball poorly in a narrow win. But his struggles hardly mattered: For one night, on the grandest stage of his embryonic career, in one of the most glamorous cities in the world, he was the biggest star of all.

“I remember it not because it was a great game,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike and Adidas executive who was sitting courtside, “but because it was historic.”

James, 33, has spent the many years since that formative trip to Los Angeles circling the city in odd and different ways, making cameos at Staples Center for games against the Lakers and the Clippers. He started a production company in 2008 to feed his passion for television and film and reap the riches they might bring, and later opened an office on the Warner Bros. lot. He bought a multimillion-dollar home here in 2015, then another one this summer.

Over the years, he has found the weather to be pleasant. He developed an interest in the city’s art scene. His wife likes it here. He recently put his children in school here. And now he has upended the N.B.A. by joining the Lakers, instantly thrusting them back into the postseason picture while minting himself as a mogul in the making.

“We made a decision,” James told reporters recently, referring to his family, “that this was our next journey.”

James, a four-time N.B.A. most valuable player, will make his regular-season debut for the Lakers on Thursday night when they visit the Portland Trail Blazers. He has been adamant that his decision to sign with the Lakers this summer was a basketball move — he wanted the challenge of resurrecting a storied franchise, friends and associates say — but there is no doubting the importance of his longtime ties to Los Angeles and his attraction to this place, a symbiotic relationship that can be traced to his teenage years.

“His home will always be Ohio,” Mark Olivier, one of his former youth coaches, said in an interview. “But this is a new stage of life for him.”

James’s first exposure to Southern California — specifically, Southern Californians — came in the eighth grade, when his summer league team, the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars, took a 20-hour van ride to Orlando, Fla., to play in a national tournament. In the championship game, the Shooting Stars ran into a juggernaut: the Southern California All-Stars, which had several sets of flashy uniforms and the swagger to match. James, who later wrote in a memoir that he thought the California players were ridiculously arrogant, missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and his team lost.

The game stuck with James, who described his feelings in “LeBron’s Dream Team: How Four Friends and I Brought a Championship Home,” which he wrote with Buzz Bissinger.

“I have since been to Southern California many times,” James wrote. “It is a cool and beautiful place, filled with riches and glamour and secret places hidden in the pockets of the Hollywood Hills. But right then and there, I hated Southern California.”

A year later, James made his first trip to California, to play in a tournament in Berkeley for the Oakland Soldiers, an elite Amateur Athletic Union program. The back story of how he came to play for them is complicated — lots of stuff with James is complicated — but a friend of one of the Soldiers’ founders had seen James play in Akron.

James wound up making at least two trips to play for the Soldiers, including one for a tournament at California State University, Dominguez Hills, just outside Los Angeles. The secret was out: James was the best high school player in the country.

“He went crazy in that tournament,” Olivier, a former president of the Soldiers, said. “You could see that the game was just really easy for him.”

Olivier said he had hoped to take his players to Disneyland — they were always talking about it, he said — but their schedule was packed and traffic was unbearable. So they settled for a water balloon fight at their hotel. Olivier came away with the impression that James enjoyed his time in California.

“The weather,” Olivier said. “The weather. The weather. We have no seasons here. How can you not like it?”

By the time James was a high school senior, St. Vincent-St. Mary was playing a national schedule — and charging $15,000 appearance fees. Dinos Trigonis, a talent evaluator in the Los Angeles area who helped put on high-profile high school games, thought the price was worth it to lure the team to Los Angeles to face Mater Dei.

Trigonis knew that several players from Mater Dei had played for the Southern California All-Stars, the team that defeated James in the eighth grade. So Trigonis pitched the payback factor to St. Vincent-St. Mary and the team’s coach, Dru Joyce II.

“They never forgot about it,” Trigonis said. “In their minds, it was almost like a rematch.”

The day before the game, there was a news conference at Lawry’s, a steakhouse in Beverly Hills. James and his teammates wore matching sweatsuits. Yet for all their apparent polish, they were still teenagers from Akron. McGee recalled being unimpressed with the concept of prime rib.

“I’m talking about a big, dumb, stupid steak,” he said. “I remember Coach Dru being like, ‘Yo, that’s a $50 plate!’ But all the seniors were sitting up top, and we looked at each other like, ‘Man, we don’t want this.’ Afterward, we went to Burger King or something.”

Still, James was edging irrevocably closer to the glamour of big-time sports. At his news conference, he was asked about his diamond earrings.

“They cost 25 cents each out of a gumball machine,” he said, deadpan.

All weekend, James seemed to alternate between playfulness and petulance. By then, he was entrenched in the spotlight’s glare, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the N.B.A. draft with his own Sports Illustrated cover. He was adjusting to celebrity, and there was no going back.

At the time, Joyce expressed concern that all the attention was too much, too soon, and that James was easy prey for nefarious forces who did not have the best intentions. After all, James was just a teenager. But he was worth millions.

On game day, James dressed at the locker that belonged to Jason Kapono, then a star for U.C.L.A., before taking the court in front of a capacity crowd that included television actors along with agents and sneaker company executives who were jockeying to sign him. “I remember seeing Urkel on the sidelines,” McGee said, referring to a character on “Family Matters.”

The game, which was broadcast by ESPN2, seemed almost ancillary. James had 21 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 turnovers in a 64-58 win. The trip, though, left an impression.

“Come on, now,” McGee said. “It was the dead of winter back home in Ohio, and we got the chance to go to California. Man, we were in love.”

A few months after the win against Mater Dei, and a couple of months before the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the top pick in the 2003 N.B.A. draft, James returned to Los Angeles with a group of friends for a playoff game between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.

James, who was being courted by potential sponsors, was about to sign a seven-year deal with Nike worth more than $90 million, among the first of many partnerships that would demonstrate his business savvy.

Travis, who came along on the trip — “The Lakers got blown out,” he said — recalled that they stayed at the same hotel as the Spurs, which was a thrill because Tim Duncan was one of his favorite players.

Travis, McGee and James still keep in touch via group texts with a few friends from Akron. Travis, who plays pro basketball in the Philippines, said he heard rumblings over the winter that James might go to the Lakers, which did not come as a total surprise.

As much as James has capitalized on his fame, and as much as he enjoys it — he appeared onstage with Drake during a recent concert at Staples Center — there are moments when he craves privacy, Travis said.

“For a famous guy, L.A. is one of the best places to be because there are so many other famous people,” Travis said. “If he walks into a restaurant and there are 10 other famous people there, everyone will be like, ‘Oh, it’s LeBron,’ and they keep going about their day because they’re used to it.”

He added, “It’s just about a little bit of normalcy, which he hasn’t had since he was 16 years old.”

At the same time, James has numerous business interests based in Los Angeles, including his production company (SpringHill Entertainment) and a digital platform (Uninterrupted). His companies have projects in development with networks like HBO, Starz, Showtime and Netflix. He also plans to exercise his acting chops in a coming reboot of “Space Jam.”

Yet James has consistently fought the perception that he moved here because of Hollywood. It is worth noting that he said he plans to spend his summers in the Akron area, where he still has a home.

“My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers,” James said. “As far as my businesses, those things were taken care of long before I came out here to be a part of the Laker franchise.”

So James has another full season ahead of him, with dreams of lifting a new team to familiar heights. He lives with his family in the Brentwood neighborhood, not too far from the beach where, in some ways, long ago, his latest journey began.

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