Stories of LeBron and sportswriter intertwined, tangled

MIAMI — Downstairs was a rented Ford Escape with a used hotel key card on the console. Up in his 23rd-floor apartment were a few pieces of furniture and an unhung shower curtain on the edge of the tub. The white-tile floor was a little too white. The brand-new smell smelled a little too new. This, Brian Windhorst said, was going to take some getting used to.

He's in South Florida because of a man he has been following around the country for most of the past 12 years.

Brian covered LeBron James in high school in Akron, Ohio, for the Akron Beacon Journal. He covered LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA for the Beacon Journal and then the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Now Brian's down here covering LeBron and the Miami Heat for ESPN.com.

Brian grew up in a stable, middle-class home, and LeBron grew up the only child of a single mother in subsidized housing. Brian is husky and white, and LeBron is tall and black. LeBron turns 26 in December, and Brian turns 33 in January.

But they were born and raised on the west side of Akron. They went to the same high school. Brian's mother, a health teacher, taught both boys sex ed. Up until this fall, neither one of them had ever lived outside of Ohio. Their families still live there.

"We know a lot of the same people," Brian said in his apartment earlier this month, "and we had some of the same friends."

Brian moved to move up professionally. So far, though, he feels not only disconnected from his home but also increasingly distant from LeBron.

The view out his floor-to-ceiling windows was of docked yachts, a sleek rooftop pool and the brilliant blue of Biscayne Bay.

"We're not in Cleveland anymore," Brian said.

He paused before finishing the thought.

"I wish we were."

• • •

This relationship, if that's the right word, started in the summer of 1999, when Brian was in college at nearby Kent State and still working Beacon Journal weekend shifts. He got a press release that said a group of local eighth-graders had finished second in a national basketball tournament. The best of the bunch were going to be freshmen in the fall at well-regarded inner-city parochial school St. Vincent-St. Mary. His school.

Brian covered the team's first game. A 6-foot-2 freshman scored 15 points in a St. V's win. LeBron was 14 years old.

Brian went back to the office and told the guys on the sports desk that this kid LeBron could be pretty good.

The guys rolled their eyes at the overexcited alum.

By the end of LeBron's freshman year, though, the coach was asking Brian to talk to the kids about how to handle the growing media demands.

By LeBron's sophomore year, he was named the state's best player, and the award came to the Beacon Journal. Brian drove it over to his old high school and gave it to LeBron.

By LeBron's junior year, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which called him THE CHOSEN ONE.

And by LeBron's senior year, he was driving a Hummer and telling ESPN The Magazine, "When I was younger, I didn't have much, and now that I've got a little something, I'm just gonna take it."

Before he graduated from high school, LeBron signed a shoe deal with Nike for $100 million. The next day, Brian was in Secaucus, N.J., for the NBA's draft lottery.

Cleveland had the best shot at LeBron because they had had the worst record. What happens here this evening, Brian thought to himself, is going to change a whole lot of lives.

Including, potentially, his own.

If Cleveland got LeBron, the Beacon Journal would cover the Cavs more, and he figured he would have a chance at the job.

The last three teams in the lottery were Cleveland, Memphis and Denver. The NBA's deputy commissioner announced the third pick.

Denver.

Then the second.

Memphis.

Which meant …

Brian was supposed to be an objective reporter. But he couldn't help it. He sat in that studio and smiled. In the first sentence of his story he used the word "fate."

• • •

The following winter, as ­LeBron was winning Rookie of the Year, Brian was by his locker before and after games, doing interviews but also bantering back and forth about St. V's football scores or the University of Akron's basketball team.

LeBron was the youngest player in the league. Brian was the youngest beat writer. They were rookies together.

Toward the end of the 82-game schedule, LeBron said to Brian, "Man, this is a long season," and Brian said to LeBron, "Tell me about it."

Sports writing can be a transient job, mostly men loitering in locker rooms, making notes on pads with hotel pens. Brian, on the road more than ever before, liked knowing the flight patterns into Cleveland. Wheels down meant he was home.

His parents live in Ohio. His sister lives in Ohio. His fiancée lives in Ohio. He went to Kent so he could stay close to his family and friends and keep his weekend shifts to work his way up in the sports department at his hometown newspaper.

During training camp at the start of LeBron's second season, LeBron's girlfriend was about to give birth to their first son. He was 19, and so was she, and they weren't married, so LeBron was fearful of backlash and reluctant to talk. The Cavs' public relations people told him it could be worse if he didn't. He would talk, he decided, but only to Brian.

The two of them stood under some bleachers. LeBron clearly was uncomfortable.

Let's not make this hard, Brian said. You're about to become a father. Tell me how you feel.

Excited, LeBron said, but also a little nervous.

Brian asked him what he was going to name his first son.

LeBron, LeBron said.

The story Brian wrote was about LeBron's excitement, and how he wanted to be a better dad than his own dad was for him.

After the birth of his son, ­LeBron returned to training camp, and all the other reporters asked him about it. They asked LeBron what he had named his son.

"Brian Windhorst James."

The reporters laughed. The odd response, Brian thought, was LeBron's way of thanking him for how he handled the situation.

For Brian, though, that conversation in retrospect was one of the last that felt to him like two guys from Akron just talking.

"I have to protect myself before anybody else," LeBron told Brian only a few weeks later. "I'm the head of my corporation."

The space between them was the same — the length of an outstretched arm holding a tape recorder — but the nature of that space was changing. Brian had started covering a kid. He was now covering a commodity.

LeBron was selling sneakers for Nike and sodas for Coke. Meaningful media access grew increasingly scarce, reserved pretty much for appearances on 60 Minutes or Oprah, or for cover stories for GQ or Vogue.

Fast forward 5 1/2 years to this past summer, when ­LeBron announced on an hourlong ESPN special at a Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., that he was leaving the Cavaliers and Cleveland and going to play for the Heat in Miami. It was the first major basketball event of LeBron's life that Brian wasn't there for. Brian wasn't going to get any time to talk to him, anyway, so he watched it on TV like everybody else.

Livid fans in Cleveland lit ­LeBron's jerseys on fire. ESPN offered Brian a job covering the Heat. He thought about staying home and covering the Cavs without LeBron. But the better professional opportunity was to cover the Heat and to work for ESPN, he concluded, so he took it. When word got out about Brian's decision, people in Ohio lashed at him, too. E-mailed screeds called him a traitor. Internet comments called him a "loser," riding the LeBron "gravy train." And near his condo in Cleveland a man came out of a barbershop to yell obscenities at him about what he should be doing with LeBron.

"Your images and reputations," somebody wrote on Brian's Facebook page, "are forever tarnished."

Linked.

• • •

They came to Tampa a few weeks back for an exhibition game at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Heat had played the night before in Atlanta. Brian flew down and checked in at the downtown Courtyard.

"LeBron is hurting," he said in his room, "and I know it, and I can see it."

After LeBron left Cleveland, people tweeted hateful things, calling him a "fraud" and vulgar, racist words. He retweeted them, to show his million or so followers, he said, the kind of vitriol coming his way.

Being a celebrity athlete, "everybody thinks it is a bed of roses," he told reporters, including Brian, "and it's not."

Brian watched LeBron laugh a lot as a 15-year-old in Akron. He watched him crack jokes as a 20-year-old in Cleveland. Now, in Miami, this was a different ­LeBron. "Frankly," Brian wrote in a story on ESPN.com, "it appears to the observer that there isn't as much fun."

"On a certain level," he said in his hotel room in Tampa, "I feel like I can relate to him. I'm not having a lot of fun myself.

"Really, for both of us, we're living away from home for the first time in our lives, so probably some of the emotions we're experiencing are similar. It's a different level — I've got a one-bedroom apartment and he's looking for a 10-bedroom house — but I'm thinking we're experiencing some of the same feelings of isolation."

Brian and LeBron could have an interesting conversation right now.

• • •

But won't.

"I'd love to be able to talk to LeBron the way I did years ago," he said earlier this month in Miami. "But I haven't been able to be human beings with LeBron for about six years now.

"Would I like to be able to have that conversation, as an Ohioan, as an Akronite moving to Florida? Yeah, I'd like to have that. But that's not realistic."

If Brian did ask LeBron about this, at least in the quicker, more scripted group setting where LeBron now almost always talks to reporters, and if LeBron did respond with a sincere moment of reflection, that, Brian said, is all it would be. A moment.

Because his comments almost immediately would turn into tweets, and the tweets would turn into headlines, and the reflection would turn into reaction. LeBron misses Cleveland! LeBron unhappy in Miami! ­LeBron regrets his decision!

Here's what happens instead.

One recent evening, Brian left his too-white, too-new apartment and drove his rented Escape to American Airlines Arena, where he waited outside the Heat's locker room with about two dozen other reporters before a public relations staffer let them in to the circular space where the carpet is red and soft and the chairs attached to the front of the lockers look like little thrones.

Whatever relationship Brian had with LeBron was also a relationship with a place. Their place. His current professional existence down here is a daily reminder of how both of those relationships have changed.

Brian and the rest of the reporters waited in a semicircular scrum by LeBron's locker.

LeBron came out from a back room and stood in front of them.

The reporters positioned their recorders and microphones in the space between their faces and his. He was asked about the team's progress. He was asked about his defense. Brian asked him about playing more point guard. LeBron said he didn't mind handling the ball more but didn't want to be called a point guard. He was asked about a tiff with an opposing player.

The interaction lasted about 10 minutes and then the scrum moved away from LeBron's locker. Hanging in it was a terry cloth robe. Across the soft white back were bold black letters. KING JAMES.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Stories of LeBron and sportswriter intertwined, tangled 11/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 1:23am]

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