At age 17, LeBron James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time. At 25, he had already won one NBA MVP award and was working on a second in what would be the final season of his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, back with the Cavaliers and turning the big 3-0 on Tuesday, he is a four-time MVP, a two-time NBA champion and is ahead of the statistical paces of nearly all of the all-time greats. Just over a week prior to that major milestone birthday, James sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss where he's been, where he is and where he's going.
Bleacher Report: What's the significance of 30 to you?
LeBron James: I just think it's another phase in my life. Just to think about my upbringing, and at times not knowing if you're going to see the following day. You hear about the statistics all the time, growing up in the inner city and where I'm from—and people not even making it past their teenage years or past 21.
The fact that I've been able to do what I love to do, play this sport and be able to transcend the youth to the best of my knowledge, and being able to turn 30 and still doing it. I guess it means I've done some pretty good things to this point.
B/R: When you were growing up, what did you think about that age?
LJ: Well, I really didn't think of it too much, because when I was younger, my mom was young. When I was born, she was 16. My second-oldest uncle was 26. And my Mom's oldest brother was 36. It was a young family, so… (Laughs) I really didn't think about it too much. All I saw was young people around, man.
But I always hoped that I could be able to put myself in a position where I can give back, not only to the youth, but to my own family. And to be almost 30 and to see my three kids and to see them grow, and for me to just try to give them the blueprint every day on what life is about and how to conduct yourself, that's the most important thing for me.
B/R: What would you, at 30, tell a 20-year-old LeBron James?
LJ: I think I would tell him to just be ready for the pitfalls and be ready for the adversity that's going to come your way. But don't change them. Don't change them at all. Obviously there are some things that you can do better, but I think you go forward, and you go through it, because that's the only way that's going to make you who you are. That's the only way that's going to make you become a man, and in whatever that you're doing, it's only going to make you become stronger.
And like I say all the time, the best teacher in life is experience. And for me to be able to experience some of the things that I went through as a professional, and off the floor as well, you know that set me up to be the guy who I am today.
B/R: So if the best teacher is experience, what is the best lesson that it teaches?
LJ: I think, for me, it's when that opportunity presents itself, you know how to approach it the next time. I'm fortunate enough that I've had an opportunity to have multiple opportunities to resurrect an opportunity. Everyone's not as fortunate. A lot of people get one time at it, and if they mess it up then and there, then there's no going back.
I've been fortunate enough, and the man above has given me an opportunity to have situations where I've had multiple opportunities to do better. And I think the reason for that is because he knew that I was genuine at heart, and I used that for the better to know how to approach it the next day.
B/R: When you thought of what your game would be at this stage of your career, is it close to what you anticipated?
LJ: Listen, I won when I was drafted. I won when I was drafted. And I didn't put anything on it. Obviously, I wanted to win. I wanted to win championships. I wanted to be the best player in this league at one point, growing up. But when I was drafted, man, I knew I won right then and there. There's a select few guys that get that opportunity, and I knew I wouldn't take it for granted.
B/R: And how different was your game when you were 20?
LJ: My game has changed. A lot of people don't notice it, but my game has changed three or four times just over my 12-year career. I'm just more of a complete, cerebral, basketball IQ guy now.
You know, when I was 20 years old, I really just played the game. I was very smart then, too. I had a huge basketball IQ even when I was younger. But the experience that I've gained over the years has given me even more of a thinking game. I kind of think the game more than I play it now. And I just let what I do here in practices just take care of itself.
B/R: I don't want to take you all the way to 40, because we don't know what you'll be doing…
LJ: (Laughs) It's next; it's next; it's next.
B/R: Well, before we get to that, I was surprised (on Dec. 12) in New Orleans, when people were asking you about athleticism, you kind of acknowledged it a little bit. You said, "There's still a lot of things I can do to help a team win." But let's not go to 40. Let's go to 35. How different do you think that aspect of your game will look then, than it looks now?
LJ: Well, I mean, first of all, let's be honest: We all know that Father Time is undefeated. I don't care who you are; I don't care how much stretching, yoga, treatment, tables—Father Time is undefeated. So, for me, I've just got to continue to listen to my body, train my body, like I've been doing over the years.
And my thing is, my answer wasn't [that] I felt that I'm losing my athleticism. Obviously, I'm not just jumping and going crazy like I was when I was 18, 19. But my answer to that was geared toward, I want people to understand that there's more to me than just athleticism. That's not my whole game. Obviously, it's allowed me to do some great things out on the floor. But my basketball IQ and the way I approach the game mentally, I want that to be seen more than my athleticism.
And that's why I was saying that… It wasn't like I was saying, "OK, I can't jump no more." (Smiles) Because I can still. At a high level, too. But it was more of me just, I wanted to bring out the fact that I'm a basketball guru guy, I love the game, I think the game. And that's what is key for me.
B/R: We've talked about that before, that you'd rather be known for intelligence than athleticism.
LJ: Obviously, intelligence doesn't make the highlights. (Laughs)
B/R: No, but that's an interesting question. That's not just you. People don't generally appreciate that as much in society.
LJ: Well, it doesn't get talked about in our sport. It just doesn't. You know, the dunks, the long-range shooting, the guys that play above the rim. It doesn't get talked about. We don't really talk about the guys that really think the game.
Maybe it's because there's just not a lot of guys that really think the game. We have a couple that I know that when you play against them, they're thinking the game. Chris Paul. Tim Duncan. Those guys. Those guys. Dwyane Wade. Those guys are thinking the game before it happens. But there's less of us than the guys who are flying above the rim.
B/R: Kobe Bryant (on Dec. 14) got celebrated for passing Michael Jordan in points. You've talked a little bit about your appreciation for what he's done. As you watch him and the way he's handling things six years down the line from where you are, does it make you think about how you might handle things? And also, you are more than 2,000 points ahead of where he was at age 30.
LJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. Come on, man. This is the longest shortest career of anything. I think about all the time, what's next for me in the next couple of years, you know 35, and then if I make it to get where Kobe is, you know. How do I approach the game? And what is my mindset? And is my love for the game still there? I absolutely think about that stuff. I mean, how could you not? I mean, I've been in this league 12 years, and it's not like I'm going up another 12 years. You know, my escalator is starting to tail. So I understand that.
B/R: Do you know the numbers, though?
LJ: No. I have no idea.
B/R: This is age 30. (James has 23,901 points prior to turning 30 Tuesday, compared to 21,619 for Bryant, 21,541 for Jordan, 18,638 for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 16,987 for Karl Malone at age 30)
LJ: That's everybody at age 30? And that's [Abdul-Jabbar] at age 30?! Wow! And he went nuts after that! That's crazy. That's crazy.
B/R: Could you see yourself going nuts until (close to) 43?
LJ: Oh my God! Oh my God! He played [that long]. That's ridiculous.
B/R: What is the legacy that you want to leave on the league?
LJ: You know what, that's for people to talk about. For me, I want to just be—I was a great teammate, I worked my butt off, I prepared the right way every single night to help my teammates win. When I'm done with this game, just hopefully I've made a mark on this game that people just remember me for the good things. For me loving the game. For me appreciating the game. For me never taking the game for granted, man.
I just think I owe it to it. I owe it to the game. The game has given everything to me. For me to talk about what I want to leave behind, I leave it to people to try to figure it out, I guess.
B/R: But does it still matter to you to be the best player ever?
LJ: As long as I'm out there on the floor. (Laughs). As long as I'm out there on the floor, I'm trying to be the greatest ever. And along that line, being the best man I can be, being the best father, all along that same thing, all on that same path. I've got a chance to be part of some great things while I'm part of this NBA thing. And I want to maximize everything, both on and off.
B/R: You've taken a role in players getting more of a say in the way that things go. You were active in the last lockout. It does seem like you want to leave the league a better place for them.
LJ: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, man. Listen, man, this is the game of basketball I love and would do for free. And they let us travel all over the world and be able to support our families and do that stuff that I would do anyway. Find me nine other guys and I'm ready to play. I'm ready to play.
The least I can do is give back to this game, and hopefully this game continues to grow when I'm done. And these kids that's coming into our league, these young men that are playing in our league that have to continue to carry it on when, eventually, at some point, I'll be done…hopefully, I've just left them enough of the blueprint where they can just keep it going.
B/R: Is there something that between 30 and 35, or 40, by the time you're done, that you'd like to see changed in the league?
LJ: Fundamentals. Fundamentals and the thinking game. That's what I would like to change. There's not many guys that think the game. And the fundamentals are not where they used to be.
B/R: Why do you think that is?
LJ: I don't know. I don't know if it's the little league coaches or AAU ball. I just don't think the game is being taught the right way. I'm not saying every coach. Because I know my little league coaches were great, and they taught the fundamentals, and we played for team. It has something to do with something. There's a shortage somewhere going on.
B/R: You've talked about your coach, when you were nine, giving the whole team MVP trophies and putting a focus on team.
LJ: That's it.
B/R: So it's become more individual over time?
LJ: Yeah, I've seen it over time. And it's hard because these little league coaches and these AAU coaches get a player, and he's so good, and they want to win so bad that they just kind of give everything to that kid to keep him around. And hopefully, he doesn't go to a better team or however it goes.
But they stop teaching all the guys, and they stop teaching what this really means. This is a team game, man. This is not about one individual. Not one individual has won a championship or even won anything by himself. Obviously, I know individual accolades come with it but, for me, I've always said if I'm going to accomplish anything individually, it's only going to happen because my team is successful.
B/R: You've also started speaking out more on issues outside of basketball. When did you start to feel you should do that? Is that about getting closer to 30?
LJ: I just think it's the natural course of maturity, being comfortable and then understanding and figuring out who you are. It takes guys and women and people, it takes them a little while to figure out who they really are. And you look in the mirror, and you're like: This is who I want to be; this is what I stand for. And I stand for a bigger purpose than just me. I know that.
B/R: When did you realize who you were?
LJ: It's not a one-moment thing, man. I think definitely going to Miami helped that, getting an opportunity to get away from my comfort zone, getting away from my family, and just getting away and just kind of seeing [things] in a different light. I think that helped.
B/R: You had your first child right before you turned 20. Now, just before 30, you have three. What do you know about fatherhood that you didn't then?
LJ: (Laughs) There's no encyclopedia or book about parenthood. You learn on the fly. And, as a parent, if you have multiple kids, you can't teach them all the same thing because they all have different personalities. They're their own person. And I understand that. The way I can talk to one of my kids has to be different from the other one, because how they react and how they take in the knowledge is different.
And what's funny is it's a lot like being a leader of a basketball team. How I speak to Dwyane Wade is different from how I speak to Chris Bosh. How I speak to Mario Chalmers is different from how I talk to Norris Cole. How I talk to Kyrie Irving is different from how I talk to Kevin Love. It's how they receive the knowledge and how it processes into their mind—that's how you know you're doing it the right way. Being able to understand their personalities, and understand their mind, on how they take the knowledge.
B/R: But nobody can really know whether they're a good parent or not…
LJ: No, you can only give them the road and the path and hope that they follow.
B/R: Your sons will be teenagers soon...
LJ: Yup, a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old. Not that far away.
B/R: They have had a much different upbringing than you did...
B/R: What do you want them to understand about the world?
LJ: I want them to understand they have to be true to themselves. Every time they step outside the household, they are representing not only themselves but also our family name. Respect women, at an all-time high. And every decision that you make, you have to understand that sometimes there are consequences that go with that decision. And if you understand that, you'll be all right.
And also, not be afraid to talk to their parents. Their dad has seen it all, man. And by the time they are teenagers, I'll have seen even more. So there's nothing that I can't give 'em. Obviously, they have to live their own life and, as a parent, I have to be able to take a little step backwards to allow them to go out and have some pitfalls and have some situations where they have to learn from experience. Because their dad did that. But not be afraid to talk to them.
B/R: When do you feel they are proudest of you?
LJ: I don't know yet. I have no idea, man. But being able to come home, especially after a long road trip, and seeing them in the house, my boys running around—obviously my daughter is too small to be running around right now—that's a blessing. I'm very blessed.
B/R: How does someone like you, who has lived this sport since they were eight, nine years old, how do you think you'll handle the next chapter in your life?
LJ: Nothing, nothing will ever be able to replace this. Nothing. Nothing. The camaraderie with your teammates. The competition versus the opposition. The thrill of being able to play in front of 20,000 people every night. Your butterflies. Everything that goes with this. Nothing will be able to replace it. And I understand that. How do you set yourself up for it after? I don't know. That's something that you need to figure out. And I've been able to set myself up now, at almost 30, to where I can have different options.
B/R: So we won't see you on the golf course?
LJ: (Laughs) No good. I'm terrible.
B/R: At 40, will you still be on one of these?
LJ: On a team? I hope so. I want to be around the game. One way or another.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick.