I clearly remember getting that 2002 Sports Illustrated cover in the snail mail.
He was holding a faded basketball, it looked to be the cheap rubberized kind. Nice basketballs have tiny, smooth bumps along the surface. His looked to have the larger, unsubtle, inflamed tastebud texture. “That’s a kid’s ball,” I thought, because the wrong kind of anything matters more to a teenager. The well-made Spalding sanctifies a basketball occasion. So why was this kid clutching a Goodwill knockoff?
I also thought “Who is this?” The SI cover was the spotlight of known knowns, not a showcase for known unknowns. In sixteen words, the magazine blared an incredible introduction: “High school junior LeBron James would be an NBA lottery pick right now.”
A 2002 Sports Illustrated mattered quite a bit to me back then. Magazines in general did. I’d ride around town with a passenger seat covered in gleaming copies of SI, Rollingstone, and The New Yorker–publications that either interested me or that I wished to be interested in. I’d read during red lights and often get honked at when drifting too long through a paragraph.
Grandpa Strauss will tell you that the Internet was fun and informative back then, but not quite the news-breaking source it is today. The tactile-tinglin’ magazine was actually where you could learn of the new. A copy of Sports Illustrated had the power to tap you on the shoulder and tell you about your future sports hero, someone whom you’d probably already know about ten times over in today’s society. This is why I’d race towards my mail box after the dog barked at the mail man. The damned future could be in that mailbox.
This cover story heralded the next great American basketball player with such captivating certainty. A Danny Ainge quote stirred me: “If I were a general manager, there are only four or five NBA players that I wouldn’t trade to get him right now.”
It all sounds very logical in retrospect, but it was a staggering proclamation to a teenage NBA addict who’d never heard of LeBron James. Danny Ainge was telling me that he might trade, say, 2002 Kobe Bryant for someone yet to play a game on television. What if I were to tell you that Kevin Durant had equal trade value to some collection of vowels and consonants that didn’t register as anything in your head other than sounds? Would you be curious to learn more? How curious?
Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant had emerged somewhat slowly, with little public indication that they would become what they became before their first NBA games. The idea of their greatness gradually seeped into the collective sports psyche as they grew. LeBron was a mythic figure before the televised high school games, Nike deal, and No. 1 selection. We knew he possessed awe-striking athleticism and extraterrestrial court vision before actually witnessing it. What would this look like? What would it be?
We’ve all been chasing the promise of LeBron for nearly as long as he has. Many had an issue with this process, blaming LeBron’s problems on “too much too soon.” I can’t speak to that. I can speak to wanting too much from teenage Paul Bunyan. And that’s because the cover story seemed too good to be true. And that’s further because LeBron seemed even better than the cover story when he went out and dropped a ridiculous 25 points and nine assists in his first NBA game. It is thrilling to learn that legend is reality, most especially when the legend is inchoate.
Since then, the LeBron story got complicated, but my interest has been buoyed by the wish that it’d return to a simple place. It’s there today. He was great all along, but never validated in a way that could take the bittersweet out of appreciating his game. The irony is that, for all I’ve groused about the public’s silly fixation on rings, I wanted a ring for LeBron. I wanted it, just so society would have to accept the staggering career that was born from pre-mythic expectations. In 2012, the promise of 2002 is a jewelry-sanctified basketball occasion.