Brian Windhorst goes so far back with LeBron James, he actually had to beg his editor at the Akron Beacon Journal to report on his games. In fact, Windhorst wasn’t even sure of the future superstar’s name when he first saw him play as a high school freshman in 1999.
“I knew there was a standout player on the team,” Windhorst said. “But to be honest, I didn’t know who he was.”
Windhorst quickly found out, and James has taken him on the ride of a lifetime ever since. He has covered James’ journey at all his various stops: Cleveland, Miami and back again in Cleveland. Now an NBA reporter for ESPN, Windhorst teamed with Dave McMenamin on a new book, "Return of the King: LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History."
Naturally, the authors were able to mine the inside details of what likely will be James’ signature moment in finally delivering a title to forlorn Cleveland last year. Windhorst truly was there from the beginning, and arguably knows him better than anybody in the media.
The superstar is well aware of the long connection. During the 2014 NBA Finals, James’ answer to a question included this acknowledgement: “Brian has seen me more than anyone else.”
Windhorst recalled he was an eager 21-year-old working on the agate desk and covering some high school sports for the Beacon-Journal in 1999. He heard his old high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, suddenly had a group of talented freshman. That struck Windhorst as odd since St. Vincent-St. Mary hardly was known for strong basketball.
“They were 3-17 when I was a senior,” he said.
With his curiosity piqued, Windhorst was the lone reporter in a sparsely filled gym during that first sighting. James only scored 15 points, but “you could tell he was different than anyone else,” Windhorst said.
When Windhorst lobbied to cover more of James’ games, his boss initially resisted. “He thought I was trying to favor my old high school,” he said.
Soon, though, James’ play warranted increased coverage. Still, it wasn’t enough for him to be named to the all-state team as a freshman, leading to a memorable early conversation with Windhorst.
“He wanted to know why he didn’t make it,” Windhorst said. “I said, ‘Sometimes, there’s a bias against picking freshman.’ It was a mistake. Clearly, he was the best player.”
Looking back, Windhorst said with some irony, “That might be the only time when people weren’t paying that much attention to him, and he felt under-appreciated.”
Windhorst said James was somewhat “quiet and withdrawn,” rarely making eye contact as a freshman. He gradually became more engaged, with his star rising quickly to national prominence in high school.
“He had an awakening of who he was,” Windhorst said.
Windhorst witnessed it all grow exponentially since then. He chronicled James’ first stint with the Cavaliers for the Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. ESPN then hired him to cover James when he infamously took his talents to Miami.
Cavaliers fans actually took out their anger against James on Windhorst. When he returned to Cleveland to report on games with James and the Heat, fans used to throw things at him. Windhorst says it got so bad he had to watch the game on TV in the press room.
Windhorst has since moved on to become one of ESPN’s NBA reporters. That means he still sees plenty of James, who always is a big story.
As mega superstars go, James is exceptionally accommodating to the media, Windhorst said. He actually is more willing now to do one-on-ones with the media than ever before.
“I’m not talking about something that’s scheduled,” Windhorst said. “Those days are gone. But if he trusts you, and if he is interested in what you want to talk about, he will give you the time. It might take a couple of weeks, but he will do it.”
That’s not to say James enjoys the media circus; rather, he understands his responsibility.
“If you and me were required to speak in front of microphones every day for nearly nine months, you would find it difficult,” Windhorst said. “Clearly, sometimes he is not in the mood. I can look into his eyes and know whether he is into it or not. But he is available almost every day. He does it out of obligation to the league and his brand.”
Windhorst said James is “a smart guy” who can produce some cutting quotes if he wants “to lower the boom on someone.” He hardly was a fan of former Cavaliers coach David Blatt, offering up this nugget: “He’s our coach. What other choice do we have?”
“He completely kneecaps Blatt without getting any blood on hands,” Windhorst said.
Indeed, Windhorst says James is well aware of the power of his words. He knows that anything he says will be posted immediately on social media and fodder for hours of discussion on ESPN.
James and his camp also learned from the experience of badly fumbling his announcement to play for Miami in 2010.
“They have been very good at controlling the flow of information,” Windhorst said.
As for Windhorst, he says James doesn’t give him any special treatment, “and I don’t ask for it.” In fact, he has requested less of James of late, in deference to all the interviews he has given to him through the years. He doesn’t want to overdo it.
Windhorst also felt it was important for him to transition to covering the NBA as a whole, and not just James.
“Eventually, he is going to retire, but I’m going to need to keep working,” Windhorst said. “I didn’t want to be just a LeBron writer.”
Windhorst, though, knows his career would have been much different if he hadn’t gone to see a certain high school freshman in 1999.
“I still think I would be around the NBA,” Windhorst said. “But there’s no way I get noticed by ESPN two years on the beat. My ceiling would have been lower.”
Windhorst tellingly added, “Everyone around LeBron has been pulled up by him.”