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LeBron James Opens Up on Cleveland Homecoming, Hot Topics

Aired September 26, 2014 - 22:30   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS, in his first extended interview since his stunning decision to return to Cleveland, NBA superstar LeBron James as you've never heard him before. From his awkward meeting with the Cavs owner, who previously described LeBron as cowardly...

LEBRON JAMES, NBA PLAYER: I mean, to sit down with Dan, man-to- man.

ANNOUNCER: ... to his triumphant return to his hometown...

JAMES: It was like, wow.

ANNOUNCER: ... to parenting...

JAMES: For my kids it is even more challenging, because their dad is famous.

ANNOUNCER: ... and whether he'll ever abandon Cleveland again.

RACHEL NICHOLS, HOST: Should people be nervous about this?

JAMES: No, they shouldn't be nervous.



It's been another roller coaster 24 hours in the sports world. The NFL was rocked again just last night when the Associated Press reported that the league's head of security, Jeffrey Miller, was sent the incendiary elevator tape of Ray Rice all the way back in April. Miller is denying he ever saw it.

In the NBA a domestic abuse case, as well, with the arrest of Charlotte Hornets forward Jeff Taylor.

But for a change, not all the news was bad. One of the year's most heartfelt moments happened last night when the retiring Derek Jeter said good-bye to Yankee Stadium in the most Derek-Jeter-like way possible: a goosebump-inducing walk-off RBI in the bottom of the ninth.

By this morning, the tributes were pouring in from all over, including this Instagram post from LeBron James.

Of course, as Jeter ends his journey, LeBron is just starting a new one, with Cavaliers training camp opening this weekend. But before he got back to basketball, he sat down with us, in this UNGUARDED exclusive. His first extended interview explaining just why he made the decision that rocked the sports world earlier this summer.


NICHOLS: So back in Ohio where it all began.

JAMES: I love you. I am back.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: NBA star LeBron James has finally made his decision. He is coming home.

NICHOLS: You said the whole time you were in Miami, it was in the back of your mind a little bit. Did you know this was going to happen?

JAMES: No, I didn't. You know, I had dreams about going back home, but I thought it would happen a lot later on in my career. Going back and kind of, you know, having a couple more years left in my career and kind of finish it off that way. But I didn't think it would happen this soon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are going to see LeBron.

NICHOLS: What was the moment after you made the announcement, after it became official, when you slipped on the Cleveland Cavaliers gear first time.

JAMES: Well, it just happened recently. Yes, I just started going back up to the practice area last couple weeks. And obviously, my gear was there ready for me to get a workout in. It felt great.

I'm not a big selfie guy. But I did take a couple pictures of me in my Cav gear for show.

NICHOLS; There was some damage from the time that you left before, the fans burning your jersey. You seemed to repair that over the years before you even left Miami. But that letter from Dan Gilbert was what stuck with a lot of people. And for people who don't remember, at the time the Cavaliers owner wrote about your, quote, "cowardly betrayal" and your "shocking act of disloyalty." What were the hard parts of getting past that for you or for your family?

JAMES: Well I think, ultimately, in order for me to, ultimately make the decision to come back I needed to sit down with Dan, face to face, you know, man-to-man.

NICHOLS: He came down to visit you in Miami during your free agency period. And he said at that point, you two hadn't spoken in four years. What was that conversation like?

JAMES: Well, you know, it was a straight-forward conversation. There was no beating around the bush. He basically said, you know, no matter what decision you make, he wanted to clear the air, you know, to where we can see each other in public. Or we see each other wherever. I'm competing against you. We can always shake each other's hand and look at the fun times that we had in Cleveland while we were together, instead of focusing on the one night that kind of, you know, everyone kind of focuses on.

NICHOLS: Let's talk about the flip side. Do you think if you guys had not lost to San Antonio in five games in the NBA finals you might still be in Miami?

JAMES: I mean, it's a greater chance, for sure. I mean, it would be hard to leave back to back to back championships, you know, and try to go for four. But obviously, you really can't live on and think of what may have happened, just kind of, for me, I've always been a person to kind of live in the moment.

NICHOLS: You told everybody what your decision was with an essay in "Sports Illustrated." Very different than when you left Cleveland for Miami. The entire first part of that essay didn't even talk about basketball. It talked about your attachment to northeastern Ohio. You said, quote, "It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled."

JAMES: When you walk the streets, and you still go there today and you see the path that got you where you are today, it's like -- it's so humbling. You know, the people all around there were so tough. And nothing is -- nothing was given to us. We worked for everything. And I mean, my basketball team, we walked from door to door, knocking on doors and trying to sell duct tape and things of that nature just to try to get money for our uniforms.

NICHOLS: I was with you in Akron when you came back for that homecoming event, that rally. Twenty-five thousand people filling the stadium. Not even to see you play.

JAMES: Right.

NICHOLS: Just to be near you.

JAMES: It was my time to come out. I was singing the song "Coming Home" and started thinking a little bit there. And then when I walked on stage. And I just heard the roar of excitement from everyone that was there, from the smallest kids you could find in the room to the biggest person you could find in the room. And it was like, wow. I -- this is -- this is the emotions that came out on paper from the essay. This is what it was all talking about. This is what it is.

NICHOLS: Now that you've had a few months to sit with it, why do you think this was the right choice for you?

JAMES: Well, not only the right choice for me but for the city of Cleveland, the city of Akron, where I'm from, and for the whole state of Ohio. I didn't just make the choice for myself. But also I had in the back of my mind so many people that's going to benefit. Who all are defined on where we come from and where we go in life. And I think Akron, Ohio, was meant for me.


NICHOLS: I'm not sure there is any athlete as associated with his hometown as LeBron is. And we've got much more coming up from him in the rest of this show. LeBron has plenty to say on the racism scandals that have rocked the NBA this year, the rash of domestic violence arrests among athletes, and some more personal thoughts, as well, including what it was like to grow up without ever knowing his father. He'll also talk about the heavy burden he's carrying with Cleveland sports fans. Lots of good stuff ahead.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. We've been talking to LeBron James. His return to Cleveland has kicked the hype machine into full gear. As we speak, the city is prepping a new 10-story banner of James to tower over downtown.

Remember, Cleveland hasn't won a major sports championship of any kind in 50 years. So, LeBron knows how much pressure there is on him to deliver one. Pressure he's trying to manage better than he did at his last stop.


JAMES: Not two, not three. Not four. Not five.

NICHOLS: Four years ago you came to Miami already talking about titles. This time, you're going back to Cleveland, and it was almost the opposite.

JAMES: Right.

NICHOLS: You say, "Wait a minute. Don't expect three championship dynasties just because I show up."

JAMES: Right, right, right. I understand. I understand what it takes to get there. I understand what it takes to win. It is so difficult. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.


NICHOLS: It's amazing though, because as much as you may try to tamp down expectations, you do know, I'm sure, the Las Vegas casinos already have you guys as the favorites to win?

JAMES: Yes. You know, I can't guarantee it. One thing I can guarantee, I will be the best leader every single night. I will be that leader. I will have our guys prepare. We will try to play at a high level every single night. But I can't guarantee a championship. But that is our goal.

But it's a process. It's a process.

NICHOLS: You've already been putting in a lot of work to try to make this season successful. Been on a pretty strict diet, I understand. You look lighter. I mean, how much weight did you lose?

JAMES: I lost a few pounds. I lost -- I haven't been in this weight class.

NICHOLS: Give me a ballpark?

JAMES: Right. I'm in the 250-ish range. You know, a lot lighter than I've been playing at in the last few years. But I feel good.

NICHOLS: The diet was strict, right?

JAMES: Very strict; 67 days.

NICHOLS: And what did you eat or not eat?

JAMES: I'll tell you what I couldn't have. No carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no refined sugar, no nothing. Meat, fish, veggies, fruit.

NICHOLS: What was the hardest thing to give up?

JAMES: Oh, it was either pancakes or chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.

NICHOLS: Did you go to bed dreaming about pancakes that you could not have?

JAMES: All right time. I had Cookie Monster chasing me a few times in my dreams.

NICHOLS: Are you quicker on the court?

JAMES: I am. I am, and that's not such a good thing for the competition.

NICHOLS: We've also seen you this summer supporting the Cleveland Browns' attention-getting back-up quarterback, Johnny Manziel.

JAMES: Yes. Yes.

NICHOLS: I know you and Johnny are friends. He's also signed to your marketing company. He's a very different person than you, though. What do you think it is about the two of you that has made you guys fall in together real quick and have that fast friendship?

JAMES: I think it's the attention that we've received at such a very young age. And obviously, I don't agree with a lot of decisions he made. But he's also -- he was a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kid. You can find a 19-, 20, 21-year-old kid who hasn't made a bad decision or decisions in their life, then it's unbelievable. It's unbelievable, the town you live in.

NICHOLS: And you just texted him out of the blue one day, saying, "Hey, keep your head up," that kind of thing.

JAMES: I did.

NICHOLS: You saw the flak he was taking.

JAMES: it was -- I texted him out of the blue one day. And I told him, "If you want my advice, I'm here for you. And if not, then I understand."

He texted me back. He said, "I'm ready to listen." And from that point on, we've been very, very close.

NICHOLS: It's pretty amazing that you both ended up in the same city. I mean...

JAMES: Right. Right. Right. I don't get it. I don't get it. The world works in mysterious ways.

NICHOLS: Now, when you did actually sign a piece of paper with Cleveland, you only signed for two years.

JAMES: Right.

NICHOLS: Should people be nervous about this? Is the decision par three coming up on us in a couple years?

JAMES: They shouldn't be nervous at all. I plan on finishing my career back home. And you know, that was a business decision.

NICHOLS: So Cleveland fans don't have to worry?

JAMES: No, they've just got to get excited.


JAMES: Which is -- I don't even need to say that.


NICHOLS: Now, LeBron's plan is to keep this contract short so he can re-sign with the Cavaliers after new television money is expected to raise the NBA's maximum level salary. He insisted to me that's the only thing behind this two-year deal, Promising there will be no decision part three down the road.

All right. You're going to want to stay with us through this break. On the other side, LeBron weighs in on the NFL's domestic violence problem, the NBA's racism problem and recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.


JAMES: Me having two boys of my own, it just -- one day, you know, my kids left home to go anywhere, you know, you expect your kids to return.



NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. I'm Rachel Nichols.

We've been showing you an UNGUARDED exclusive: LeBron James' first extended interview since returning to Cleveland.

Now early in his career, LeBron often deferred on social and political issues like Michael Jordan. In his recent years he's become outspoken. When the Donald Sterling recording surfaced this spring, it was LeBron who denounced him and even discussed a boycott if Sterling wasn't removed by the NBA. And with racism charges now rocking yet another NBA franchise, LeBron isn't holding back this time either.


NICHOLS: This has not been a great year for NBA owners in general. We saw Donald Sterling forced out of the league.

JAMES: Right, right.

NICHOLS: Extremely racist comments. Now the Atlanta Hawks owner...

JAMES: Right, right.

NICHOLS: ... is selling his team. He wrote in an e-mail, basically, this team has too many black fans, which was very disturbing.

JAMES: Right, right.

NICHOLS: And the Hawks GM, Danny Ferry, was reported with his own racist comments.


DANNY FERRY, ATLANTA HAWKS GENERAL MANAGER: He's got some African in him if that makes sense. Like he has a storefront out front that's beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you.


JAMES: Danny was the GM when I was there in Cleveland. And I never got that sense about him. But that doesn't mean -- you know, what he said about Luol Deng was right -- absolutely wrong. It was very insensitive. And there's no room for that in our sport. I mean, we all know that, obviously. There's not no room for that in our league, or any league, or not even a league. There's not room for that in society.

NICHOLS: You spoke out on the Sterling issue, and you were also outspoken on Trayvon Martin.

JAMES: Yes. NICHOLS: How has your willingness to take a leadership role on

those kinds of things changed as you've gotten older?

JAMES: Well, for me, if I feel passionate about it and I feel like something needs to be said or something needs to be done, I voice my opinion. And I don't speak without knowledge. I educate myself first before I dive into a situation.

NICHOLS: We've had the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri...

JAMES: Right.

NICHOLS: ... in the past few months. Aside from the specifics of the situation, it did spark this national conversation...


NICHOLS: ... on the way America sees young black men. What do you think about where we are right now?

JAMES: Well, I definitely voiced my opinion on the Trayvon Martin piece, and you know, I related to Ferguson incident. Me having two boys of my own. If just one day, you know, my kids left home to go anywhere, you expect your kids to return. You expect your kids to return home unless they're off to college.

I couldn't imagine them not returning home because of someone else's, I don't know, just not thinking, or cowardice act or whatever the case may be. But we know racism is still alive. And, you know, the only thing that I can do as a role model -- I feel like I'm a leader -- in society is just to teach my kids and teach the people that are following me what the right way is.

NICHOLS: You are a big football fan.

JAMES: I am.

NICHOLS: Your boys love football.

JAMS: Yes, they do.

NICHOLS: You have the same problem every parent in America had over the last month. The Ray Rice video comes out, and you've got to talk to your kids about it.

JAMES: Yes. Just as simple as this. Never put your hands on a woman. Never put your hand on your classmate that's a female. It's not allowed. It's not condoned in this house, and it shouldn't be condoned in this world. And your dad would never put his hand on your mother. When I was born, that was like a rule that was written on my bed. I knew from day one, it's not something that anyone should condone. And it's a cowardly act.


NICHOLS: Now, the NFL, of course, not the only league dealing with domestic violence controversies. U.S. soccer has fallen under heavy fire, including from myself, for allowing Hope Solo to continue playing, despite being charged with two counts of domestic assault.

And the NBA is now looking into the case of Hornets forward Jeff Taylor, who was arrested on a domestic abuse charge on Thursday. The organization announced tonight that Taylor will be held out of all team activities during the investigation. But he will still get paid.

The move seems a smart one. It satisfies both the need to give Taylor his due process before deciding any harsh discipline while still recognizing the seriousness of a public-facing employee having been arrested on multiple assault charges. It might just be the new template for sports leagues going forward.

All right. Coming up, we have more from LeBron James. And he gets very personal, revealing how he raises his kids and just what he thinks about his own father, whom he's never met.


NICHOLS: Welcome back. I'm Rachel Nichols, and we've been talking with LeBron jam.

Like millions of other Americans, LeBron is a father, but for him there is an extra layer. When he sits in the stand watching his kids' basketball games, a swarm of television cameras often show up. So how do you raise a kid to be a good person in that environment? And what lessons did LeBron take from growing up without having ever even met his own father? Take a listen.


NICHOLS: You have two boys, that you play basketball. And your oldest is already starting to get a lot of attention.

JAMES: Too much.

NICHOLS: You were on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" as a teenager, and you didn't have a father who was the most famous basketball player in the word. How do you guide him through what it is about in the next couple years, about to become a big thing?

JAMES; That's the tough part. As you said, Rachel, how do I guide him? There is no -- you can go to Borders or, you know, and find books on parenting. There is no booklet where no one can tell you on how to raise your kids. And you know, every single day is always challenging. And for my kids even more challenging, because their dad is famous.

But I feel like the morals and the goals and the things that I teach them I just want to lay the path for them and let them, at the end of the day, make their own decisions, you know. And hopefully, the -- the way that I've been teaching them will, when they get to a fork in the road, they will know what's right, and not go left.

NICHOLS: You've talked about how important being a dad is to you. And you've been open about the fact that that's partly because you didn't know your father growing up.

JAMES: Right.

NICHOLS: You want to be the opposite.

I was still pretty surprised, I've got to tell you, to see your Instagram post from earlier this year. You basically wrote a note to your dad. And you said, "You know what? I don't know you. I have no idea who you are. But because of you is part of the reason I am who I am today. The fuel that I use, you not being there, it's part of the reason I grew up to become who I am." What made you decide to -- go out like that.

JAMES: I don't know. I don't know. But I think it's the truth. I think, you know, my whole life growing up, I think I just kind of always said, why me? Why me? Why wasn't -- why didn't my dad want to be around? I feel like I'm a pretty cool kid; I'm a good kid. Why wouldn't he want to be around for me?

And as I got older and older and had my own family, I started to think, you know, the reason he wasn't there is the reason why I became so strong mentally, so loving to my mother, and I am who I am today because he wasn't there. Because I use it as motivation. Everything that I have gained, he has a role in it, because I used it.

NICHOLS: Have you ever thought, as you've gotten older, maybe what if? Should I explore a relationship with him?

JAMES: Of course there's the "what if" situation, has definitely popped into my head. But I think I -- I think I'm good where I am.

NICHOLS: Well, with everything you've got ahead of yourself -- basketball, new baby on the way, your getting to raise your family in Ohio -- is there a word or two that comes to mind as you think about what's ahead?

JAMES: Wow, I mean, that's a great question. One word that I can describe what is a head, is faith. I have faith in myself, faith in my family, faith in my community and Northeast Ohio, the whole state of Ohio. I owe a huge responsibility to myself to understand that me playing the game of basketball is much bigger than me dribbling, or dunking, or making a gambling (ph) shot. So the whole word faith is the No. 1 thing I can kind of use for the very near future.


NICHOLS: Faith, indeed. There are a lot of people who have put their faith in LeBron's move to Cleveland. It will be an interesting season, for sure.

And if you want more from LeBron James, mark your calendar for October 21. CNN is going to air the documentary "More Than a Game." There is some really remarkable footage in there.

And of course, you can get more of your UNGUARDED fix by following me on Twitter and Facebook, and on the web at Then we'll see you right back here next Friday night on UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is just the start of the story. Good night.