It didn’t take Ledley King long to realize Jermain Defoe was something special.
The two first crossed paths playing youth soccer for Senrab FC in East London.
“I was two years older than Jermain, but I was well aware of him even when I was 10 or so and he was eight,” King recalled. “I’d come off the pitch after my game and watch a little bit of his game. Sometimes he’d score six, seven, eight goals in a game. You could see he had a big career ahead of him.”
Their careers intersected again at the England under-21 level and then Tottenham Hotspur and England.
King, now 33, went on to make 323 appearances for Spurs from 1999 to 2012.
Defoe, 31, played 362 times in two stints with Tottenham before departing for Toronto FC in January. He scored 142 goals for Spurs, fifth on the club’s career scoring list.
Ironically, Defoe just hit No. 5 on Toronto FC’s all-time MLS scoring chart with 11 goals in 14 MLS games – as much of a sad comment on the franchise’s past scoring woes as it is for Defoe’s deadly touch in front of goal.
King, Defoe and Spurs are reunited again this week as the English Premier League club plays Defoe’s MLS team in a friendly Wednesday at BMO Field.
The game is part of Defoe’s transfer deal, which included an off-field partnership between the two clubs.
King, a former defender who now serves as a club ambassador for Spurs, says the 5-foot-7, 143-pound Defoe hasn’t grown much since those early days.
“The funny thing is, he played with another striker who was the same size as him,” King said of Defoe’s Senrab start. “They were really small guys, but they were deadly at the time.”
Senrab, which takes its name from Senrab Street in Stepney, went on to send a litany of players to the big leagues.
Five other members of King’s team went on to the Premier League, including Chelsea and England defender John Terry.
King and Defoe played together at Spurs the first time on Feb. 7, 2004, when Defoe scored in his debut in a 4-3 win over Portsmouth.
Defoe has made a habit of making a good first impression. He also scored in his debut for West Ham, Portsmouth, England and Toronto.
“He gets off to a great start with fans,” King said in an interview Tuesday after catching up with Defoe. “Throughout the years, he’s given his all. It’s not always been easy for him. Sometimes he’s had to wait on the bench and wait for his chance. But he’s always scored goals when given the opportunity.
“And on a personal level, he’s always someone that comes in every day to train, work hard and give his all.”
You could say the same for King, although chronic knee problems kept him off the practice field for the last five seasons of his career. King, whose health issues limited his England caps to 21, was restricted to game activity in the twilight of his playing days.
He says his knees are okay today.
“On a day-to-day basis, I feel pretty good,” he said.
“I just try to keep the muscles strong around the knee, every now and then in the gym. A couple of times a week or so, and try not to overdo it.”
King is enjoying his new role and the chance to carry the Tottenham flag around the globe.
“We have an amazing number of fans around North America. For me, it’s great to be able to come out and speak to them.”
Spurs opened their preseason tour Saturday with a 3-3 tie against the Seattle Sounders before 55,349 at CenturyLink Field. The trip wraps up with a Sunday game in Chicago against the Chicago Fire.
In Seattle, King did everything from helping crack open a barrel of beer for Spurs supporters to putting on a Special Olympics coaching clinic.
In Toronto, he was scheduled to drop in on a local soccer club and Special Olympics athletes as well as to rub shoulders with the local supporters’ club.
As classy off the field as he was on it, the easygoing King seems at home with whatever company he keeps.
Defoe comes across a little more shy, but retains the mischief of youth. After a recent Toronto FC training session, he sets his sights on bending a ball into the sliver of space afforded by a partially opened door on the second-floor balcony of the team’s fancy clubhouse – giggling whenever he succeeded.
Tottenham finished sixth in the Premier League last season with a 21-11-6 record. It kicks off this season Aug. 16 at West Ham.