The oral history of LeBron James’ unforgettable (and prohibited) workout with the Cavaliers

As a high school junior, James gave NBA and college players a glimpse at his potential: ‘Everyone left the gym thinking he was the chosen one’

When he was the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, John Lucas routinely filled his offseasons with individual workouts and packed gyms for pickup games with high school, college and professional basketball players.

And May 22, 2002, wasn’t any different for the then-first-year Cavaliers coach when Lucas opened the practice court on the fourth floor of Gund Arena (now Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse). Lucas invited me to the gym that day as well. As a beat reporter covering the Cavaliers for The Plain Dealer at the time, I was the only media person there.

But neither of us, nor anyone else in attendance, knew the events that transpired would reverberate throughout the basketball world because of the jaw-dropping display put on by LeBron James against several NBA players.

He was only a junior in high school at the time.

It was three months after James made the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Chosen One,” a year before the Cavs made him the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, and years before he’d become who many consider the best basketball player in the world.

Since James’ participation violated league rules prohibiting contact between NBA teams and players not yet eligible for the draft, the league fined Lucas $250,000 and suspended him for the first two games the following season, and fined the Cavaliers $150,000.

James’ performance that day was a preview of what was to come. And he left a lasting memory on all who were there in that gym 20 years ago this week to witness it.

This is an oral history of that day.

Then-Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson (right) with LeBron James (left) in May 2003. “The biggest thing that jumped out at me was that he could have scored 50 or 60 points a game and he was an unselfish player,” Paxson said.

He played the right way at a young age.

Years before James played pickup ball on the Cavaliers’ practice court, his reputation started to grow during his first two years of high school, when he averaged 21 points and six rebounds as a freshman and 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore. He helped lead St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, to back-to-back state titles those years.

It wasn’t long after Lucas was hired by the Cavaliers that he wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

John Lucas: I went to go watch him play in some AAU games at Cleveland State [University]. I had seen [Los Angeles Lakers star] Kobe [Bryant] when he was young and everyone was telling me how LeBron was a better prospect than Kobe and I didn’t believe them. So I went to watch him play, and I stayed for the rest of the day. And I remember making the comment that he might be better than [Cavaliers guard] Bimbo Coles, but I don’t know. People thought I lost my mind.

What I saw was that his IQ was off the charts. He obviously had to really work on his shooting. But his passing was already elite.

Johnny Clark, Cavaliers player development associate: I saw him his freshman and sophomore years during the state championships. I thought he was going to be a really good player. I saw Jimmy Jackson and Clark Kellogg in high school and I didn’t think LeBron was going to be better than them in high school.

Jim Paxson, Cavaliers general manager: I heard about him his freshman year, but the first time I saw him play was his sophomore year in a game at Cleveland State. The biggest thing that jumped out at me was that he could have scored 50 or 60 points a game and he was an unselfish player. He played the right way at a young age. He just kind of had that part figured out, and you normally don’t see that with players that are great athletes, because if they can score 50, or 60, they’re going to go score 50 or 60. But LeBron was unselfish. He was athletic like [Michael] Jordan, and had the size and feel like Magic Johnson.

DeSagana Diop, Cavaliers center: I played against LeBron my senior year for Oak Hill Academy (Virginia). He was a sophomore. He dominated us. And you know Oak Hill, we’d dominate entire teams, but the game was pretty close and it was because of him. I’d heard of him before we played, but after playing against him, I knew he was going to be special.

John Lucas III, Baylor point guard: I was a freshman in college when my dad got the job as coach of the Cavaliers. While there, he told me there was a high school player from Akron who he felt could be the next Kobe, Michael, Dr. J or Magic, one of the next greats. At the time, I was a huge Kobe fan, so I was like, ‘Dad, whatever.’

Former Cavaliers player development coach Johnny Clark was one of the Cleveland coaches at LeBron James’ pickup game against Cavs and college players. “He took over the whole workout,” Clark said.

Terry Gilliam

There was no ego.

It was family adviser Chris Dennis and James’ longtime father figure Eddie Jackson who were meticulous in guiding James during his high school career. It was Dennis who shared a videotape of James with basketball camp guru and Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro when James was a freshman. It was Jackson who played a big role advising James early on. As a sophomore, James, Paul Pierce, Ron Artest, Penny Hardaway, among others, played pickup ball with Michael Jordan in Chicago.

Chris Dennis: I put together a game plan when he was in the ninth grade, and one of the big things was getting him in the gym with NBA guys. I wanted LeBron to see what NBA guys looked like. And I wanted NBA guys to see him because he was ready. So the next year after Chicago, I wanted him to play against some NBA guys in Cleveland so he could size himself up against them. I knew Eddie could get it done because he has a way with people, plus he told me he knew [John] Lucas.

Clark: There was chatter among the players the day before that LeBron was coming. And because he was supposed to be so good, it was like everybody wanted to see how good he was by not necessarily trying to humble him, but to show him ‘you’re nice, but you’re a high school player about to play with grown men and pros. You might be OK, but this is a whole different level right here.’

Eddie Jackson: We get to the gym and Lucas calls his Cavaliers players over [Bryant Stith, Coles, Jumaine Jones, Chris Mihm and Diop] and then four other players, mostly college players, together. So ’Bron is sitting on the bench. We’re just sitting there talking and Lucas calls him and says, ‘’Bron, let’s see what you got.’ So, ’Bron gets in the game, and he’s really not doing anything. He’s just moving around going with the flow.

Keith Smart, Cavaliers assistant coach: LeBron didn’t step out on the court like he was the guy. He just blended in with the guys. When he got on the floor, he wasn’t brash. There was no ego. You saw him making plays and passing the ball.

Lucas III: None of us was passing him the ball at first. We were in college and we all want to play in the NBA, so we’re trying to see where we were compared to the pro players in the gym. 

Clark: During those first two games, he was out there like he wasn’t trying to step on anyone’s toes. He was just passing the ball. It was like how he does now, get everyone involved early before he starts to do his thing. By the second game, the pro players figured out if they got the rebound and got him the ball, this 11th grader would get them the ball on the other end of the court for an easy score.

John Lucas III, the son of then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas II, was one of the college players who watched LeBron James in the Gund Arena pickup game. Lucas III said that he told friends, “I just saw the next best thing next to Kobe.”

Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

It was like LeBron flipped on a switch.

Lucas apparently grew tired of James playing as a distributor. He wanted less Magic Johnson and more Michael Jordan. James was moved to the team of college players that included Lucas’ son Lucas III. It was James and a group of college players vs. the pros.

Jackson: And so everyone sits down for a quick break, and Lucas blows the whistle. ’Bron is sitting and Lucas said, ‘So, you don’t want to play with the big boys? You’re going to live off all of those damn accolades? You ain’t ready.’ LeBron got up.

Clark: That’s when the whole day just took a turn. It was like LeBron flipped on a switch. He just went off for the next two or three games. He scored all the points and made all of the assists. He took over the whole workout. I was thinking to myself that I’m glad I was here to see this, because if I heard from someone telling me what he was doing, I wouldn’t have believed them.  

Lucas: We put in a play called ‘series,’ and LeBron made the right reads and plays with our guys the whole time. One time he got the ball, split the defenders and made that signature reverse dunk when the ball went through and it didn’t hit the rim or anything. If I write another book, that day will go in my book. 

Lucas III: When LeBron came back on the court, my dad was like, ‘Pass him the ball.’ We throw the ball to him and, man, he ripped through on the right-hand-side wing, jumped in the air, and DeSagana Diop and Chris Mihm went to meet him to block it. LeBron went underneath the rim and reverse dunked it without even hitting the rim. He came down and kept running down to the other end of the court to play defense. It was unbelievable. From then on, we passed him the ball every possession. We wanted to see more.

Stith, Cavaliers guard: When he made that dunk on the opposite side, I ran out the gym. I was so excited because of what I was witnessing. That night, I called my high school coach and I told him that I just saw the next superstar in the NBA. And he was like, ‘Who’s that?’ And I said, ‘A kid from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James.’ Years later, whenever LeBron was on TV, my coach would call me and say that’s the kid you were telling me about.

Lucas III: I called two of my best friends later that day. I told them I just saw the next best thing next to Kobe. And they said for me to say that he must really be cold. And when I explained that particular play, they couldn’t believe it. 

Jackson: LeBron put on a show from that moment on. He was balling. After it was over, Lucas looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got something there.’ I said that ain’t nothing, Lucas, because he has more in his arsenal.

Smart: When you saw how he moved and played, not in a high school game, but playing pickup against college players and pros, you’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this guy’s going to be really, really good.’ He blended in and then blended out, and the pickup game became just about him. As an 11th grader, you saw he was just as good as everybody else, if not better.

Clark: Everybody ended that day with a whole different idea about LeBron James. It seemed like everyone left the gym thinking he was the chosen one and he proved it. Everyone looked stunned a little bit, almost as if they saw a ghost, or thinking, ‘Did I just really see what I saw?’

LeBron James to The Plain Dealer 20 years ago: I appreciate Coach Lucas inviting me out. Whenever anyone invites me out, they must believe I’m good enough to play with them, so it’s up to me to try my hardest while I’m out there. It was a good experience. I learned a few things and I had fun.

John Lucas said he didn’t know he was breaking any rules when he invited LeBron James to play against Cavaliers and college players.

William R. Sallaz/NBAE/Getty Images

“It was all about creating buzz.”

Unfortunately for Lucas and the Cavaliers, the NBA was not pleased with James’ participation in volunteer workouts at Gund Arena. The league’s rules state ”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 NBA prohibits players from entering the draft before their class graduates from high school.

It resulted in fines and Lucas’ suspension, which were announced on May 28, 2002.

Lucas: I hadn’t any idea about any rules because I did the same thing with Kobe [when Lucas coached the Philadelphia 76ers from 1994 to 1996]. I’ve always invited the best players so they could work out together. Unfortunately, Branson Wright’s article got me suspended and fined. And guess who I’m trying to get to come to my top high school players in the country camp? Yep, Bronny [James]. Things have come full circle.

Dennis: It was all about creating buzz. My thing was to create some buzz around LeBron and for him to get better. That’s what that day did. 

Stith: Fortunately, things worked out because the good Lord smiled upon the city of Cleveland, smiled upon LeBron James and his family and he didn’t disappoint. I know initially things didn’t quite work out the way everybody wanted, but shortly thereafter his second return resulted in a championship. Everything came into focus. Everything just seemed like destiny was bound to happen.

Diop: LeBron lived up to all of the hype. He actually passed all expectations. What has really made him even more special is that he had all of that pressure at a young age and he surpassed it.

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.