King James is coming to town.
LeBron James, whom Mike Krzyzewski calls the best basketball player in the world, leads the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat in a preseason game against the Charlotte Bobcats at PNC Arena on Tuesday night.
Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski witnessed James greatness 11 years ago. Krzyzewski never saw James play in high school, as Duke was well aware the hoops prodigy was headed directly to the NBA. Wojciechowski, however, watched James play in a Houston AAU tournament in 2001.
He was the best high school player Ive ever seen, he said.
James, from Akron, Ohio, was playing for the Oakland Soldiers along with fellow future NBAers Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and DeMarcus Nelson (who would also play four years at Duke). One game in the Kingwood Classic featured the Oakland Soldiers against the Dwight Howard and Javaris Crittendon-led Atlanta Celtics.
There was no doubt, from start to finish, that LeBron was a cut above all of them, Wojciechowski said.
At one point, a teammate of James turned the ball over, and James transitioned back on defense to defend the fast break. Instead of heading straight for the rim, though, James made a loop and took and angle, sending the ballhandler and James racing on opposite sides of the floor to the basket.
You could see, you could just see him picking up momentum, Wojciechowski said, laughing. He met the kid at the rim and blocked the shot about as far as you could possibly block a shot. It was just staggering. It was like, This cant be real. He was just an exceptional, exceptional talent.
Krzyzewski saw James play during his rookie year, but the two began to establish their relationship after Krzyzewski was named the head coach for USA basketball in 2005.
Around that time, Krzyzewski walked by James one day in the locker room. James had his shirt off, and Krzyzewski saw the Chosen 1 tattoo James has inked across the top of his back.
He is a massive human being and a gifted athlete. Those guys all have tattoos like crazy, Krzyzewski said. And I said Chosen one? And he said, Yep. And I said, I think Im going to get one of those. And he looked at me and leaned over and says, No, coach, theres only one chosen one.
Over the years, the two grew close.
We have a great relationship, James told the Miami Herald. Weve been together since 05 and our relationship has grown every year. Ive grown from a young man into a man into a leader of that team. Hes helped me develop that. I give a lot of credit to him.
Heat and Olympic teammate Dwyane Wade said it was obvious how much James, an eight-time NBA All-Star, three-time MVP and two-time Olympic gold medalist, enjoyed working with Krzyzewski.
I think (Coach K) approached it that way, Wade told the Herald. He understood him and Kobe (Bryant) and those other guys who didnt go to college. And if you can pick one college coach to play for, obviously, Coach K tops that list for many. They took their relationship personal; he pushed him. And (James) didnt get that experience. You can tell they both really loved it.
Shane Battier, a senior on Dukes 2001 NCAA championship team, said James would have been an ideal Blue Devil.
You know what? LeBron could have played at Duke and I dont say that about a lot of guys, he told the Herald. There are a lot of All-Stars who couldnt have played at Duke. LeBron is one of the few All-Stars who could have played there and survived. You have to be mentally tough. You have to know the game you cant be some idiot out there, some dummy running around. You have to play for the team and be selfless. Those are all of LeBron James qualities.
Its no wonder then, that Krzyzewski relied on James to lead Team USA to a second-consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer in London.
We knew he would be the key guy, Krzyewski said. On a day-to-day basis, we just got into a routine. He would say, what do you want me to do, what do you need, and I would tell him, and he would do it. Id say, I need to know the feel of our team, or I need 30 minutes and we need to go hard, and we did, or I need 10 minutes of attention right now, and we had it.
Krzyzewskis favorite memory came after the final buzzer in the gold medal game, when James emptied two water bottles over his head before bear-hugging him.
Coach is a guy who coaches for relationships, said Wojciechowski, who also on the Olympics staff. To be able to do that with the best guy in the world right now, he just loved it.
Keeley: 919-829-4556 Twitter @laurakeeley