Savannah Brinson, long-time girlfriend of basketball phenom LeBron James, has just finished her first major photo shoot. For this low-key girl from Akron, Ohio, it was quite the heady experience. James is used to this sort of attention, she says. She, on the other hand, is decidedly not. “I’ve always been in the background,” she says, having changed back into her white track suit with bedazzled hearts for a bowl of spaghetti at Manhattan’s Serafina restaurant. As she slowly twirls her pasta, she looks both wide-eyed and incredulous.
“Now that magazines and the paparazzi are taking pictures of me, it’s kind of weird. I never thought it would get to this magnitude, but clearly I was mistaken,” she says.
Brinson, 24, had better get used to the spotlight, because the glare will only get brighter now that James has left Cleveland, his home for the past seven years, for the sunny climes of Florida. After months of serious flirtation with a handful of teams—the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Chicago Bulls—James, 25, who became a free agent this July, ultimately chose the Miami Heat. Fans outside of the Sunshine State were left heartbroken and seething. He and Brinson were roundly booed in New York City recently while walking into the wedding of Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony and former MTV VJ La La Vazquez. At home, a few Cleveland Cavaliers diehards set fire to the player’s No. 23 jersey. Not exactly the cordial send-off they were expecting.
“You have fans and you think they’re going to roll with you no matter what, and then they burn your jersey? It’s unfair,” Brinson says. “But they did it. It’s over.”
She admits it took her some time to warm to the idea of life in South Beach.
“Personally, Miami was not my favorite place. Vacationing there is great: You go for three days and get some sun, and it’s time to go home,” she explains. But the weather helped win her over. “When they told me it doesn’t get any colder than 50 degrees, that sold me. We get below-zero weather in Cleveland. … I can’t wait to have a sunny Christmas,” she says. “It will definitely be an adjustment, but we’ll make it. We’re not complaining.”
“Whatever LeBron felt was comfortable, I’m with him,” she continues. “I just love him so much. We’re soul mates.” It’s just such devotion that makes James gush about his longtime love. “A person like myself always needs a great sidekick and a person you can rely on no matter the circumstances. And she’s that,” he says. “She’s got my back, and I love her for that.”
While James settles in on his new home court, Brinson plans to split her time between Miami and Akron. She didn’t want to uproot her sons—LeBron Jr., five, and Bryce Maximus, three—from their neighborhood, where LeBron Jr. will be starting kindergarten in the fall.
“Cleveland is home,” she says. “Nothing is going to change about that.”
Some cynics might argue that long distance and superstar athlete equals disaster. And if VH1′s hit series Basketball Wives is to be believed, Miami groupies are as gorgeous as they are aggressive. Fresh from the Midwest and flush with cash, James could be quite the target. (His Miami signing deal reportedly netted him $110 million over six years, as well as an estimated $30 million in endorsements from brands like Nike.) But Brinson isn’t nervous about their partnership.
”I’m not worried,” she declares, sounding assured. “We’re good. Our relationship is good.”
Her mother, Jennifer, who has been minding the kids while Brinson talks, makes a good point:
“Don’t you think he knows the difference between ruthlessness and love?” she asks. “If LeBron was going to do something shady, he can do that around the corner. He doesn’t have to go to Miami.”
In fact, it’s their honesty with each other, Brinson says, that has sustained the couple’s relationship through all the hoopla:
“We communicate very well. Before, there might have been issues that I was afraid to address, but now we keep it real with each other.”
It’s worked for them for nearly a decade. The couple started dating when Brinson was just 16. At first,
“I had no idea who he was,” says Brinson, who is from the same neighborhood as James but was a year behind him at a rival high school, where she was a softball player and cheerleader. He spotted her at a football game and asked her to come to a basketball game. “I went, and I was like, Wow, this guy is pretty popular in here,” she remembers.
A few phone calls later, they had their first date at the local Outback Steakhouse. Dinner conversation was “basic,” she recalls.
“But I knew he loved me when I left my leftovers from dinner in his car,” she says, giggling. “I’d totally forgotten about them, and he brought them to me. I think he just wanted another excuse to come and see me.”
The relationship progressed quickly, and soon Brinson and James were inseparable. She claims she had no idea her man would become the most sought-after player in the NBA. “I just thought he’d be a hometown hero for his era and it would be over. He was a normal high school senior,” she says, though he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he even graduated. Then, during her senior year—and James’s rookie year in the NBA—she discovered she was pregnant. It was not planned, she says.
“I was thinking, ‘What am I going to tell my parents? What’s going to happen to his career?’” says Brinson, who is the youngest of five children. “I was very scared. I was bawling. But he said, ‘It’s not going to slow me down, and it’s not going to slow you down. We’re going to keep doing what we have to do.’“
Was not having the child an option? “No. That was not an option for me. Even if it would have been my mom’s advice, I would have fought it to the end,” she says. As news of her pregnancy spread, rumors began swirling, the most popular one being that she, eager to trap James, got pregnant on purpose.
“That was clearly not the case,” she says. “I had a good group of friends around me, so I didn’t let those things get to me. If I did, I would have been running home crying every day.”
She was five months along at her prom, wearing a dress that she’d carefully designed.
“If I think about it now, it looked terrible,” she says, ruefully shaking her head. “A halter top with a mermaid bottom and rhinestones.” She shrugs. “It was cute at the time.”
Now that Brinson is a paparazzi target, she is beginning to take fashion more seriously. She likes her Alexanders (McQueen and Wang) and is also a Phillip Lim fan. Shoes are her weakness, she admits, with Miu Miu and Christian Louboutin taking pride of place in her wardrobe.
“I’m five foot seven and I have a tall guy [James is six foot eight], so I like a good heel,” she says. “I don’t want to look like a shrimp standing next to him.” But “fashion is LeBron’s thing,” she says. “I’m more into furniture,” which is why she’s designed a new children’s furniture line, a collaboration with American Signature called Home Court by LeBron James, debuting in October. Her dream is to one day exhibit her own designs at the prestigious Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan.
She’s also venturing into the charity world with Girl Listen, an empowerment program with the goal of helping girls deal with everything from self-esteem issues to drug and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancy. She explains,
“I’ve been through that, so I feel like teen girls will listen to me.”
Though she and James are now a family unit with two sons, one can’t help but notice the diamondless finger on Brinson’s left hand. She says a wedding is not on the horizon, though she has been dreaming about that day since she was six.
“I’ve definitely not put a fire under his ass,” she says. “I would never rush him to do something like that. We’re really comfortable with the way things are now. And it’s not up to me. When it happens, it happens.
“We talk about it. If we do it, I want it to be forever,” she continues. Until then, Brinson knows that the blogosphere will continue to refer to her as James’s baby mama. She’s not bothered by the description but makes it clear that she feels like she’s more than a catchphrase.
“I’m the mother of his children,” she says proudly. “I’m not a baby mama. There’s a lot more to me than that.”
When it comes to the kids, she says she is the family’s disciplinarian and James is the easygoing dad.
“He is a very youthful father,” she says as her two boisterous sons scamper around the restaurant. “He plays with them as if he was their age. But I’m still a cool mom. I let them listen to Lady Gaga.”
As she talks, LeBron Jr. bounces up to the table and starts snapping photos with an iPhone. “I’m going to play in the NBA,” he announces proudly. Brinson explains,
“He sees his dad playing and he thinks it’s cool. But he can do whatever he wants to do in life. He doesn’t have to walk in his father’s footsteps.”
LeBron Sr. says that he would be thrilled to see his sons play ball:
“Well, like any father, I would hope that they would follow in my footsteps. That would be a great story—and as a father, I would be on cloud nine every day. Ultimately, though, only the big man above knows their future. They do have lots of talent, though.”
But the boys also have a lot of growing up to do, and in the meantime, Brinson is adjusting to her big new life. Juggling it all can be a bit overwhelming at times, she admits. Setting up house across the country, potty training a three-year-old, and maintaining a relationship with someone who’s on the road for half of the year is not easy for a girl in her mid-20s.
“Sometimes I’ll have my mother baby-sit because I need sleep,” she says, sighing.
Bryce is now clamoring for his mom’s attention. She lovingly wipes his runny nose and smiles.
“But I feel like everything is happening because it’s supposed to,” says Brinson. “It was all in the stars.”-Harpersbazaar