SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- LeBron James, among other professional athletes, has caused plenty of consternation in some corners when he's made team-approved midseason trips to Miami the past few seasons. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if he and three teammates left training camp to fly 2,000 miles just so he could film a Nike commercial?
Well, it did happen once -- and virtually no one knew or cared.
This week James used his annual trip to Sacramento as a platform to announce Nike was releasing a vintage edition of his original signature shoe, the Zoom Generation I, which was released his rookie season. James debuted the shoe on Oct. 29, 2003, in Sacramento in what became a historic first game.
Now when James wants to show off a shoe, he uses social media. Back then, Nike wanted to film a special commercial to feature the kicks. One that was tied to the debut, which drew nearly three million viewers, a strong rating for an early-season game on the West Coast.
So, early in training camp that year, James and Nike secured permission from the Cavs for him to be whisked to Sacramento in a private jet to film a commercial at Arco Arena. The goal was to make the ad look as authentic as possible when it ran during and around his first game on the same floor. He took then-teammates Carlos Boozer, DeSagana Diop and Dajuan Wagner with him and then-Kings star point guard Mike Bibby was part of the shoot as well.
There were other cameos, including Damon Wayans, then-Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof and George Gervin.
"We were pretty surprised by it, we'd never seen anything like it," said longtime Kings broadcaster Jerry Reynolds, who appeared in the commercial. "They had about 500 extras and moved them all around to make it look like it was sold out."
"It was great for Sacramento and great for us," said Kings play-by-play man Grant Napear, who voiced the spot. "We kept getting royalty checks. Every time I got one in the mail I called Jerry and told him to run out to the mailbox and look."
In the ad, James appeared to freeze under the pressure of the moment as the crowd went silent and Bibby, who was guarding him, and his Cavs teammates looked stunned. Then he smiled as if it was all a joke. In reality, James handled the moment just fine, scoring 12 points in his first quarter and 25 in the game.
"It was just a dream come true," James said, looking back on it. "For me to be in a position where I was putting on a pair of shoes that have my name on them, putting on a jersey that had my name on the back, my family's name on the back."
James wore the retro shoes into the Golden 1 Center Friday for the game against the Kings but didn't wear them in the game, though teammate Iman Shumpert did. One of the defining design items of the shoe is a chrome strip around the heel which was put in as an ode to the signature bumpers on the Hummer H2 vehicle James drove in high school to much fanfare.
James had just signed a $100 million contract with Nike at the time, subjecting him to plenty of scrutiny not just from fans, but also his new peers. He was on the receiving end of plenty of hard picks and trash talk over his first few weeks in the league, especially with Nike, with whom many established players had endorsement deals, paying so much attention to James that he got a commercial focused on his first game.
"It was a couple guys that had some things to say that I held on to, but I knew what I was capable of," James said. "The first [Nike contract] was a bet. They took a chance on me."
James has since signed two extensions with Nike and will earn more than a billion from the relationship in his lifetime. And the Cavs have never regretted giving James a day off so he could fly to California to make a commercial.
"They took a chance, but at the same time, they knew what they were signing, and when I stepped on this floor for the first time, my first time playing in the NBA, they knew they made the right bet," James said. "They actually got me on a bargain."