Meet the team bringing 'King James' to New York

The playwright, director, and actors of the Off-Broadway production talk about marrying theatre and sports for this play inspired by LeBron James's career.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Basketball is all about fours. A standard game has four quarters. Each team gets four fouls per period. And the new play King James divides the title player's basketball career into four distinct sections: his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, his transfer to Miami Heat, his return to Cleveland, and the Cavs’ first NBA championship win.

It's fitting, then, that a starting lineup of four theatrical greats brings this show to the New York stage. The creative team and cast includes Pulitzer-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), and actors Chris Perfetti (Abbott Elementary) and Glenn Davis (Downstate). (Together with onstage DJ Khloe Janel, they’d amount to a full basketball team.)

All four men can relate to the connecting power of sports, particularly basketball. Joseph hails from Cleveland, and King James was born in part of his conversations with Davis, a lifelong Chicago Bulls fan. Leon looks to basketball stars for inspiration as a director, and Perfetti, on the flip side, came into King James with scant basketball knowledge but has since absorbed an interest from the others.

Their own rookie season was in 2022, when they premiered King James at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, followed by a run at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum. Perfetti and Davis play two LeBron James fans who have virtually nothing in common — except their interest in James, which forms the bedrock of a decade-plus friendship. "It's a play about [ ] the ability to get to the fourth quarter in our relationships and not cut them off in the second quarter or the third quarter," as Leon put it.

Read about Joseph, Leon, Perfetti, and Davis's journeys with the play and its subject matter — divided, on theme, into four quarters — and get tickets to see these all-stars' work at New York City Center.

Getting the team together

Before there was King James, there were three basketball fans who were practically destined to create this play.

First, there's Joseph, whose native Cleveland "is a city where people live and die by their sports teams," he said. In 2010, when his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo premiered on Broadway, James infamously left the Cavaliers for the Heat after losing a championship. Joseph followed the drama closely, making fast friends with cast member Davis, who grew up watching Michael Jordan's own rise to greatness with the Bulls.

Like the characters they'd eventually create in King James, they bonded over a shared passion for basketball — and debates over whether Jordan or James was the greatest of all time. Clearly, living and dying by one's sports team isn't unique to Cleveland.

"I often say that people more often change their religions than they do their sports affiliation," Davis observed. "You hear people often say, 'I married into this religion.' You don't say, 'I'm married into the New York Giants' or 'I'm married into the Philadelphia Eagles.' It's like, 'Hey, I was born a Chicago Bulls fan; I'm gonna die a Chicago Bulls fan.' 'I was born a Lakers fan; I'm gonna die a Lakers fan.'"

No one could attest to that, it turned out, better than Leon. “I've been a Lakers fan all my life,” he said, though he grew up in Florida. “Everybody in the world knows that, so when something bad happens to the Lakers, my phone blows up so people can tell me about it." When asked to direct King James, he jumped at the chance, having admired James long before he went to the Lakers.

Ironically, of the three basketball die-hards in King James (excluding Perfetti), Davis is the only one who didn't grow up a dedicated James fan — but the two share a birthday, December 30.

Bringing the court to the stage

"If someone is in the stands, and they don't have a jersey, and they're not connected to the team, and they're sitting there crying, you're like, whoa. This is deep,” Davis said of the most memorable part of watching a live sports game. “There's something happening that's spiritual for them."

His description sounds strikingly similar to the experience of watching theatre — being invested in the performances of professionals; rooting for your favorite players; being moved by the successes, failures, and surprises playing out live in front of you.

As theatre professionals and basketball fans, Joseph, Leon, and Davis know there's not as much difference between the two as one might think. That goes for attending theatre, as described above, and making it: drilling every play-by-play, ensuring everyone’s in peak shape to perform them well, and giving the viewers a good show. That overlap was also Perfetti's "in" to King James.

"There's so much theatricality in sports, there's so much pageantry... Actors — certainly great actors — are, in their own right, athletes on stage," Perfetti said. "They're both these forms in which people are striving for excellence. There's so much drama and conflict in sports, and that's exactly what we're looking for on stage."

The inspiration goes both ways, too. Perfetti specifically named "physicality" as key to his approach to acting, a quality crucial to sports. On the flip side, athletes' approaches to basketball informed Leon's approach to directing — not just for King James, but his whole career.

"A person who inspired me was Kobe Bryant, even as a stage director, because of his mentality," he said. "He's going to always give you 100%. So when I approach a play, I give my actors 100%. I prepare really well. I encourage them to do the same thing.

"I don't want to lose; I want to win every time," he continued. "I want [my actors] to give 100% — the audience deserves nothing less than your best. I've learned from the great sports figures in my life. I've learned how to be a better director."

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Finding the fans

After assembling their team and combining their theatre and basketball know-how in rehearsal, it was time to play for real. Basketball fans might note that the production, coincidentally, seems to follow James: Chicago isn't terribly far from Cleveland, and L.A. is where James currently plays with the Lakers. He's never played for New York, but Off-Broadway rehearsals coincided with the 2023 NBA playoffs, where the New York Knicks played none other than the Cavaliers. "It feels like all the stars are aligning in the right way," Joseph said of these parallels.

Davis acknowledged the difficulty of putting up a sports play in cities like L.A. and even New York, where sports fans can go to a stadium 10 times the size of even the largest Broadway theatre and watch a real basketball game: "The Lakers were competing in the Staples Center at the time [we were in L.A.]... they have 20,000, 30,000 people [and] no problem filling those stands," he recalled. "You can't compete!"

But as much as King James hopes to draw in sports fans (Leon excitedly expects New York audiences with basketball opinions to "be loud about" the show), the play also aims to reach all audiences. They needn't know anything about James, basketball, or the sports world at all, according to Joseph. It's really about two people forming a deep connection, which basketball allows them to do.

"Male friendship has been a theme through my work," Joseph said. "I'm really interested in the way that sports act as a code or language between, especially, young men. My play is about two young men who have a friendship. It's always been my suspicion that a lot of young men have a hard time expressing their emotions to one another, but are able to do so through the language of sports." Thanks to the sports talk, audiences might end up with a better understanding of that language as well.

Contributing to a legacy

The future of King James beyond New York City Center is uncertain, the play’s themes will carry forward James’s legacy.

For his part, Leon has long held a deep admiration for James. "I love everything about the guy, what he's done in his community, what he's done for those young kids in Cleveland," he said, referring to James’s support for various charities supporting low-income youth. "He's just an example of a good human being and a life well lived. Of course, as humans, we're all flawed, and he's a perfectly imperfect human being.

"What would be an amazing gift — when we win the championship this year, if LeBron were to walk from the championship, to the Manhattan Theatre Club to see the play, that would be great!" he added.

Joseph acknowledges that he — like anyone — might not want to watch a play in which people talk about him for two hours. But he stressed that it comes from a place of "love and respect" for James — and also for Jordan. It’s inevitable that any work about James’s legacy would bring up the greatest-of-all-time debate about the players, and King James indeed does, especially as that debate between Davis and Joseph led to the initial idea for the play. The debate will likely never end, but the show's title alone affirms Joseph’s stance.

"You could put all their stats next to each other, but as far as I know, Michael [Jordan] doesn't have a play written about him yet."

Top image credit: Rajiv Joseph, Kenny Leon, Chris Perfetti, and Glenn Davis. (Photos by Rohit Chandra, Lelund Durond, and Xanthe Elbrick)
In-line image credit: Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti. (Photo by Luke Fontana)

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