LeBron James is a living, breathing ticket salesman without even trying.
So when he turned up to play at the Drew League – an annual summer pro-am league in California – in July for the first time since 2011, people turned out in droves.
Appearing alongside five-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan for the MMV Cheaters, James put up 42 points, 16 rebounds and four steals as the Cheaters beat the Black Pearl Elite 104-102.
However, when clips of James’ surprise appearance took to social media, it was the player guarding him who caught the headlines.
Nearly every person on the planet would have struggled to defend one of the greatest to ever play the sport. So when Dion Wright checked Twitter afterwards to see his face plastered all over it, he felt mixed emotions.
On one hand, it was a culmination of a promise to his friends. “I told my friends, I like to speak things into existence, I told them I was going to go viral one day,” Wright told CNN Sport.
“I didn’t know how but I told him that, though, and they were just like: ‘Dion, you were absolutely right. You told us that you were going to go viral one day.’”
On the other hand though, the framing of the coverage he was getting annoyed him. Accompanying many of the videos of James displaying his elite offensive repertoire were supposedly humorous comments such as, “You can see the fear in his eyes,” directed towards Wright.
But Wright says that although he was guarding the biggest name in the NBA, he was never scared.
“I wasn’t afraid. I was just locked in,” Wright said.
“I was just trying to stop him. I was just caught up in the game. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I felt like I made the best out of my situation.”
‘It was just so loud in there’
It was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.
At first, Wright didn’t believe that James wouldn’t be appearing at the Drew League. He hadn’t appeared at the tournament, which was founded in 1973, since 11 years ago during the NBA lockout, so why would he show up now?
Wright was actually on the other side of the country for a completely different basketball tournament when his friends began texting him that James was appearing. But he was skeptical until he saw DeRozan’s tweet.
A simple crown – for ‘King James’ – followed by the simple statement: “Drew league tomorrow.”
Even then, Wright wasn’t convinced that he should make the journey. His friends were insistent though. “They told me, like: ‘He’ll probably never in life come back to the Drew. You’ll get a lot of exposure for that. And that’s something that you just got to do.’”
And so the race against time began to get from Buffalo, New York, to Los Angeles in time to appear for Black Pearl Elite – a team he’s suited up for regularly for a few years – against James and DeRozan.
Thankfully, his journey went without hiccups. After buying a ticket, his flight landed in LA around 11 a.m., with the game starting at around 1 p.m., giving him just enough leeway to arrive on time.
Wright describes the atmosphere at King-Drew Magnet High School when he arrived as “surreal.”
“Like it just didn’t even feel real. I really felt like I was in the NBA, getting ready for a game,” Wright – who has played in Japan, Cyprus, Israel and Ukraine over the last few years overseas – said.
“I feel like LeBron James and it’s only a couple of players that could just shut the whole city down. People were outside (from) like six in the morning, trying to get into the game like it was capacity in the gym. It was standing room only. It was just so loud in there and the environment was great.”
The commissioner of the Drew League, Dino Smiley, told NBA.com that about 2,500 fans attended the game, much higher than the 1,300 capacity.
When the MMV Cheaters finally tipped off against the Black Pearl Elite, Wright volunteered for the hardest assignment possible – guarding James.
“I told my friends, like: ‘I’m guarding him.’ I always want to play against the best players,” he explained. “I don’t run away from my competition, I feel like competition, it brings out the best in people.
“And I felt like pretty much everybody else had their match-up. And I just I told myself: ‘I’m guarding LeBron James, whatever happens. I, at least, have to try.’”
Immediately from the tip-off, Wright knew he was up against it.
“It’s just like that’s by far the best player I ever played against in my life. He was so strong, so athletic. And he’s really worth all the money he makes. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player.”
Despite Wright’s best efforts on defense, James was able to rack up 42 points, understandably grabbing the headlines. “No one can really stop that man,” he said.
But Wright’s Black Pearl Elite only lost by two points, with Wright himself scoring over 20 points in the losing effort.
Despite being the subject of memes on the internet doubting his confidence and basketball ability, the experience was “by far … [a] positive” one for Wright, he says.
And he says he took a lot from the day as a whole. “I got a lot of confidence now just by playing against him.”
He added: “I just thank God that I was able to do something like that in my lifetime. Some people would never in life get to experience what I did, and I just thank the man above for giving me that opportunity.
“I’m probably never going to see any type of player like that ever again unless I go to the NBA.”