LeBron James Wouldn't Let Walter Iooss Jr., Who Was Photographing Him For Nike, Speak Directly To Him

If you get a chance to pick up last week's Sports Illustrated issue without gagging at the cover, it's worth flipping through to Walter Iooss Jr.'s career retrospective. The photographer has been shooting athletes and swimsuit models for SI for 50 years, and it turns out that he's got as many wonderful anecdotes about famous athletes as he does iconic images of them.

The stories are delightful—Michael Jordan on playing with centers Joe Kleine, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington in 1998: "You know what I have to play with?" He looked right at them and said, "Twenty-one feet of shit"—and we don't want to spoil too many of them. But we did want to share a special tidbit about LeBron James, whom Iooss has photographed on three occasions throughout the NBA star's career.

The first time they met was in 2003, when James was an 18-year-old rookie in Cleveland. Then, he was "raw," Iooss wrote, without any of the "smooth edges" he's developed as a public figure over the years. He shot him six years later, in 2009, and "the difference was amazing":

He walked in like a king that day, and he took over that room. And not only physically, although he was massive then. I've never seen an athlete look like that. He was muscular, charming, articulate, the prince of hoops. He couldn't have been more of an ambassador for the game.

Then, in July 2010, Nike assigned Iooss to shoot James after he'd signed with Miami. It was just a month after he'd announced on national television that he would take his talents to South Beach. Iooss thought he'd changed a bit:

LeBron became a villain to many after The Decision. I've seen a lot of entourages, but none like his. In July 2010 I got an assignment from Nike to shoot LeBron right after his TV special announcing his move to the Heat. We rented the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where the Lakers and the Clippers used to play, and there were 53 people on my crew-including hair and makeup artists, production people, a stylist. I had $10,000 in Hollywood lighting. It was huge. When LeBron arrived, it was as if Nelson Mandela had come in. Six or seven blacked-out Escalades pulled up, a convoy. LeBron had bodyguards and his masseuse. His deejay was already there, blasting. This for a photo shoot that was going to last an hour, tops.

This is how crazy it was: I wasn't even allowed to talk directly to LeBron. There was a liaison, someone from Amar'e Stoudemire's family. I would say to him, "O.K., have LeBron drive right," and then he'd turn to LeBron and say, "LeBron, go right."

LeBron had guards in the portals on the mezzanine level, talking into their hands. Really, what was going to happen? And then at the end of the shoot they all got in the Escalades. My God, I've been around Michael Jordan, but with him nothing even came close to this. Unimaginable.

Last week, LeBron sat down with Rachel Nichols on SportsCenter and told her that he was "done" being the league's premier villain. He said that his first year in Miami had "basically turned me into somebody I wasn't. You start to hear the word villain, now you have to be the villain. I started to buy into it." He might be over the identity, but thanks to stories like this one, it's probably going to last a bit longer.

H/T Patrick.

The Education Of Walter Iooss Jr. [SI]