Looking Back at LeBron James NBA Debut
Written by Complex Senior Editor, Russ Bengtson
LeBron James was 18 years and 303 days old when he made his NBA debut in Sacramento against the Kings on this date in 2003. A dozen years later, that game—a 106-92 Sacramento win—has been reduced to a single now-famous image: LeBron soaring toward the basket, right arm cocked back, legs slightly bent.
It’s been silhouetted on shoes, used in countless LeBron stories. It no doubt remains on many walls, or at least many websites. But there was so much more to that game than a single dunk. By the time LeBron laced up his Nike Zoom Generations in the ARCO Arena locker room, the hype had reached levels previously unheard of for an NBA debut. James was The Chosen One, the prodigal son who stayed home. The kid from Akron was the man in Cleveland, the guy who landed a Sports Illustrated cover in high school and wore a gleaming white suit to the NBA Draft, a would-be savior in Nikes. The time for talking was over. The time for action was here.
The Sacramento Kings were a tough first opponent for anyone, let alone an 18-year-old rookie. They’d won 59 games the previous season with a multi-pronged attack that saw them run the quickest pace in the league, averaging over 100 points a game. They were led by a former chosen one of their own, 30-year-old All-Star Chris Webber, who was surrounded by other All-Star level talent at nearly every position: Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic. They had both scorers and the court vision to maximize each and every one of them.
Then there were the Cavaliers. They’d earned the right to draft LeBron thanks to an utterly deplorable 2002-03 season, winning just 17 games (by comparison, the Kings had won their 17th game by December 6th). Head coach John Lucas was fired midway through the season, interim coach Keith Smart—who didn’t do any better—wasn’t retained. Aside from LeBron, the only major addition (if you could call it that) was 31-year-old journeyman point guard Kevin Ollie. The opening night starting lineup was as follows: LeBron, Ricky Davis, Carlos Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Darius Miles. Not exactly awe-inspiring.
This is what happened. The Cavaliers won the tip, then immediately turned it over on an Ilgauskas travel. Seventeen seconds later, Peja buried a three (assist, Bibby) to open the scoring. LeBron’s first box score contribution was a rebound off a Doug Christie miss a minute and a half in, which he followed up immediately with an assist to Ricky Davis. (Ricky once famously said of LeBron’s arrival: “I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score.”) LeBron’s first bucket, a 15-footer, came with nine minutes to go in the first. To his teammates’s credit, they looked for him often, as he stacked 12 first-quarter points. And in a sequence near the end of the quarter, he unveiled the total package, with steals on three straight Kings possessions leading to a runout dunk (THE dunk) and two assists. A minute later he followed his own miss with a tough rebound and follow in traffic. Clearly the kid belonged.
The Cavaliers fought hard—and actually led early in the fourth quarter—but simply ran out of gas. Their last bucket, a LeBron scoop, came with 4:17 to go, after which the Cavs had as many turnovers (4) as shots. The Kings won going away. James, though, he more than held his own. He finished with a game-high 25 points on 12-20 from the floor, with nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. His two turnovers both came in the final three minutes, and given that he played a game-high 42 minutes, that was entirely understandable. High school games were nothing like this.
The NBA scheduling gods were not kind to the Cavaliers—LeBron’s first three games were all played on the road (all losses) before he made his home debut against the Denver Nuggets and their own heralded rookie, Carmelo Anthony. The Cavs lost that game too, Bron managing just seven points (on 3-11 shooting) in his “First Game” Zoom Generations. Anthony had 14. LeBron and the Cavs would have to wait another three nights for their first win, which came against the Washington Wizards.
James endured plenty of growing pains that first year, with subpar games and an eight-game losing streak that extended from mid-November into December. The Cavaliers missed the playoffs despite more than doubling the previous year’s win total, although James did edge out Anthony for Rookie of the Year.
Things like All-Star appearances and his first triple-double would have to wait until his sophomore season. But all the questions, whether his game would translate to the NBA, whether he was worthy of the first pick, whether he would live up to the massive amounts of hype—those were all answered the first night. And the answer, of course, was yes.