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It’s impossible not to admire LeBron James for his accomplishments. But once you learn about the circumstances he grew up in, it’s remarkable that he even made it to the NBA in the first place. When James first picked up a basketball, no one thought he’d become a living legend. However, it didn’t take long for people to realize he had a special gift.

When and why did LeBron James decide to play basketball?

LeBron James of St Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2002
LeBron James of St Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2002 | Stephen Albanese/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

James was born to a 16-year-old Gloria James. When he was born, reports ESPN, they lived in a house with Gloria’s mother and grandmother. But when the two elder women passed away, any sense of stability flew out of the window. Gloria was living on welfare and couldn’t afford a place for her and her son. So they moved from apartment to apartment of whichever friend or family member would have them.

James grew up in a chaotic and dangerous part of Akron, Ohio. Drugs and violence were prevalent in the area. As an 8-year-old, he missed 100 out of 162 days of school. Playing sports was as much about finding a safe outlet as it was about James already being as tall as his mother. 

The young athlete began playing football for a local team. Then, at nine years old, he picked up a basketball at the behest of his football coach, Frank Walker. The leader had noticed LeBron’s talent during a pickup game in his backyard.

Scouts became enamored with James early on

It didn’t take long for people to realize that James was something special. By the time he was 13, he was a 6-foot-tall athlete who led the Summit Lake Hornets to victories both in state and national tournaments.

Once the basketball world heard about this prodigy, they all wanted a ride on the LeBron train. At least one agency got in touch with him when he was a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. The increased attention didn’t affect James’ play on the court, however. St. Vincent-St. Mary went 53-1 in James’ first two years there. He was the first sophomore to become Ohio’s Mr. Basketball.

So many scouts and fans began attending his games that the school had to use the University of Akron’s stadium. Magazine profiles and TV cameras a normal part of life. James wasn’t the first high schooler to be covered like a pro, but he dealt with an intense amount of scrutiny.

In this era, it was still a question if top prospects would go to college or enter the NBA immediately. As fun as it is to imagine what LeBron could’ve done to amateur teams — he says he would’ve gone to Ohio State — it’s fair to say going straight to the pros worked out.

LeBron was hyped like no one else

 The best Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t write a narrative about the rise of a superstar more compelling than James. No rookie’s first NBA game was hyped as highly as James’ was. (Zion Williamson is the only player with a similar experience.) The expectations were sky-high — and James still surpassed them.

His first game was on the road against the Sacramento Kings. James played magnificently, putting up 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds, and four steals. He showed a preternatural level of poise and skill. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost the game, but this didn’t matter. The NBA had a new star. 

James continued to amaze throughout the season. He averaged 21 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game, winning the Rookie of the Year award as the third player in league history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game as a rookie. And we all know what happened next. 

Many players were lazily labeled as the next Michael Jordan. James is good enough to actually earn the comparisons. And it all happened because someone took a chance on a poor kid from Akron, something James passes on to the next generation as an adult.