by Chris Foss
Almost exactly fifteen years ago, on February 18, 2002, Sports Illustrated featured St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, Ohio) junior LeBron James on its cover. Dubbing him “The Chosen One” (a nickname that’s stuck with James ever since), SI predicted that he “would be an NBA lottery pick right now.” The actual article, written by Grant Wahl and titled “Ahead of His Class,” further hyped in its sub-headline that James “is so good that he’s already being mentioned as the heir to Air Jordan.” Today, James does seem to be The Chosen One, but after the infamous “Decision” and a number of humbling playoff failures, has he been able to live up to his high school-era billing as a Jordanesque figure?
Discussing a Jordan-James meeting following a Wizards-Cavs game in Cleveland in January 2002, Wahl said, “Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe.” Later: “LeBron is thought to possess all the elements necessary to do for some apparel company what Jordan did for Nike.” Wahl contended James had the “Iversonian street cred” that Jordan lacked. Then there was the contention that “NBA scouts believe he would be the first pick in this year’s draft (if league rules did not forbid his entering it)”. In 2001, James was the only high-schooler invited to Jordan’s “top-secret” offseason workouts with other NBA players.
Adidas’ Sonny Vaccaro, undoubtedly hoping to sign James, fed Wahl this juicy quote: “At this age LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in 37 years in this business,” including recent high school-to-NBA leapers Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady. Germantown Academy (Philadelphia) coach Jim Fenerty, whose team had recently lost to James’s SVSM squad and had faced a high school Bryant years earlier, dubbed junior James better than senior Bryant. Future Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge said he would take James No. 1 in the 2002 draft over Yao Ming, who would go on to be the Houston Rockets’ No. 1 choice that year.
An oft-asked question over the years is whether James as an NBA figure is more like Jordan, or Lakers great Magic Johnson. This question likely dates back to the interview James did with SI for this article, where he said, “I see things before they even happen. You know how a guy can make his team so much better?” While James cited Jordan in this comparison, Wahl argued that NBA scouts, in 2002, saw more Magic than Jordan in James’s game.
The article outlines the contours of what James could be: on the one hand, a transcendent NBA player, Jordan/Magic-esque, in his on-court accomplishments; and on the other, the next Jordan in terms of his off-court marketing power. Let’s do a purely statistical comparison first, looking at core stats of games played, overall points, rebounds, and assists. Since James has now been in the league as long as Magic and Jordan, I contend this is a relatively fair comparison. I have highlighted in yellow the leader among these three players in each statistic:
Magic Jordan James
Seasons 1979-91, 1996 1985-93, 1995-98, 2003-present
Games 906 1072 1040
Points 17707 (19.5 per) 32292 (30.1) 28196 (27.1)
Rebounds 6559 (7.2) 6672 (6.2) 7482 (7.2)
Assists 10141 (11.2) 5633 (5.3) 7288 (7.0)
Magic Jordan James
Games 190 179 199
Points 3701 (19.5) 5987 (33.4) 5572 (28.0)
Rebounds 1465 (7.7) 1152 (6.4) 1758 (8.8)
Assists 2346 (12.3) 1022 (5.7) 1348 (6.8)
In terms of these pure statistics, there is no question that James belongs in the Magic/Jordan class. It is true that his playoff numbers have been inflated by rules lengthening the playoffs since Jordan’s 2003 retirement; however, health and desire permitting, James will likely surpass the career regular season and playoff totals of Magic and Jordan in rebounds and Jordan’s playoff points total, although Magic’s assists numbers and Jordan’s career points numbers are going to be tougher to surmount.
So James is right up there in terms of individual accomplishments, but what about team accomplishments? The figures are a bit murkier here:
Magic Michael LeBron
Playoff App. 13 13 12
Finals App. 9 6 7
NBA Titles 5 6 3
Olympic Gold 1 2 2
James is an undeniable winner. He is the only of the three to bring his team back from a 3-1 deficit in any series (let alone the NBA Finals) and go on to win that series and the championship. Of the three, James has also had the most consecutive appearances in the Finals, at six (and counting), and he is the only one to win championships with two different teams. Nonetheless, James will need several more years to equal Magic and Jordan’s respective hauls of championships and NBA Finals appearances, he is still well shy of legendary 1960s Celtic Bill Russell’s all-time haul of 11 championships, and he will need to last a while longer to top Jordan’s Olympics haul, having come up with just a bronze in his initial appearance on the international stage in 2004 (James, perhaps understandably, took the Rio Olympics off last year).
Off the court, James’s impact is harder to gauge. He seems to have mainly followed the trail blazed by Magic and Jordan, particularly from an economics/marketing perspective. After his retirement, Johnson branched out into major business investments in Southern California, dipped his toes into Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers ownership circles, and now has returned after a brief time away from the team to become president of the Lakers. Jordan led the way in shoe endorsements, of course, with Nike, made the hit film Space Jam in 1996, and after his initial misstep with the Washington Wizards, found his footing in at least making the Charlotte Hornets a perennial playoff contender after becoming their majority owner. For his part, James has had a big shoe contract, endorsement deals, featured prominently (but was not a lead star) in the 2015 Amy Schumer film Trainwreck, and recently said he wanted to be king of Hollywood. He has not broken any new ground in off-court ventures compared to Magic and Jordan; however, to be fair to James, neither of the former two really made such ventures until after their careers were finished.
Where James has blazed a somewhat unique trail, however, is in the political arena. Magic has generally stayed out of politics. In 1990, Jordan refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race against Republican Jesse Helms despite calls for him to do so in light of charges of racism against Helms. James, however, endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and has sympathized with Black Lives Matter and other left-leaning causes. Jordan also moved to the left politically, but notably did not do so until after James. In historical terms, James would be far from the first NBA player to turn to or even flirt with politics after his career: New York Knick great Bill Bradley was a Democratic Senator from New Jersey from 1978 until 1996, and Charles Barkley toyed with a run as a Republican for governor of Alabama in the 1990s. Even if he reneges on his stated Hollywood ambitions, James may one day transcend his predecessors by making politics a big part of his legacy.
In the end, LeBron James is not quite The King or The Chosen One. He is, on and off the court, just shy of comparable to the players by which he was prematurely judged fifteen years ago. That James has almost met those expectations is certainly extraordinary. He needs to win a couple more championships, however, to be level on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore with Magic and Jordan. To three-peat by winning this year and next year would put James right there. He certainly has every chance of doing that, but he is up against the clock: indeed, Magic and Jordan faded significantly by this point of their careers. Because he skipped college, however, can James—at least temporarily—hold off Father Time? Perhaps a 20-year retrospective on the “Chosen One” SI article (hopefully done by us!) will see us saying that Grant Wahl, Sonny Vaccaro, and others did not quite see how great James was going to become.
 All statistics from basketballreference.com
 In Magic’s early years (1980-83), top teams in each conference received a first-round bye; and even at that, the first round was a best-of-three format. From 1984 to 2002, the now-compulsory first round was a best-of-five format. Throughout James’s career, every round has had a best-of-seven format.