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The Ballad of the Banana Boat Brotherhood

Celebrating the friendship of LeBron, D-Wade, Melo, and CP3 in five scenes, as told by the four themselves

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Banana Boat Week. You remember the Banana Boat picture, right? That image of a floating basketball Mount Rushmore that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul (and Carmelo Anthony, if only in spirit). We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA, and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. We’ll also look at players who orbited their stars — the role players, outcasts, and busts who haven’t had quite the same impact on the game. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.

There is something surreal about the friendship that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul share. Individually, they are paragons at their respective positions, but collectively, as the Brotherhood, they have come to define the significance of the modern NBA athlete, and his power both within the league and outside of it.

And yet, for all the larger-than-life talent they possess on the court, we also know them for their humanizing extracurriculars. We know that, at a minute’s notice, Chris Paul will fly to a surprise party in Chicago if Wade asks; we know that CP3 was at the hospital to welcome both of LeBron’s sons into the world; we know about LeBron’s sixth sense of what Wade might want for dinner; we know they discuss ice cream flavors on their legendary group chat; we know that Carmelo Anthony had gotten his brothers to commit to community action long before their rousing opening statement at the 2016 ESPYs. Basketball brought the four together, but their bond extends far beyond their profession. It makes you wonder: What were the odds that four of the defining NBA stars of our time would also be soul mates off the court?

It’s been a long and winding 15-odd years for Team Banana Boat, so we thought we’d trace the origins back to the source. After digging through the archives and compiling their interactions over the years, we wanted to highlight five scenes that map the arc of their friendship, in their own words.

When LeBron Met Chris

AP
AP

LeBron James: Me and CP, we played together in the same AAU national tournament in eighth grade. It was in Orlando at the Worldwide of Sports. We were watching their team because both of our teams had the opportunity to play in the championship against one another. They lost in the semis and we won in the semis. The bronze-medal game is before the gold-medal game, so I watched their game in the eighth grade, watched CP play, and he watched our game. We ended up losing by one to a team from out here, actually. Southern California All-Stars. We sparked a conversation from that point. (Open Run Podcast, 2016)

Paul actually doesn’t think this is the case; he recalls meeting LeBron years later at a high school game played in Greensboro, North Carolina.

However the two met, Paul has a notable distinction over his fellow “brothers”: He was the first one to play with LeBron. Before the NBA, before The Decision, and before “banana boat” became synonymous with the union of four of the most iconic NBA players of this era, LeBron James and Chris Paul were teenage teammates for a day. Together, they headlined the 2003 McDonald’s All American East team, and just 32 seconds into the game, the two connected on an alley-oop. It was fated.

Chris Paul: It’s just knowing that he’s got the smarts playing basketball. He’s just so great because he has such a strong understanding of the game and how to make things happen on the floor. (The Washington Post, 2003)

James: Chris was faster than everybody. When you’re 16 or 17, you can run by everyone. (ESPN, 2012)

Ron Hecklinski, 2003 McDonald’s All-American East team head coach: You could see the chemistry developing between them as the game progressed and as the week progressed. … Chris threw an alley-oop to LeBron for a dunk and I thought to myself, “It looks like they’ve been playing together for 10 years.” It was really cool to see those guys bond like that. (The Plain Dealer, 2009)

Paul: We exchanged numbers and we’ve been talking about every day since. Our girlfriends are the best of friends, so they talk every day. (The Plain Dealer, 2009)

James: Our friendship has grown over the years. We both respect what we do on the court, but it goes way beyond that. It’s kind of hard to talk about, because I know how close we are. (Sun Sentinel, 2010)

When LeBron Met Carmelo

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AP

James: My sophomore year, I met Carmelo Anthony at the 16-and-under World Championship in Colorado Springs. (Open Run Podcast, 2016)

Carmelo Anthony: I saw his physicality. I fell in love with his game right then and there. (Bleacher Report, 2016)

James: A little skinny kid out of Baltimore, braids in his hair. I just remember coming back home and telling my high school friends, “Man, I played against one of the best guys I ever played in my life so far.” (Bleacher Report, 2016)

James: I kept telling all my friends how good this Carmelo Anthony guy was. I did not know then that we were going to put him on our schedule. (ESPN, 2012)

So, we struck a conversation there, and the next year I actually played against him in New Jersey. He was at [Oak Hill Academy], and I was at my high school, St. Vincent–St. Mary, and we played against each other. (Open Run Podcast, 2016)

Anthony: Some people say it was the greatest high school game they ever saw. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2003)

James: But the night before the game we just sat outside on the stairs and conversated for like two hours. (Open Run Podcast, 2016)

Anthony: That was the first conversation: “How are we going to play together?” He was like, “Man, I want to play with you. How are we going to play together?” (Bleacher Report, 2016)

James and Anthony’s first NBA matchup, on November 5, 2003, brought in more than 300 credentialed observers. A Goodyear blimp positioned above Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena) in Cleveland displayed LED messages including “LeBron and Melo: The world is yours.” The Nuggets beat the Cavaliers, 93–89; Anthony finished with 14 points, LeBron finished with seven. It wasn’t an ideal showcase for the two budding superstars, but the two didn’t shy away from the limelight during the postgame interviews. The two teased the media with quotes about their interconnected destinies. They were asked if they would play together. Melo said they’d talk about that possibility at the end of their rookie contracts; LeBron had something a bit more tailored for a sound bite.

Anthony: You aren’t ever going to hear my name without hearing his name. For our whole careers, it’ll be like that. Same way with Magic and Bird. You heard Magic’s name and you heard Bird. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2003)

James: The NBA doesn’t want to see us together. It’d be trouble. It’d be real trouble. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2003)

When LeBron Met Dwyane

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AP

James: I met D-Wade in Chicago for [the NBA draft combine]. Predraft is where all the guys are who’re gonna get drafted try to impress and try to get a first round or a second round or just get noticed. You go there for workouts. They test your vertical and your bench press, they test your agility. Everything. If you’re a guy that’s not been known, you can get some reps there. Surprise some folks. You know, D-Wade coming out of high school didn’t get a lot of notice. He wasn’t highly recruited and ended up at Marquette. We sparked a conversation there and you know when you’re gonna meet someone and right off the bat it’s like, “OK. This can last.” (Open Run Podcast, 2016)

Wade: We started looking for each other: Where you going? Where you going? (ESPN, 2016)

During his rookie season, Wade stood in the shadow of the LeBron-Melo rivalry while putting numbers on the board that proved he was deserving of a seat at the table. By his sophomore campaign, however, Wade emerged as the most worthy foil to LeBron’s supremacy over the 2003 class. It came to a head the following season, during a game on April 1, 2006. James led the game with 47 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists; Wade wasn’t far behind, with 44 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists. Their rivalry has produced nearly a decade’s worth of highlights, and their late-season clash in ’06 remains one of the greatest head-to-head matchups ever.

Mike Brown, former Cavaliers head coach: I guess you call that an instant classic. (The Plain Dealer, 2006)

James: [The game] was very exciting. It just shows what the [draft] class of 2003 brought to this league. We gave everyone what they wanted to see and it was a great showcase. (The Plain Dealer, 2006)

Pat Riley, former Heat head coach: Dwyane made some incredible, incredible plays, as did LeBron. From that standpoint, I think people got a view of absolute greatness, back and forth. The bigger the moment, both of them stepped up even bigger and bigger. Sometimes it’s beyond description, because I’ve seen both those guys do things I haven’t seen players do in a long, long time. (Miami Herald, 2006)

Gary Payton, former Heat guard: That reminds you of the days when Larry Bird and Magic [Johnson] would go at it, or guys like that. (Miami Herald, 2006)

Dwyane Wade: I remember one time after I scored, he scored, I scored, he scored, we kind of looked at each other and said, “Hey, bring it home, let’s see who’ll bring it home.” (The Plain Dealer, 2007)

James: You throw all the defensive rules out the building and just say, “It’s me against him.” If I don’t stop him, we don’t have a chance to win. (The Columbus Dispatch, 2006)

Wade: One on one, it’s probably the best matchup I’ve been in. (The Columbus Dispatch, 2006)

James: He gave his all and I gave my all. I can’t promise you we’re going to give you this kind of show every time we play each other, but we’re both going to play hard to try to help our team win. (The Plain Dealer, 2006)

Wade: It was great for the game. It was two young guys really trying to will their team to victory. It just so happened it was me and LeBron. It was great. I had fun. I know he had fun. Our competitive nature came out. Nobody’s playing close as good as [LeBron] individually in the NBA right now. He has willed his team into the playoffs, and hopefully he doesn’t run out of gas. Hopefully he continues to keep willing his ballclub — when we’re not playing him. (Miami Herald, 2006)

That July, three months after the showdown, and three weeks after Wade won his first title against the Dallas Mavericks, Wade, James, and Chris Bosh all opted to sign three-year deals with their teams that included a player option for a fourth. In the summer of 2008, before the Alonzo Mourning–hosted Summer Groove charity basketball game in Miami, James and Wade were in the AmericanAirlines Arena home locker room, joking around with journalists, who were well aware of their potential partnership two years down the line. “Hey, Bron,” Wade said. “Can I imagine how it is to play with you? We imagine in 2010, right, Bron?”

Anthony, who was actually the first to publicly entertain the idea of playing with LeBron in 2003, decided to take the full five-year maximum with the Nuggets in 2006, apparently not getting the memo. Wade and LeBron still tease him about it.

The Team USA Experience, As Told by Chris Paul

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AP

If we do end up branding this period of NBA prosperity as “the superteam generation,” perhaps we should thank the league’s renewed commitment to the Team USA program following an embarrassing bronze-medal finish in 2004. The extended summer training camps that doubled as bonding sessions, the realization that playing alongside the best talent in the world is better than not — these factors worked in concert to create a paradigm shift in the NBA. Love and war can be one; so can friend and foe.

And all of that helps drive competition. It’s the DNA of the “Hollywood as Hell” Heatles, the Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant Edition, and every prospective superteam (success or failure) in between. But on a personal level, perhaps no one appreciated the experience more than CP3, who entered the Team USA ranks a budding star, and came out a perennial MVP candidate and one of the two best point guards of this era.

Paul: When I played AAU, we won a national championship. And we traveled so much … it was such a long journey. It was the same thing with the Olympics. We were together in [the summers of] ’06 and ’07. All those different travels and games we played, they all accumulated. (The Times-Picayune, 2009)

This whole year has been an experience in itself. It really hit me when I was thinking about pushing the ball up the court or knowing I might have D-Wade on one side and Carmelo on the other. Or I might have LeBron. … There’s nothing like it. (The News & Observer, 2006)

Through the entire Team USA experience, our relationship became almost closer than friends. We’re family, like brothers. … I think a lot of times people see you playing against each other, and they think you hate each other. You do — for those 48 minutes. But afterwards, you’re all for these guys when you’re watching them [in other games]. (The Times-Picayune, 2006)

Those guys know that at a drop of a dime, I’ll be there for them. (The Times-Picayune, 2011)

The Brotherhood’s Social Awakening

LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton for president on Sunday in an op-ed published on Business Insider and in the Akron Beacon Journal, citing Clinton’s “message of hope and unity that we need.” On July 13, Carmelo Anthony penned a column for The Guardian on an athlete’s responsibility to speak out on social issues, written in light of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and police officers in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest. Anthony’s piece was published only hours before Anthony, Paul, Wade, and James stood side by side to deliver an opening statement at the 2016 ESPYs in an effort to raise awareness of the country’s social injustices. James and Paul separately discussed the genesis of the presentation on Jesse Williams’s Open Run podcast and the J.J. Redick Podcast, respectively.

James: It all sparked from Melo: He sent out a social media post about what’s going on right now in society. About how we all can be better. We know what’s going on is not right, but everybody can sit in their homes and talk about it with their loved ones how things should be. We just need to get together and get out to the communities and things of that nature.

Paul: In our group chat, we started talking — it might’ve been Bron, I can’t even remember, but we talked about the ESPYs and saw it as a platform, saw it as an opportunity to do this.

James: D-Wade sent out the first text, “Yo, I don’t know if everyone’s coming to the ESPYs, but if so, I think it’d be an opportunity for us to talk about the issues that’s going on.” CP responded, “I’m in.” I automatically responded, “I’m in.” Melo at the time was not going to the ESPYs, but 75 percent out rules 25 percent so we got him to change his mind and then we just started brainstorming and got on the phone and talking about what we wanted to get across and how we personally felt.

Paul: We got on a conference call, talked about it, talked about the different things that each one of us wanted to say because when you’re doing something like that, you don’t want to all talk and say the same thing.

James: Us four, we have such a great chemistry if you’ve seen it live, watching the ESPYs, those are words, and it all flowed together. Melo had his part, CP had his point, D-Wade had his point, and I was able to finish it off. But we all had great, valid points about society, about police and the shootings and the inner city and our communities.

Paul: I think the biggest thing for us was all about starting a conversation … bringing awareness to it. And the part that blew my mind the most was that me and my wife went to the ESPYs, my kids were home with the sitter, and I’ll never forget sitting there at the ESPYs and Lindsay sent me and Jada a picture of little Chris watching it. I posted it, and I got goosebumps because, you know, my kids could’ve been at home watching [Team Umizoomi], Toy Story, something like that. But to know that he sat there and watched that was pretty cool.

James: That’s where it all came from. The four of us started it on a group chat.

Paul: ESPN allowed us to use that platform, and we did it.

The mass retirement of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, along with the induction of Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, and Yao Ming into the Naismith Hall of Fame, reflects a pivotal moment in the game’s history: The post-Jordan generation is now officially past. The symbolism isn’t lost on LeBron, who has begun to acknowledge mortality waiting in the wings.

“It feels like our era is next,” he told reporters at Cavaliers training camp last week. “Me, Wade, Melo, Bosh. We’re next. We’re on deck. We’re the next group behind those guys. … You just don’t take it for granted. Every time we come out here, we talk to you guys, step out on the floor, we’re going to play this game, we love it, but we’re on deck.”

The Banana Boat generation irrevocably altered the culture and commerce of the league, and laid the foundation for the superteams (and superfriendships) of the future. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the four of them walking out together at their Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield, reminding us once more of the unbreakable bonds that basketball creates.

Paul: When you talk to guys as much as we do, you start to trust them. Any time you can trust somebody in the same profession you are in, it’s a brotherhood. (The Times-Picayune, 2011)

James: I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together. At least one, maybe one or two seasons — me, Melo, D-Wade, CP — we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that. (Bleacher Report, 2016)

Wade: No matter what, our names are going to be mentioned in the same breath. We understand that. We enjoy it. (Sun-Sentinel, 2008)

Charles Paul (CP3’s Father): They love the game of basketball, and that’s what connects them. Friendships come and go, especially with men. When we get some good ones, we cherish them. That’s what they have done. (The Times-Picayune, 2011)

Anthony: It was great that we came into the league together … (The New York Times, 2003)

James: … But, after the game, we’ll be leaving together. (Baltimore Sun, 2003)

Anthony: We might … but no banana boats. (New York Post, 2016)

Wade: Listen. Everyone makes fun of the banana boat. (ESPN, 2016)

Paul: We were on vacation! Why would we regret that? We were like six hours off the coast of the Bahamas or something like that. (GQ, 2016)

Wade: There’s not many people we can call up and say, “Hey, let’s all go on this cruise together, and let’s all split this.” Everything gets split equally with us. I don’t know too many people in my life that we could do that with. (ESPN, 2016)

James: It’s always fun to have rich friends. (The Plain Dealer, 2009)