During the mid-aughts, talk was ripe whether the NBA is indeed a suitable platform for high school ballers to jump straight into without having to undergo the rudiments of collegiate hoops.
For most of the league’s existence, the prep-to-pro situation has been met with mixed results. For every Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant-type story, there was a Korleone Young, Kwame Brown and Lenny Cooke tragedy that befallen many aspiring teenage athletes who attempted to latch with the fame and glory of the League.
On a personal note, I too have my reservations in allowing prep cagers to play in the pros after exhausting their eligibility in the HS circuit.
Aside from the physical brunt and stress that the pro game may bring due to the rough 82-game schedule plus the obviously bigger and more experienced opponents that one has to face every night, the abrupt exposure to external influences is not the ideal route for developing a young person let alone an adolescent still trying to adjust to a more mature and professional stage of his life.
Yet then again, similar to the centuries-old cliche, there are exemptions to this rule, like what Kobe and Kevin did in the 90s. And in 2003, just when the whole basketball world was frowning on the “progress” or lack thereof that Brown, Darius Miles and DeSagana Diop were doing on the NBA hardwood, a unique specimen emerged to prove that not all athletes coming out of HS are inferior against professional competition.
At 18-years-old, LeBron James made his professional debut in the NBA on Halloween’s Eve of 2003. But in years prior, the wunderkind was the subject of almost everything synonymous with the game. From the recruitment battle in which every college in the States wanting to enlist him in their fold, to the different endorsement contracts being dangled that ranged from sneakers, snacks and assorted merchandise upon news that he was going pro. Not to mention gracing covers and front page of publications across the country, James was proving that he wasn’t a mere teenage phenomenon slated for extinction once the euphoria faded.
He was bound for something epic. Something that would define his legacy in the sport once it has all been said and done.
But he has to worry about his first official game first. He wrought havoc in the Summer League before, flashing his all-around game with ease that made him the obvious top pick of that year’s Draft. But that tournament featured fellow rookies and League miscasts looking for another shot, which makes for a superb talent like James to stand out.
Going up against the Sacramento Kings, a team that was a consistent fixture in the postseason during that period, the chances of Cleveland emerging with a victory was precarious at best, even if they had a specimen such as James in the roster. For all his abilities and skills that makes him special and unique with a basketball on hand, he is still after all a teenager. A young kid who’s supposed to go up against the Dukes and North Carolinas in the NCAA’s Division 1. Yet here he is, priming himself up for war versus one of the Western Conference’s powerhouses.
While I may not be there personally that night at Arco Arena to witness his grand entrance, watching the game on TV seemed more than enough to acknowledge that James, albeit technically a university freshman at his age, is a transcendental talent not normally seen in underclassmen let alone prep cagers playing in their NBA game.
Here he was, stacked against one of the League’s toughest defensive machines in Doug Christie. It would’ve been understandable had James took his lumps and deferred to the seasoned wingman. He was a still a rookie, and this would have been part of his learning curve.
But nah, James, living up to his billing as a unique talent, never blinked on that eventful night.
Regardless of the supposed odds stacked against him and his team, the greenhorn emerged as the leader on a squad that had veterans such as Carlos Boozer and Ricky Davis on board. He did it all, and with relatively ease: quarterbacking in absence of a true point guard on the roster (sorry Dajuan Wagner and Kevin Ollie), funnelling passes to Davis for transition finishes, rebounding, defending, hitting key shots, making the most improbable drives to the cup. His perimeter shot may still needed a bit of tweaking then, but finishing with a line of 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals is no easy feat for a rook in his first NBA match, let alone an 18-year-old.
Even though his first NBA game ended in a loss, this proved to be the start of a career that will be defined by greatness in the years going forward. Rookie of the Year. NBA All-Star. Olympic gold medalist. NBA MVP. NBA Champion. 14 seasons clocked in, yet time never seemed to slow him down as he continues to dominate the competition while collecting hardware in the process.
There’s no denying that LeBron James is destined to be enshrined among the game’s elite once it’s all said and done; it was already made when he first set foot in an NBA hardwood during that historical evening in Northern California more than a decade ago. And I was one of those fortunate enough to witness such.
Photo c/o Getty Images and SLAMonline.com
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