By Terry Melia
The date was July 31, 2010, and it represented a momentous day in Upper Deck’s history. It also marked a significant day for me as Upper Deck’s longtime public relations manager. I had been privy to some pretty cool events during my tenure, including a private batting clinic with Derek Jeter in Tampa, Fla., as well as an invite-only VIP Super Bowl Party hosted by Upper Deck in Scottsdale, Ariz.
But today was going to be different; I was slated to interview LeBron James during his first-ever autograph-signing session with Upper Deck Authenticated (UDA) as a member of the Miami Heat. Today was going to be one for the record books.
Just three weeks before, LeBron had staged his much-publicized “Decision” on ESPN where he talked about leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat. Since that televised, one-on-one interview with Jim Gray, LeBron had endured his fair share of criticism, especially from his hometown crowd in Akron, Ohio. Nevertheless, he was starting a new chapter in his life and the folks at Upper Deck were ready to help spread the word with new basketball cards, as well as new autographed Miami Heat memorabilia authenticated by UDA.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and we had secured another autograph-signing session with LeBron, an exclusive Upper Deck spokesman since 2003. It took place just minutes after a shoot-around session at his King’s Academy Basketball Camp, which was being held at the Rimac Arena on the campus of UC San Diego. Some 400 youngsters had just watched LeBron shoot hoops and listened as he professed the virtues of playing basketball. But his day of heavy lifting was really just about to get started.
The Rimac Arena in La Jolla, Calif., was a 30-minute drive from Upper Deck’s headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., so we took advantage of the close proximity. As was always the case, the mission was to nail down authentic, eye-witnessed signatures from “King James” for fast-approaching UDA product launches. But what made this particular meeting so historic was the fact that it marked his first official Miami Heat signing for the company. He would soon be autographing Heat-emblazoned basketballs and multiple photos showing him sporting his new No. 6 uniform.
I arrived about an hour before the interview and subsequent signing was scheduled to start. I met my videographer, Jon Magnuson, outside the arena and helped him carry in his high-definition cameras, lights, tripods and extension cords. I had some Upper Deck banners and signs myself, so we helped each other get set up before the big guy arrived.
At the same time, Upper Deck Athlete Relations mainstay Tim Doull was busy separating the basketballs and photos earmarked for the signing, as well as testing the wide assortment of black, blue and silver Sharpies he had on hand. Situated inside a large conference room just off the gymnasium floor, we were ready for LeBron and, as it turns out, he was more than ready for us.
At about 2 p.m., in walked the 6-foot-8, 250-pound All-Star forward and two-time NBA MVP. He had a spring in his step and went straight for a bottle of Vitamin water on the refreshment table. There were more than a dozen people inside the room; five were Upper Deck employees, six were volunteers from the camp and the remaining folks represented LeBron’s handlers. LeBron took a swig from his bottle and before he could even ask a question, I introduced myself, shook his hand and told him we’d like to conduct a quick 10-minute video interview with him prior to the signing session.
He had no problem with my request and off we went. LeBron was still three months away from playing in his first official NBA game as a member of the Heat, but judging by his pleasant disposition, he was already envisioning the good life in South Beach.
Sporting an orange Nike T-shirt – complete with “Witness” emblazoned across the front in gray – and long gray basketball shorts – he could not have been a more cooperative subject. Magnuson and I had strategically staged our interview setup near the back wall, which worked out perfectly. I was able to ask him several questions about his new team, new jersey number, whether or not he liked signing for the fans and even a question or two about his personal collection. He was forthcoming with his answers and even shared a few sound bites none of us had heard before. For example, who knew that his most prized autograph is a signed Time Magazine cover by the reigning Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama? And exactly how many fans out there know that LeBron is a lefty?
At the time, I asked him what he’d like to say to his new fans in Miami. “It’s gonna be exciting,” he said. “It will mark a new beginning for me, but most of all, it’s gonna be fun.” I also asked him what was the most unusual surface he’s ever been asked to sign. “Body parts,” he said smiling. “Lots and lots of body parts.”
In seven seasons with the Cavaliers, LeBron averaged 27.8 points per game and led the Cavs to the NBA Finals for the first time in 2007. But this day, he was more eager to discuss his newfound plans about winning a championship in Miami alongside the likes of perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“The number 23 will always be with me no matter what I do,” James said when asked about his new uniform number. “But right now, it’s all about starting over and that’s what the No. 6 will allow me to do in Miami.”
A longtime admirer of NBA Hall-of-Famer Julius Erving, who sported the No. 6 during his days with the Philadelphia 76ers, LeBron mentioned that it brought with it some good mojo as well. It was the number he wore during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics when Team USA brought home the gold medal, its first since 2000. LeBron scored 14 points, pulled down six rebounds and added three assists in the “Redeem Team’s” 118-107, gold-medal-winning game against Spain. “So it carries with it some greatness already,” he added.
Once our interview concluded, LeBron popped out of his seat, grabbed his iPod, placed it inside a mini boom box and proceeded to cue up some of the loudest rap music I had ever heard. It blasted continuously over the next two hours as he signed hundreds of official NBA Spalding basketballs and personally inscribed a smaller number of Heat-emblazoned basketballs, along with multiple 16-by-20 photos showing him sporting his new No. 6 Miami uniform. One of the inscriptions he used read: “2009, 2010 NBA MVP.” Depending upon the background color, he switched Sharpie colors accordingly. Doull and fellow UDA Athlete Relations representative Drew Mills kept the assembly line of items coming fast and furious for LeBron, all the while wearing white gloves to maintain the pristine condition of each item he signed.
At 4:30 p.m., the session wrapped. LeBron stood up, gladly posed for photos with anyone who asked, and then made his way out of the room. He was professional in every sense of the word. Upper Deck personnel quickly high-fived each other on a job well done and then hustled to break down the room. Forty-five minutes later, I was walking back to my car, carrying some signage under my arm and wearing a big grin on my face.
It was definitely one afternoon I will never forget.