Sam Mitchell had been hired as a rookie assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2002-03 season and was sitting in for a draft meeting.
"LeBron James was coming out of his junior year in high school and wouldn't be in the draft until 2003,'' Mitchell said. "And one of our scouts said, 'I would trade Kobe for the right to draft this kid.'
"This was when Kobe Bryant was at his best, maybe 24, and had just won three straight titles. I said, 'You can't say that. That's crazy. You can't say that you saw a high school player that you'd rather have than Kobe.'
"And the scout said, 'Just wait … when you see more of this kid, you might agree with me.' I'm not sure I do yet, with Kobe having the career he had and winning those five championship rings, but do I owe an apology to that scout.
"He wasn't crazy.''
LeBron James played at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. He played prep games on ESPN and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior. He compiled three state titles and two national player of the year awards.
And then came one of those NBA Houdini acts with ping-pong balls:
The Cleveland Cavaliers had done their part by going 17-65 in 2002-03, compiling 22.5% of the ping-pong balls, and then, presto, the Cavs won the 2003 lottery and the right to draft Northern Ohio's teenage hero.
Nineteen seasons later, and two weeks from his 37th birthday, this phenomenon of competitiveness, stamina and production, of winning on and off the court, was scheduled to make his 18th appearance at Target Center late Friday night.
Late, as in a 9:15 p.m. tipoff, moved in order to give ESPN a chance to feature the Lakers, which means a chance to feature LeBron.
Almost two decades now, and the only items that have been flexed more than starting times for LeBron's TV games have been LeBron's muscles. He can't help that second one. He walks out of a timeout, a 6-9, 250-pound (estimated) rock, and it's a flex in motion.
Mitchell, player, NBA coach, now a national TV analyst living in Atlanta ("15 minutes from the studio"), emphasized that point:
"All the things LeBron's contributed to the NBA, No. 1 for me is to show younger players the need to invest in their bodies. No athlete has spent more money on eating the right foods, working out right, staying both strong and flexible, than LeBron.
"Just seeing him, finding out what he did … that changed my habits, and I was done playing already. Most of us, we put our money in houses, cars, extra things, not our bodies.
"I watched LeBron and said, We got it backwards. We accumulate all these things, and then if our body breaks down, and we don't feel good, we can't enjoy those things. We would trade feeling good for all of it.
"Admittedly, LeBron can have both, but I'd venture a guess that he's spent $25-30 million on his body, and it's made him a billion. That's a good return on investment.''
Michael Jordan fanatics get upset instantly when someone offers the opinion that LeBron (or Kobe) is the greatest basketball player of all time.
"Six rings, six rings!'' they will shout to the heavens.
Kobe has five, all with the Lakers. LeBron has four, in three different towns: back-to-back in Miami (2012, 2013), back home in Cleveland (2016) and in a COVID-fighting bubble in Orlando with the Lakers (2020).
There's also this: Jordan first retired at age 35 in 1998. He then came back after three years to play two non-playoff seasons to help sell tickets for Washington, a team in which he had an investment.
For his career, Jordan played in 1,072 regular-season games and 179 playoff games. On Friday, James was to play in regular-season game No. 1,328, to go with an NBA record 266 playoff games (helped by 10 trips to the finals).
He had an ankle injury that cost him a hunk of the shortened 2020-21 NBA season, and an abdominal strain earlier this season, but durability remains a calling card. When LeBron's done three, four years from now, he's likely to have played 500 more regular-season games than Jordan, and more than 300 playoff games total.
"People find fault with everyone, and they have done that with LeBron,'' Mitchell said. "They'll criticize him for the playoff loss to Boston (2009); they'll criticize him for 'The Decision' announcement that he was going to Miami.
"You know what came out of The Decision? A $5 million donation to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. You have a distorted view of humanity if you wouldn't go through a spectacle for a half-hour to send $5 million to that organization.
"The NBA probably was worried when Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird were leaving, and then Michael Jordan came along. And then they had to wonder how the league was going to follow Michael?''
Turned out to be that high school kid from Akron.
"When you look at the overall picture, how he's done it as a player and a person, I feel this way,'' Mitchell said. "LeBron has been a godsend for the NBA.''