A Columnist and Basketball’s ‘Chosen One’

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Twenty years ago, it was easier to be an eye-rolling skeptic than a true believer. Here was this recent high school graduate telling the assembled news media, in advance of the 2003 N.B.A. draft, of his none-too-subtle plan to “lift the city of Cleveland,” and soon.

“You come there this season,” LeBron James assured us before the Cavaliers made him the first pick. “It’s going to be lit up like Vegas.”

Cleveland? Las Vegas? In what world?

I was a reporter and columnist at The New York Times at the time, and for those of us who wrote about any level of basketball, James was already a familiar name. When he was 17, his high school team in Akron, Ohio, had played to a national television audience on ESPN. Sports Illustrated had plastered James on its cover, tagging him as “The Chosen One,” the sport’s next megastar, in the Michael Jordan mold.

James, with N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern, was drafted in 2003 out of high school.Credit…Ed Betz/ Associated Press

James, the talent evaluators assured us, was projected to be even more than the second coming of Jordan, whom I and many others had extolled in the 1990s as the sport’s greatest player. He was also part Magic Johnson, whom we had celebrated in the 1980s as the best-ever playmaking point guard.

It sounded hyperbolic, at best. Exploitative, at worst.

The first time a shirtless James turned away from me in the Cavaliers’ locker room his rookie year, revealing the Sports Illustrated proclamation, abbreviated to “Chosen 1,” tattooed across his back, my initial thought was, the audacity. But I simultaneously worried, what on earth has this kid been set up for?

I’ve been thinking about those days while watching James play for his third team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and close in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s longstanding career-scoring record of 38,387 points. Suffice to say it has been a two-decade roller coaster for James with his skeptics-turned-critics, much of it attributable to his pre-ordainment, along with a few miscalculated moments of his own creation.

I can admit to a few acidic reactions to news developing in front of me on deadline.

In 2009, I aimed my Sports of The Times column at the young star, who was commonly referred to as King James, even though he did not yet have a championship to his name. After the Cavaliers had been defeated in the playoffs by the Orlando Magic, and he had stormed off the court without a word to the winners or reporters, I huffed: What kind of leadership was this king showing?

When he left Cleveland for the Miami Heat one year later to, as he said in a televised spot that reeked of grandiosity, “take my talents to South Beach,” I wrote in my column: “Who outside of South Florida wants to root for Miami after the way James walked out on Cleveland and his home territory of northern Ohio in a mercenary reach for championship rings?”

Surely the abuse for exercising his contractual freedom was, in retrospect, overcooked, but worse was when scorn turned to mockery after James played poorly for Miami against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 N.B.A. finals.

After a fourth game that shifted the series in Dallas’s favor, I described his postgame news conference as a “rabid dissection of James’s game” and “an awkward interrogation.” Yes, he’d played tentatively, but the questions were downright accusatory. It hit me just how cacophonous and contentious coverage of the N.B.A. had become as the league grew into a global brand.

Late-20th-century basketball stars lounged in locker rooms chatting up small clusters of reporters. We had close access, and the stars were more humanized in our stories. Today’s N.B.A. luminaries, especially James, are powerhouse commercial brands with handlers carefully controlling access and message. It’s harder to humanize a brand.

In my final years covering the sport, it seemed to me that those who questioned James’s achievement in relation to Jordan had long disregarded or never realized it wasn’t James who chose to be “the one.” That was just a label impressed upon him when he was a teenager.

Two decades later, and 36 points away from breaking Abdul-Jabbar’s record, the presumptive scoring king has also climbed into fourth place on the career assists list. That achievement reminded me of what his youth coaches in Akron, Lee Cotton and Dru Joyce II, would tell me in telephone interviews: Never forget that James’s travel teams were not the standard group of regional stars trying to outdo one another in showcase tournaments; they were his neighborhood pals, best friends he enjoyed passing to, and that is why he indeed turned out to be a hybrid of Jordan and Johnson.

“The Chosen One,” who, in 2016, back with the Cavaliers, did lift Cleveland to its first major sports title in 52 years, and who has lit up every city he played in while winning four championships, never has seen himself as a solo act. On that team-first score, count me as a true believer.

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