This profile of LeBron James was reported and written in 2011 for Port, a new London-based men's magazine, under odd circumstances: Nike paid for the writer's travel expenses and a portion of his fee. The story that came out of the trip was not what Nike had expected—a rep was apparently "furious"—and the magazine, under pressure from the Swoosh, not only spiked the piece but tried to extract a promise from the author not to publish it elsewhere. "Nike," the editor told the writer's agent, "would ... hit the roof if that was put in the public domain." The story is below. A postscript from the author follows.
I'm flying to Barcelona to spend the weekend with LeBron James. We'll all be staying at the W Hotel—I can see it from several miles away, from the airport taxi. An implausible sail-shaped glass structure, presumably sitting on a beach somewhere. It's got a big W on it: a logo stitched in painted steel 20 feet high. The rest of Barcelona passes quickly by: the broken teeth of the hillside cemetery, the jumble of apartment blocks and churches, the little carless alleyways. It's a cloudless pale blue summer evening and we're headed for the tourist strip, where all the buildings look like blueprints of buildings and some of them are still being built. My Nike contact has promised me "Total Access," which means I get to tag along after LeBron and see his life. The press conferences and shopping trips, the cocktail parties. On Sunday I get 20 minutes to interview him, one on one, and this is what worries me. Smart people have done this before and said more or less everything worth saying about him. Meanwhile, he's already answered every question you could ask him and managed to make the answers as smooth and revealing as the windows of the W Hotel.
Eight years ago I covered LeBron's first professional game, in Sacramento. He was fresh out of school, and the world's media had gathered to watch him play basketball against men in their prime who were themselves the product of fierce global natural selection. He knocked down his first three shots without touching rim and ended up with 25 points, a solid, mid-season, All-Star kind of performance from an 18-year-old rookie. Not only journalists, but Hollywood actors and millionaire football players made the journey up to Sacramento. I remember being struck after the game by the way all these guys recognized each other, palled up, flirted with the 6-foot show-dancers who entertained the crowds during the commercial breaks. You needed a pretty steep ante, of looks and talents, to make it in their crowd.
After college I spent a year playing minor-league pro basketball in Bavaria, and even at our level the social hierarchy was strict. Inequality on court played itself out in lots of ways off it. Better players talked more on the bus and in the locker room, won the arguments, made the jokes that people laughed at. For some reason, benchwarmers like me let them have their way. The season left deep marks on me. Being an athlete teaches you pretty quickly where you belong in the scale of things. Five-year-olds often think they're the fastest kid in school. And then they learn. It's a pretty basic thing that happens to everybody: You realize that other people are better than you. Except LeBron never had—until last season, maybe. For the first time in his life his teammates were good enough to win a championship, and the reason they didn't win is that LeBron got outplayed—by Dirk Nowitzki, who happened to be the star of the league I played in 15 years ago.
We checked into the hotel a few hours before LeBron, then a couple Nike reps took us out to dinner. Everything depends, they said, on the great man's mood. He was flying in from China, where he had spent the past 10 days. Nike had put together a tour to raise his global profile ahead of the London Olympics. But who wouldn't be in a good mood showing up here, on a hot Friday night? The W had its own private beach. A mole of concrete dice rolled out to sea at the foot of the hotel softened the blow of waves on shore. But there were no waves or wind, just a clear blue perfect summer evening sky.
The whole place, in fact, had a slightly imaginary feel. The W itself, someone suggested, had been built on a strip of reclaimed land, a long lagoon added to the old city and taken over by international hotel chains. Hotel flunkies, friendly, Spanish, handsome, their English faintly American, Hollywood-flavored (another unreal touch), opened doors and carried bags. Rich ugly men came in and out with half-dressed women. You got more vividly than normal a sense of the sexual economy at work. Pretty young Spaniards got jobs; pretty girls got holidays; rich men got company. Two thirds of the way up the curving implausible silhouette of the hotel was a series of bright lines, hundreds of feet long, made up of lights. Apparently these described the outline of the suite LeBron James was staying in. The idea that I might meet and talk to him seemed as unreal as everything else.
James emerged from the hotel the next morning throwing a large green apple in the air, catching it with a crunch in his big hand, but not biting. He wore Nike shoes ("shiny" black he calls them in one of his commercials, with joyful, ironically childish delight) and work-out shorts. On all sides I could see, indiscreetly placed, security in open-necked white shirts and black suits and shades. They sweated by the hotel door, in the backdraft of the air-conditioning. They waited on the steps of the promenade. I talked to the head of security, a nebbishy sort of figure, with a cigarette in hand, burning away like worry, and Nike sneaks, and comfortable standing-around-all-day kind of clothes. Does LeBron always have this much security, I asked him? Even at home? Sure, he said. The NBA paid for some of it, but he has his own team, too. So this is his life, I thought.
Behind James walked a tall, soft-kneed guy, holding a bag against his hips with a couple basketballs inside. Just past middle age, light-skinned black, with a genial tough look and a faint mustache. I didn't dare talk to James so I talked to him. He turned out to be the director of basketball development at Nike—his name was Lynn Merrit, and I later heard that he was responsible for bringing LeBron to Nike out of high school. We had a nice chat. I said I was interviewing James and wanted to get on court with him. Really I just wanted to shoot around, I missed playing. Talk to this lady here, he said, moving on to the bus. Hi, I said, introducing myself again. I'm etc. There were a lot of people standing around, not only security, but publicists, communications directors, assistants, managers, friends, and hotel guests, taking pictures on their phones.
Over paella dinner the night before, I had teased one of the Nike reps that I planned to wear Adidas trainers in the morning. She looked genuinely unsettled. People won't like it, she said, so I wore sandals on the day, and a cheap baseball cap and shorts, and a crappy bag, which I clutched to my ribs, anxious-middle-aged-American-father-on-European-holiday-style, because someone had warned me about Barcelona pickpockets. This is the guy LeBron faintly registered coming out of the hotel: a 30-something white dude, tall enough to be an ex-player, but too skinny, with a skinny man's Adam's apple and stooped neck.
Then suddenly everyone was moving. I rode in a Nike car (a sleek Mercedes, black, artificially cool; its side-pouches were loaded with bottled water), behind another such car, behind an escort of two upright well-dressed uniformed figures on motorbikes—the Catalan police—behind the VIP minibus in which James himself was riding. He would have spotted me again half an hour later, in the sidestreet where our convoy pulled up. I was hanging around outside the minibus, in the stopped traffic, among the sudden growing curious crowds of passers-by, pointing my phone at him as he stepped out. Then I followed the cameramen who followed the cameramen who followed him, as he climbed the stairs of the old Barcelona apartment block that Nike had decided to rename, for 48 hours, the LBJ house.
There were about 60 reporters already inside, sitting on high bar-counter chairs. It was as hot as a laundromat. A single AC unit pumped its exhaust through a plastic tube, through a balcony door, but the opened door let the heat in, and nobody could feel the artificial air. There was a makeshift stage on one end, backed by a larger-than-life, computer-generated image of LeBron, pasted against the wall. We sweated quietly and waited for the man himself. I talked to Lynn again. What would you ask LeBron if you could ask him anything, I said. "For a loan," he joked. At one point his voice changed abruptly and he said, "Are you questioning me?" No, no, I tried to assure him. I'm just talking, we're just waiting around. This is what I felt but I also knew it wasn't entirely true.
Probably my favorite piece of sports writing is Normal Mailer's account of the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. He describes the effect Ali has entering a room. "Women draw an audible breath. Men look down." LeBron's entrance (he strode muscularly in, through the tangles of legs and tripod legs and cables, in the slightly stiff, forceful manner of athletes) sparked an ambush of clicks and flashes. Like all celebrities, he gives an impression of familiarity, but with a movie star your second thought is, how small and human. Most people you know from TV look ordinary in life. LeBron in life has the scale of a movie-house image.
Mailer's book was on my mind for a number of reasons. I even thought of buying a copy, to give James after our interview by way of thanks. Mailer calls Ali the champ and tries to position himself as the champ of writers. Boxing offers obvious correlations to the interviewer's art; in basketball you also talk of going one on one. I thought of describing, for James's sake, the problem he posed me in basketball terms. Of saying: From a writer's point of view, you're a hard man to cover. You've answered too many questions, they've all been asked. Writers work on saying new things in the same way you work on new moves. The old questions have become too predictable—you know how to guard them.
Recent events had made him more guarded still. For the first seven years of his career he had been a media darling an upright, well-spoken, respectful young man, who played unselfishly and gave time and money to underprivileged kids. Then he spoiled it all by signing with Miami, joining a team already rich in talent, and joking publicly about the six-seven-eight championships he planned to win with his superstar friends. The backlash was so severe Nike ran a 90-second TV spot to address it specifically. "What should I do?" James asks the camera. "Should I be who you want me to be?"
Some of the resentment he inspired for moving to Miami was unhinged, possibly racist. It's equally true that LeBron's media handlers made a mess of announcing his "decision," and that LeBron himself should have chosen a better phrase for breaking hometown hearts than "I have decided to take my talents to South Beach." But all of this had been repeatedly said; even the response to the backlash had been exhaustively made, the point about racism, too. GQ ran a feature on him arguing that he moved to Miami to play with buddies again; he wanted to recreate the feeling of brotherhood he shared with his high school teammates. Maybe this was worth a question for our personal interview, but I didn't feel like going over such old ground in front of 60 reporters.
One of them asked about the lockout, so I followed up. "Are you concerned," I said, while the cameras flashed, "about the way it looks, with the economy in bad shape, for the NBA players and owners, all rich men, to argue over how to share a very big pile of money?"
The reason, he said, they needed to get this thing sorted out was for the fans.
It turned out he was good at playing journalists, too. He spoke fluently and looked courteous and interested, and said things so obviously true they didn't mean much. You didn't need to remember what he said. You could work it out from the question. Are you surprised that the Barcelona club beat Kobe Bryant's Lakers in a preseason match? It's two teams trying to win; the score starts at zero-zero every game. Etc. At the same time, he gave a strong impression of being the most reasonable man in the room. Maybe this is a natural side effect of celebrity. The fever around them makes people silly and intrusive. The habit of dealing with this silliness gives celebrities a patient tolerant air. LeBron seemed extremely patient and tolerant, but as soon as his publicist called time, he disappeared.
Then someone ushered in a group of "underprivileged" kids. They were waiting to meet LeBron and fidgeted like teenagers at a wedding. You could imagine one of them saying, at just the wrong moment, I need the bathroom. We all began to wait for LeBron. I made my way out to the balcony, which overlooked a private square. There were pots and trees in the square, dead-still and wilting in the noon sun. On the far side you could see the jumbled faded colors of the backs of residential buildings. An old man, shirtless, hung a sheet over his balcony to let it dry. A kid on a trike went around in circles in the shade of an entrance awning. Outside the LBJ house, the city went through its daily routines.
Inside, an advanced new computerized basketball game, projected onto a big white screen, had gotten stuck on a loop. It kept intoning: five-second violation, five-second violation. Then LeBron came in behind me and met the boys—I watched him through a crack in the balcony door. Suddenly something intimate was happening; happiness had entered the room. One of the kids, posing for a group picture, dared himself to rest his hand on the shoulder of LeBron, who smiled continuously, holding it for the cameras, but also keeping it fresh.
Afterward LeBron and some of the kids sat down together to play the computer game. One of the Nike reps, for the first time showing amusement, asked another hanger-around, "Do you think he's playing himself?"—because an image of LeBron was on the screen, faintly digital and unrealistic, a more anxious jittery menacing version of the real thing. Meanwhile, the real thing, thumbing away, controlling his own avatar, played games with the real kids. Then we all filed down to the cars to go shopping.
The cavalcade moved off again, the VIP minibus, the police escort, the two black Mercedes following sleekly behind. Eventually the bus pulled over on to the curb, by the side of a four-lane avenue. There were grand apartment blocks to either side and wide glass-fronted stores. We squeezed in behind. LeBron stepped out to visit one of the shops. The slow pile-up of passersby began. People stood around, pushing buttons on their phones. My guess is many of them didn't know who LeBron was. But they saw the bus, and the scattered security presence, and the flies of press photographers buzzing, and stopped to find out what the big deal was. After five minutes sitting in the car I got out and said, "I'm going for a walk."
Maybe an hour later nobody had moved. I had walked the streets, looked into a Gaudi house, its dappled green and yellow walls and dream-shaped stairs, stopped at a bank, at various shops, and finally approached one of the security men stationed outside the store LeBron was still in. Are ordinary customers allowed inside? Of course, he said, so I walked in. How do you decide not to buy something if you're LeBron? He once expressed his ambition to become the first billionaire athlete. Why? he was asked. He didn't want to have any regrets, he said. He wanted to look back knowing he'd "maximized his potential." But maybe you don't have to buy anything; people give you stuff.
I could see LeBron several rooms away, sitting down, but I moved past quickly to look at some shirts. One of the Nike reps called to me. "Ben, Ben," she said, in a low voice; and then, "Do you mind giving him some room? This is his down time. He doesn't want to see the same faces all the time."
"I'm not trying to talk to him," I said. "I'm just looking at shirts." But I walked out anyway.
A few hours later I was back at the hotel. LeBron had been on the road for two weeks. During the season he probably spent half his life in hotels. It isn't the point of a place like the W that you visit the city. From the terrace bar, with its infinity pool, you can see below you the rest of the holiday crowd. Not only tourists, but fat naked old men, with roll-top bellies, reading newspapers in plastic chairs. Young guys out of work or school throwing frisbees. Women turning themselves slowly in the sun. Affordable happiness was everywhere in view. You could see it through all the windows. But the people on the beach didn't have a pool at their feet, or women in small white shorts bringing drinks, or double-bed loungers to lie on, carefully cushioned and shaded.
My run-in at the clothes store was still on my mind. A strange scene. Inside, a tall man sat on a cushioned bench looking at merchandise, in the air-conditioned cool of high-end shopping. Outside, crowds gathered. A funny sort of variant on Auden's "Epitaph on a Tyrant": When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter; And when he shopped, hundreds of people waited in the streets. But the encounter also made me angry: By what right, etc. Part of what made me angry was just the fact that we were all doing our jobs. It was my job to establish some kind of footing with LeBron, to prepare for the interview. But I saw myself from his point of view, too. One of those guys always hanging around—anonymous but recognizable, increasingly familiar. Celebrity makes perverts of us all.
A little after 8, we gathered again in the hotel forecourt. There was a cocktail party at the LBJ house. Spain's Olympic hopefuls were supposed to mingle with the great man, and my Total Access press pass gave me a ticket in. But just as we were waiting for our car, the VIP minibus pulled up and James strode out, shirtless, and disappeared inside. Probably he wanted a shower, which meant that his busy team of minders, drivers, journalists, guards, reporters, agents, coaches, friends, photographers, publicists, and waiters all scrambled to adjust. To a certain extent he seemed trapped by these arrangements, but you also got the sense of an upstairs-downstairs kind of world. So we went back to the hotel bar. An hour later, when he still hadn't come down, we drove to the party anyway.
Lynn was there, standing by the bar, so as I went for a drink I asked him if they'd managed to see anything of Barcelona. Yes, he said, suddenly smiling and animated. "We went out to watch Barcelona train, the football club, and saw Messi play. Fàbregas, all those guys." I smiled, too. It seemed wonderful that wherever LeBron went, this is what he saw. His fellow aristocrats. "It's all over the news," he said. Within a minute one of the Nike reps had sidled up to me. "I don't want you talking to him any more," the rep said. I stared at her. "What am I here for," I said, "if not to talk to people?" Maybe I was supposed to be seduced—by the glamour of it all, by LeBron's life. By the pretty Olympic hopefuls and the free cocktails and the loud music. But even for LeBron it must have been a little like work. Trying to escape the LBJ house, I ran into LBJ himself, standing in a small circle; but I didn't want to be accused of approaching him, so I turned around and slipped down a back stairway.
The next day was interview day, and I spent the morning and then the afternoon refining my questions. Sitting in the hotel lobby and watching the new guests arriving. I checked out the interview room, a 24th-floor suite with views on two sides, of blue sea and blue sea. Binoculars left lying on the stand of the wide-screen TV could be used to spy on sunbathers. Another form of reality voyeurism. Art books and objets d'art had been carefully arranged. Then we had lunch at the hotel and returned to the lobby. I remembered this waiting around from my playing days. The combination of slackness, boredom and steadily increasing tension. Athletes spend weeks in this state; I was glad to be out of the game.
I still couldn't believe that I'd meet LeBron. In fact, the interview slot kept shifting. We were scheduled for 10 to 4, which turned into quarter past. He was rumoured to be in a very bad mood at the briefing. "I'm all briefed out," he said. Then suddenly we got a call to come upstairs.
Lynn was sitting down when I walked in, along with LeBron and five or six other men, many of whom seemed familiar from some of the clips I had seen of his high school games. He had brought his friends with him—to China, to Europe, for the whole tour? They were having a kind of Brewster's Millions conversation. How quickly would you blow through an inheritance of $20 million? "You'd get through 10 in a week," someone said, "a new house, a few cars." They were like college kids, shooting the shit on Easter break. It didn't seem to matter that one of them had made a lot more than $20 million in the past few years. Then LeBron started singing and stopped. He had the pent-up, crazy stillness of a housebound child. "Give me a couple minutes," he said. "I'm all talked out."
But then he stood up abruptly for the interview, and sat down where he was asked to sit, and gave me his attention. His attention was impressive. You felt, this is a famous man. Lots of tall men look stretched out—the ordinary quantity of human material has been pulled thin. But LeBron was bigger in all dimensions, taller, stronger, thicker. His handsome head, carefully groomed, looked as heavy as sculpture. It was hard to believe he was 26 years old.
Out of nervousness, or shyness, or some deeper, more shameful reason, I found my accent softening, turning more Southern. I grew up in Texas but usually sound like an East Coaster (my father's a New York Jew), or worse, a transatlantic type. Maybe I wanted to make myself understood, but it also occurred to me that I was making some other, less pleasant appeal. What I mean is, it came to me very naturally to defer to him. He was giving me his time, and you could almost taste the price of it, like you taste the money in a bottle of vintage wine.
We started off soft, as I'd been warned to do. I told him Nowitzki had beaten me, too, and he laughed pleasantly. I said I had covered his debut in Sacramento, when he scored 25. He looked up, suddenly interested: "Yeah, that's pretty good, right?" The game seemed to matter to him still. Were you nervous, I said? You were just 18. "I had spent my whole life preparing for that moment. I was just, let it roll."
I wanted to question what effect it had on his personality, as a teenager, to be the star of your circle of friends, on whom they depended. This was difficult; many of those friends were in the room. So I asked for his reaction to the argument in GQ, that he moved to Miami to recapture the camaraderie of his high school basketball team.
"I don't think that's true," he said. "I could never even get close to that feeling and experience of when I was with my friends. We grew up together from 9 years old and played basketball together for nine years. That's very rare But it's not just about what we did on the court—it's about what we did off the court too. We were friends. We hung out together. We went to school together. We took trips to AAU tournaments and drove from Ohio to Coco Beach, Florida. We took flights together from Ohio to Salt Lake City. We went to kids' parties in basements and things like that. To try and recapture that at 26 years of age at Miami? That was not the reason."
And I remembered the sense I had from the press conference, that LeBron was the most reasonable man in the room. The GQ piece was occasionally very critical and talked at length about the publicity machine and their mismanagement of his "decision." It was called "Three Weeks in Crazyville." James tweeted in response:
It was hard to square this with my impression of the man across the table from me. Maybe he hadn't read the article. At a certain stage of fame it probably gets pretty hard to keep up with all the news about yourself.
I asked him if he felt cut off from ordinary life. "Ordinary life?" he said. "Who has the definition for ordinary life? Your life is what you make it—it's how you approach it every day and how you spend that 24-hour block. For me, being with my friends and family, being able to play basketball and travel the world inspiring kids—it's very humbling. Who really knows what an ordinary life is."
There was only one question he answered brusquely and we both knew why. Where do you get your athletic talent from.
"The man above."
I wanted him to tell me about his father, an ex-con who had a one-night stand with his mother when she was 16. So I asked the question another way. "How old were you when you first dunked?"
"Fourteen," he said, for the first time surprising me. I knew kids who could dunk at 14, who ended up nowhere. I myself could dunk a few years later. Fourteen wasn't so young.
Magic Johnson liked to tell a story to explain his success. That he used to shovel snow from his driveway every winter morning, to work on his jump shot. That the difference between him and the rest of us was hard work. It always annoyed me to have him pass off his natural advantages as some kind of dedication. I spent every day after school, come rain or Texas shine, in my backyard shooting hoops. But the truth is, he probably did work harder. LeBron has probably worked harder at his job than anyone I have ever met. Even in Germany in the second division the better players played harder, tried harder than I could—they knew how to try.
"How old were you when you realized you'd be able to make money from basketball?"
"My junior year?" he said. "My senior year?"—another surprise. Local TV started covering his games when he was 14 years old. His high school team had to switch to a university stadium, the crowds got so big. Either he'd forgotten all that or even as a kid he was savvy about the difference between potential and something you can bank on. For his 18th birthday his mom bought him a Hummer H2, taking out a loan against the prospect of his future earnings. There are a couple ways of reading this story. One is to say they needed proof he was going to get paid and went to the bank for it. "It was never a huge thing for me," he told me next, "making money from basketball."
"Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan were all asked what they'd do if they weren't basketball players. They all gave very different answers. Magic said he'd work at a gas station. Isiah said he'd probably be a lawyer. Do you have an answer to that question?" Magic was making a comment about class. Thomas wanted to point out his intellectual savvy and combativeness. But LeBron refused to imagine any life but the one he was living.
"I love the game so much that I gave all of my passion to the game when I was 9 years old, so it's hard for me to even think what I would go back and do if I didn't have the game. I know one thing that I love to do, and that's giving back to underprivileged kids. I have the LeBron James Foundation which focuses on helping underprivileged kids and supporting single-parent mothers. I grew up experiencing both of those things—I know with basketball or without basketball I would be doing that."
Some of this sounded true and some of it sounded like publicity, which doesn't mean it wasn't true as well. I'd seen him with those kids after the press conference—he was good at it and looked happy for the first time all day. It occurred to me also that athletes have a different standard of truth from most of us. Maybe for LeBron, for any athlete, something is true when it provokes in you the right response. The mantra definition of truth. Why do you play the game? For love. Are you surprised the Lakers lost to Barcelona? The game starts zero-zero. And so on. Answers that are meant to make you approach your own tasks in the right way.
Afterward, away from his spell, I thought, that's all bullshit. LeBron just beat me at one-on-one. I wanted him to get specific and he stayed general; he won. This impression was reinforced by something Lynn said to me on my way out. "You did well," he said. "The guys approved." At first I felt good; later I realized the implication. That bit about ordinary life? Just look around you. The security, the publicists, the people like me. He's dragged his high school buddies with him around the world. This isn't what you do when you've outgrown your childhood. And then there's the evidence of the games themselves: the strange hesitation at certain crucial moments. His readiness to defer to Wade. Maybe this is what he meant when he said something to me about improving his "leadership."
On the way to the airport, we stopped off briefly at the Olympic Park, at the outdoor pool built into the hills above Barcelona. It was another perfectly clear summer's evening—a pale, sun-faded blue. In the distance, below, you could see Gaudi's strange unfinished cathedral, and out to sea, the strip of reclaimed land where the W was built, along with the other mega-hotels and the immense wedding-cake-tiered cruise ships in the harbor. Nike had set up a court over the pool; a few thousand people had come to watch LeBron. The kids he had met the day before, picked out by Nike from the poorer neighborhoods, had returned in their brand-new shoes and kit to run a few drills. They were terrible, certainly compared with LeBron, who horsed around and showed off good-naturedly the difference in class. When he dunked, everyone cheered.
In the background, and repeated all around the stadium on posters and shirts, you could see images of LeBron, in colors and lines that strangely suggested Socialist realism: a hopeful, active, strong young man. Maybe this is what it means to have a general relation to large numbers of people. You become a little less specific yourself. When I asked him what he wanted his life to be like when he retired, not at 35 after basketball, but at 70 or 75, after his business or movie or political careers, he said, "Hopefully ... I'll have myself a big boat which I can sail off to the Mediterranean with my friends and my family and we can hit every coast that we want to hit." Of course, the Mediterranean was below us, spread out flat and blue towards the horizon, with nothing on it but a few large yachts; and I remember thinking, But this is what you're already doing.
A few years ago I got an email from my agent's assistant, telling me to call him as soon as I "picked this up." I was on holiday, but an agent's urgency usually means good things, so I called him. He wanted to know if I'd be interested in interviewing LeBron James for a new magazine.
I'm a novelist, not a journalist, but I used to write a lot of reviews and sometimes essays, mostly for British magazines and newspapers. Sometimes I wrote about American sports. As an American living in London, I had a standard fund of sports-related information that was enough to qualify me as an expert. Also, I spent a season after college playing minor-league pro basketball in Germany—one of the guys I played against was an 18-year-old kid named Dirk Nowitzki.
Yes, I said, I'd love to interview LeBron.
Shortly after, I got an email from the editor himself. "This is what it would involve," he wrote. "A 5 star trip to Barcelona for 2 days from the 21 August, then 2 days following him in London, where at some point we would like you to do a short q&a with him (LeBron in front of the camera). Such an exciting guy," he added, "and the fact that this is a global exclusive, and that we can work it the way we want to ... means it could be really something special."
The dates turned out to be a problem. Nike, which was sponsoring LeBron's World Tour, proved hard to pin down about the interview slots. Then Nike canceled the London leg of his tour. I mention these details, because from the beginning there seemed to be something odd or just chaotic about all the arrangements. Everything I heard from Nike was filtered either through my agency or through the magazine or both. A subsequent email from my agent explained that the editor had "budgeted incorrectly" and "reworked his figures" so that my fee for the piece would be a little less than they had first offered, but that "of course they would pay for flights/hotels etc." and were confident of being able to make the dates work out. Did I still want to do it?
I don't remember exactly when I realized that Nike was paying for my flights and hotels, but shortly before I flew to Barcelona I spoke to the editor himself, to discuss the shape of the piece. He mentioned that Nike was also paying a part of my fee—which was supposed to reflect the time investment required of me. His magazine was new and couldn't afford to fly a writer out for a whole weekend.
I had never seen a copy of this magazine, but in his first email to me, the editor described some of their previous issues, which contained a feature by Martin Amis and an interview with David Remnick by Nicholson Baker. The editor himself had written something about Nike's CEO. He explained to me the way his relationship with Nike had worked on that occasion. Basically, he wrote what he wanted to, but Nike had asked him to rephrase one of his descriptions of the CEO. It was a question of finessing.
We also discussed at length what I wanted to say about LeBron, about whom he knew very little. As it happens, I had covered LeBron's first professional game against the Sacramento Kings in 2003. So I talked about LeBron, explained the Jordan comparisons and the fallout from his decision to move to Miami the previous summer. I also told him about LeBron's mysteriously poor performance in the recent NBA finals. This kind of knowledge, he said, is what made me the right person to do the interview.
I put down the phone under the impression that the magazine would retain editorial control, and that, as a matter of policy and out of goodwill, they would show whatever I wrote to Nike before it was published. I expected to negotiate over a few phrases or points. At the time this struck me as a plausible setup.
Maybe I should have turned the assignment down, but the fact is, I had no intention of writing anything particularly negative about LeBron. I wasn't sorry to see him lose in the finals, especially to my old opponent Dirk Nowitzki, but I also liked him as a player. One of the most extraordinary clutch performances I have ever seen was his outburst in the 2007 playoffs against Detroit, when he scored 25 straight points from the end of the fourth quarter through double overtime to close out the game.
My wife told me to negotiate a good kill fee, and my agent pushed it up from the standard 50 percent to 75 percent. Someone from Nike emailed me to ask for my address and shoe size and then sent over a bagful of Nike goodies. On a Friday afternoon I flew to Barcelona.
Much of that weekend is described in the piece above. I heard several times about how worried Nike was about my interview with LeBron. That they were taking a big risk; there was a lot of anxiety about my presence. All of which began to induce a comparable anxiety in me, though none of it made any sense. LeBron had had a year of terrible press. GQ had run a cover article on him called "Three Weeks in Crazyville." A feature in a start-up English magazine was unlikely to do him any damage.
Several years before I had reviewed Michael Leahy's book about Michael Jordan for The Observer. Leahy chronicles the rising sense of paranoia he felt around Jordan, induced by the great man's publicity machine. My review criticized what I called Leahy's "unattractive core of self-importance." Well, my own unattractive core was being exposed, and it went very well with paranoia, like gin with tonic. In the end, I was glad to get home. This is the note my first draft ended on—that I had had one of those glimpses into the workings of the world that only makes it seem less real.
My agent liked the piece—but then again, it was his job to be on my side. The magazine editor had more hesitations. He was worried about the tone, which struck him as almost bitter, and also wanted more of LeBron's own voice. I told him I was waiting for the transcript of our interview, and when it came, I included many of LeBron's answers verbatim. I also downplayed the role of the publicist and finessed that last line about the workings of the world.
The editor sent my rewrite on to Nike. Or rather, to the Nike publicist who had been my contact in Barcelona.
She was "furious—to say the least," the editor wrote back in an email. The piece seemed to her relentlessly negative and cynical. There was nothing an edit could do; it needed to be rewritten. "Nike would also probably tale [sic] legal action if this was published as is." She could lose her job.
There was a lot more back and forth about this. The editor offered to bring in another guy to reshape the piece, which would then be published under both our names. The more I heard from Nike the less I wanted to publish anything that would flatter them, so I refused. I told him he needed to stand up to Nike.
This put him in a tough position. Nike, it turned out, had agreed to pay not only the whole of my fee, but the cameraman's fee, and the documentary maker's fee as well. They were refusing to foot the bill for what I had written, and the magazine, which was very small, couldn't afford to—even my kill fee would probably have to get paid on installment.
"I didn't want a piece like this," the editor wrote. His magazine "loves and supports great writing but we don't do essays that are misleading for our subjects." In an email to my agent, he outlined the sorts of things I should have described to make the piece more "upbeat." His suggestions included something about the "Beatlemania" that attended LeBron's visit, "with girls astride walls as LeBron wove through the backstreets—desperate for a glimpse of him." (Of course, I didn't see anything like this.) And something about the "new generation of basketball players in London? Basketball has a cultural resonance re music/fashion/streetculture/ cinema—that may have the power and the flair to inspire the disenfranchised."
This sounded to me exactly like the kind of thing the Nike publicist hoped I would write about. When I refused, the editor agreed to pay the kill fee, as per contract, and the magazine broadcast an edited version of our interview on their website—they cut out me and my questions. (You can still find it online.). He wanted my assurances that I wouldn't publish the piece elsewhere. "Nike," he told my agent, "would ... hit the roof if that was put in the public domain."
From the beginning, this has been the anxiety that puzzled me. I don't have anything on LeBron—or Nike, for that matter. What I have is a vaguely literary description of one weekend in his summer tour, which includes occasional glimpses of LeBron and about half an hour in a room with him. My account has been filtered through my personal experience of being a professional athlete, which left me with a very deep admiration for their talents and not much envy for their lives.
More samizdat: ESPN's Spiked Story About LeBron
Benjamin Markovits's most recent novel, Playing Days, is set in the world of minor-league European basketball. He lives in London with his wife and two kids. Photos via Getty.