Say what you want about LeBron James.
Seriously, say what you want – it’s all been said before.
That’s what happens when you are a basketball prodigy, the most hyped, most talked about player of your generation. Talk that started when your generation had barely entered its teen-aged years.
Listen to his first high school head coach, Keith Dembrot:
“He can play at the highest level and there’s no doubt in my mind,” he told the Columbus Dispatch.
And that was after his freshman year of high school at St. Vincent/St. Mary in Akron, Ohio.
“He has the unique ability to know when to be serious and to know when to have fun,” Dembrot continued. “He’s a winner. What can you say? You don’t see 15-year-old kids do what he does.”
The hype only got bigger.
By the time he was a junior, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in an article called, ‘The Chosen One.’
It not only detailed how he already knew Michael Jordan – but had NBA sources saying he would be a lottery pick in the draft if he declared after his junior year.
LeBron clearly wasn’t just another high school hot shot. He was bigger than that.
But is he the biggest high school phenom of all-time?
Physically, no. After all, big (Wilt), bigger (Alcindor) and biggest (Ralph Sampson) came before him.
And there were those with bigger shots (ever heard of Rick Mount?) and bigger flair (Pete Maravich anyone) and – dare we say – even bigger potential to reinvent the game (let’s not forget the legend of Candace Parker).
And if you think the issue of the car loan his mom got or the flap surrounding a few free jerseys he got – which briefly made him ineligible during his senior year – makes LeBron part of the biggest off-the-court controversy, then you don’t know the story of Allen Iverson.
|Lew Alcindor’s height made him a standout at an early age.
So as LeBron takes the court for this second appearance in the NBA Finals, say what you want. But appreciate how long he’s been in the spotlight – and how much (despite not having won a title … yet) he has lived up to those expectations.
After all, no one today is talking about Schea Cotton – a mid-90s streetball star in Southern California. He was LeBron before LeBron. Injuries and eligibility issues with the NCAA did him in.
And no one is talking about Lenny Cooke, either. He’s the high school phenom that didn’t pan out. The player some thought was better than LeBron. The player most now think was never the same after LeBron dominated him in a summer camp showdown. Cooke is now the biggest bust, perhaps.
But we digress.
The debate is whether LeBron is the most-hyped high school hoopster of all time. A group of Yahoo! Sports writers and editors picked a top twelve.
Who’s on it? Not Shaquille O’Neal. Not John Wall. Not even Sebastian Telfair. Not Mark Aguirre, Damon Bailey, Lloyd Daniels, Patrick Ewing, Grant Hill, Marcus Liberty, Jerry Lucas, Tom McMillan, Darius Miles, Alonzo Mourning, Greg Oden, Isiah Thomas, nor Bill Walton.
Remember, this list is about the most hyped – not the most talented.
12. Pete Maravich: 6-5, 197-lb guard. Salemburg (N.C.) Edwards Military Institute, Class of 1966
You think Cam and Cecil Newton were the first father-son recruiting package? Hardly. It’s been going on for decades in basketball – except usually the connection is made through an assistant coaching job rather just cash. There was Milt and DeJuan Wagner to Memphis and Ed and Danny Manning to Kansas just to name a few. The ultimate, however, was Press and Pete Maravich. Press knew he had a prodigy of prodigies and was only going to send him to a school that made him coach. Head coach.
The start of it all: Those in his neighborhood were amazed at the endless of hours of ball-handling, shooting and trick drills Maravich perfected, seemingly from the time he could walk. Word spread when he made the varsity at a South Carolina high school as an 8th grader. By the time he was a junior, he was in North Carolina as his father had taken a job as an assistant at N.C. State. His dad landed the top job at LSU two years later, bringing Pete along as his prized ‘recruit.’
Did he live up to the hype? In so many ways, yes. It wasn’t just the points he scored – his record 3,667 points and 44.2 per-game average in three college seasons will never be topped. But it was the way he performed. His showmanship on the court wowed crowds and made him a huge draw. His fancy moves and trick shots overshadowed the fact he was as technically sound as any player before or since. He truly was ahead of his time. For all his individual skills, Maravich was not considered a team player and struggled to fit in with his teammates. Because of it, Maravich never won – or came close to winning – a team title. It must be noted, however, that Maravich rarely played with teams that had any type of supporting cast.
One more thing: Maravich struggled to find balance in his life for much of his career but finally seemed to find peace when he found Christianity in the years following his career. He said he was never happier and that he wanted to be remembered as a Christian not a basketball player. He died, on the basketball court, at age 40, collapsing during a pickup game. An autopsy revealed he had a congenital heart defect.
Who? For a few months following the release of a story in Sports Illustrated that dubbed Goodman ‘The Jewish Jordan,’ he was the talk of the sports world. Sid Finch, the fictional baseball prodigy penned by George Plimpton as an April Fool’s Day hoax in 1995, may be the only other ‘athlete’ to get so much attention from one story.
The start of it all: That story in Sports Illustrated in February 1999 was the beginning. And it had little to do with his basketball skills – which were top notch. Goodman could shoot, dunk, defend – the works. But it was his devotion to his faith, his legendary 11-hour days of academic and religious study, his refusal to participate in any athletic event during the Sabbath between sundown on Friday through Sunday, his wearing of a yarmulke on the court that set him apart. Nearby power – the University of Maryland – offered him a scholarship during his junior year of high school.
Did he live up to the hype? How could he? A media creation if there ever was one – it was said he received over 700 media requests in a single week – Goodman seemingly had no chance. He never did attend Maryland, choosing instead to go to Towson State. He left in controversy after playing little more than one season, then played in Israel and overseas for much of the next decade. Goodman, now married with three kids, has never measured life by points scored but rather his devotion to his faith. For him, and those around him, he is a success.
One more thing: His devotion to his orthodox faith would have been a problem at Maryland, which regularly plays games on Saturday. For a brief period of time, it was debated whether the school could (or would) petition the Atlantic Coast Conference to avoid playing on Saturday.
With all due respect to the greats that came before (Anne Donovan, Nancy Lieberman, Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw) and after (Brittney Griner), no female basketball player shook the sports world like Candace Parker. It wasn’t that she could ‘play like a boy,’ but rather, could she play with the boys. She was that good. She could score, pass and rebound like the other greats. But unlike the rest, she also could dunk – doing so for the first time in a game during her sophomore season of high school. That draws attention.
The start of it all: She was the first (and still only) two-time female national high school player of the year, leading her team to state titles as a junior and a senior. In the process, she became the first female athlete to ever announce her college choice on national television, telling an ESPN audience she was headed to Tennessee. But perhaps her breakout moment came during the McDonald’s All-Star game following her senior season when she won the dunk contest, beating two future NBA first-round picks in the process.
Did she live up to the hype? She led Tennessee to two national titles with an on-court game few had seen (she could be point guard or center – or be both on the same possession). She was the first pick of the WNBA draft, has the record for most points in a WNBA debut (34) and won both Rookie of the Year and league MVP her first season. Since then, she has helped Team USA win a gold medal at the 2008 Games and become a basketball mom, giving birth to her first child in 2009.
One more thing: Her father played college basketball at Iowa. Her brother plays in the NBA. But such lineage wasn’t always an advantage. In fact, Candace played soccer instead of basketball until the 8th grade, fearing she couldn’t live up to the other members of her family.
When you think of high school to the pros, most think of Kobe and Garnett. Old-school guys will talk about Moses Malone. Moses wasn’t the first high school player to go directly to the pros (a handful of others did it in the 40s and 50s) but he was the first of the modern era and may have had the biggest early impact. Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby came out the following year, but neither had Malone’s game. It was then 20 years before another high schooler was taken in the NBA draft.
The start of it all: Seemingly every college in the country wanted Malone, who led his school to 50 straight wins and consecutive state titles. He visited schools all over before deciding on the nearby University of Maryland. He attended Maryland for only a few days, jumping to the ABA and the Utah Stars for a then unheard of five-year, $3 million contract. He paid immediate dividends, averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds in his first season.
Did he live up to the hype? He’s one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players
and one of the strongest post players ever – perhaps the game’s best-ever offensive rebounder. He was a three-time league MVP and won a championship with the Sixers. He also proved to be one of the game’s most durable players, finishing an 18-year pro career in the top 10 of many all-time categories, including games, points and rebounds.
One more thing: Being a big-time recruit has overwhelmed some teenagers. Apparently not Moses. He told Playboy magazine: “Pressure? Pressure where? It was fun! I traveled every time I got a break. I visited at least 26 schools. I grew up thinking that Petersburg, Virginia was the best part of the world; but when I started visiting all those colleges, I realized Petersburg was the only part of the world I’d seen. It didn’t change my feeling none about Petersburg, but things were a lot different on the West Coast, in the Southwest, in Hawaii, all over.”
No state is as passionate about high school basketball as Indiana. Folks there didn’t need a ‘Hoosiers’ movie; they live it. But if you needed to pick a poster child for this passion, whom would it be? With all due respect to Damon Bailey (a phenom who was mentioned by Bobby Knight as an 8th grader) to Steve Alford (the ultimate coach’s son) to Greg Oden (the ultimate big man) to Oscar Robertson (the ultimate in racial tensions), we offer Rick ‘The Rocket’ Mount.
The start of it all: On Feb. 14, 1966, Rick Mount graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first schoolboy athlete to ever make the cover of the most prestigious sports publication of the era. Of course, the people of Lebanon, Ind., had long known about his abilities. He had played on the varsity since his freshman season and averaged well over 30 points per game (pre 3-point shot) during his junior and senior seasons. At the point, it was almost a rite of passage in Indiana to make a pilgrimage to see him play. He finished as the state’s all-time leading scorer and headed to nearby Purdue University.
Did he live up to the hype? He led Purdue to the national Final as a junior … he scored in double-figures in 72 games, topping 30 in 46 of them … he once scored 61 against conference champ Iowa his senior season, a total that would have been 74 had the 3-point shot been around. Then again, he never won a national player of the year award, thanks to Lew Alcindor, and though he may have been a better pure shooter, he was overshadowed by the flair of Pete Maravich. He had a solid pro career, but it all came in the ABA. The irony of it all: While he was the first schoolboy star to make the cover of a national publication, nearly 50 years later, he may only be remembered in Indiana.
One more thing: Speaking of ‘Hoosiers,’ Mount’s Lebanon high school team played one game at the famed Hinkle Fieldhouse his senior year. The game attracted more than 10,000 fans and supposedly produced a big enough gate for his school to get a new bus. By the way, he didn’t disappoint, pouring in 57 that night on the way to winning state and national player of the year awards.
There’s nothing like hype when you are a New York City schoolboy star, either on the high school scene or – perhaps more impressively – on the playground. So with respect to Pearl Washington, Nate Archibald, Lloyd Daniels, Connie Hawkins, Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and dozens of others, Kenny the Kid was a star among stars.
The start of it all: He was noticed by colleges as a 6th grader; he was called the best sophomore in the country by Sports Illustrated. By the time he was done at Molloy, he was the first three-time Parade All-America since another NYC legend, Lew Alcindor, and the state’s all-time leading scorer. Georgia Tech won a fierce recruiting battle.
Did he live up to the hype? He led Georgia Tech to its first Final Four as a freshman, then entered the NBA draft after his sophomore season, becoming the youngest player in the league. He became one of the league’s best players for the Nets, but after five seasons in New Jersey, his career bottomed out. He played for nine teams in a 15-year pro career.
One more thing: New York City has been looking for the ‘next Kenny Anderson’ since he left. Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair have been the closest – with Telfair eventually topping his state scoring record. Like Anderson, however, both had disappointing pro careers.
With all due respect to the numerous other stars who grabbed the spotlight during the 11-year era of high school players going pro (Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard and the ill-fated Kwame Brown among others), Kobe was on another level. High school players have not been allowed to go directly to the NBA since 2006 as the league learned many were not ready. Kobe was.
The start of it all: Kobe got noticed on the national sports scene when he surpassed Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring records in high school on the way to leading his team to a state title (averaging 30 points per game) while earning national player of the year honors. He got noticed in NBA circles when he scrimmaged with the Sixers during his senior year, holding his own in 1-on-1 games with pro players. He got noticed on the celebrity pages when he took pop star Brandy to the senior prom.
Did he live up to the hype? He won the NBA Slam Dunk contest at 18, NBA titles with (and without) Shaq, a gold medal and an MVP, had the second-highest single-game scoring effort in the NBA (putting 81 on the Raptors) and could conceivably become the league’s all-time leading scorer. But perhaps most impressive of all, he’s never shied away from the being ‘The Next Jordan,’ a label that has sunk many others. There will never be another Jordan, but there may never be another Kobe, either.
One more thing: It’s hard to imagine a more polished high schooler as he was seemingly wise beyond his years on and off the court. He spent much of his youth in Italy, where his dad was a pro player, and learned to speak Italian and Spanish fluently.
There’s nothing like a big man to grab the interest of sports fans. Sampson, however, was bigger – and seemingly going to be better – than all those before (or after) him.
The start of it all: Was it when he led Harrisonburg High to consecutive state titles – averaging 30 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks as a 7-foot-3 senior? Or was it when he entered high school as a 6-7 freshman? Perhaps it was an individual moment for each person – the first time they saw such a large man play the game with the skills and agility of someone much smaller. Unlike previous giants who often played by the basket for dunks, rebounds and blocks, Sampson could dribble, pass, shoot, run the floor – even run the fast break. Sampson entered college the year after Magic Johnson stunned folks by being a 6-9 ball-handler. Sampson’s skills were even more jaw-dropping. Given his choice of schools, he selected nearby University of Virginia.
Did he live up to the hype? He is one of two players to win the Naismith Award as the best player in college three times, he became the first pick of the NBA draft and was an NBA All-Star. But the answer to the question always comes with a pause. Well, yes, but … as dominant as he was, Sampson never led Virginia to an ACC title, let alone an NCAA championship. He played in just one Final Four. A promising NBA career – one in which he played in just one Finals, a loss – was cut short by injuries.
One more thing: Wilt, Kareem and Walton have all been considered the game’s all-time best center. Sampson, pardon the pun, took the position to new heights. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a solid college center at Duke in Sampson’s collegiate days, described playing against him like this: “He changed the whole game. The whole game. It was like playing against your dad in the driveway. You had no shot. I held him to 36 points and thought I had done a good job.”
Off-the-court issues often are as prevalent as on-court success with high school stars. But no player before – or since – has made headlines away from the court like Iverson.
The start of it all: Leading his high school to state titles in both football (he was an amazing option quarterback) and basketball as a junior, Iverson became a legend in the state of Virginia. But it was an incident during his senior season that made him known nationally. Iverson was convicted of a felony “maiming-by-mob” charge after allegedly striking a woman in the head with a chair during a racially motivated fight in a bowling alley. He was sent to jail – and his athletic career appeared to be in jeopardy – before then Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder granted him clemency. He then went to Georgetown, seemingly a perfect fit for their “Hoya Paranoia” approach to the game. His conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Did he live up to the hype? A first-team All-America in college … the first pick of the NBA draft … an NBA scoring champion and MVP … a sure-fire Hall of Famer. So, yes, he did. He’s considered one of the fastest players in history with the ball and seemingly would battle Bob Cousy and Isiah Thomas for the title of greatest player pound-for-pound (and inch-for-inch) in NBA history. His career, however, was filled with controversies off the court and contentious moments with his coaches.
One more thing: For all his abilities on the court and controversy off it, Iverson may be best known for a press conference in which he railed against Sixers coach Larry Brown, who had complained about Iverson’s practice habits or lack thereof. Iverson used the word “practice” more than 20 times. “We’re talking about practice” is now a well-known phrase in the sports world. Despite the dust up, Brown and Iverson are close, with Iverson calling Brown one of the greatest influences on his career.
There had been other big men before Chamberlain but no one like him. A superior athlete who was decades ahead of his time, Chamberlain performed feats of strength and agility that even those a foot smaller would struggle to match. He entered high school at a time when George Mikan – the first great NBA big man was dominating the pros – but even then, Chamberlain was playing the game in a way no other big man could even dream of.
The start of it all: He was 6-feet tall at the age of 10 and never seemed to stop growing, hitting 6-11 by the time he entered high school. He was unstoppable at Overbrook, leading the team to back-to-back city league titles. Individually, he set the city’s all-time scoring mark, going for 2,252 points – or more than 37 a game. During one three-game stretch during his senior season, he is reported to have scored 74, 78 and 90 points. Every college in the country wanted him; he selected the University of Kansas.
Did he live up to the hype? He was like no player the game had ever seen and set scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage records at every stop, including his two years at Kansas (he scored 52 points and had 31 rebounds in his debut), one year with the Globetrotters and his 16-year NBA career. Numerous rules regarding the draft and on-court play were changed because of his dominance. But he was rarely a champion, losing a triple-overtime NCAA final at Kansas and winning only two NBA titles.
One more thing: His remarkable athleticism showed through when he was off the court. He was a track star in high school and college (he was a three-time Big Eight high jump champ but also threw the shot and ran in both sprints and distance races), was offered a chance to box Muhammad Ali while playing in the NBA and became a top-flight volleyball player after retiring from basketball.
He was the perfect basketball big man, someone who combined Chamberlain’s offense and Bill Russell’s defense. And he did it in the mecca of the basketball world at the time: New York City.
The start of it all: He led Power Memorial to three straight New York City Catholic championships, winning 71 consecutive games in the process. He also was a regular at the city’s famed Rucker Park, the place where playground legends are made. Every college in the country was after the coveted big man. In the end, he chose a West Coast school, UCLA, helping to turn an emerging power into the one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time.
Did he live up to the hype? He is one of the NBA’s all-time greatest players, perhaps second only to Jordan. He’s the most dominant big man to ever play the game thanks to his defense and his unstoppable weapon on offense: The sky hook. When he retired after 20 seasons, he was the league’s all-time leader in games played, scoring, defensive rebounds and blocks. He also was a six-time MVP and six-time champion. But did he live up to the hype? He had done that by the time he left college. At UCLA, he was a three-time All-America, leading his team to three NCAA titles.
One more thing: Alcindor had perhaps the most unusual recruiting process of any star athlete. His high school coach, Jack Donahue, sheltered Alcindor from almost every bit of correspondence. All recruiting went through him. In the end, Alcindor chose five schools to visit, then selected UCLA.
By the time LeBron James entered high school in the fall of 1999, going from high school to the pros had become a common occurrence. LeBron, however, proved to be an uncommon talent – a level above the other prodigies of that era.
The start of it all: He averaged over 20 points a game as a freshman in high school, leading his team to a state title. The next year – when he became the first person in Ohio history to be named state player of the year as a sophomore – he became a household name in recruiting circles. He burst onto the national scene his junior year, when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated in an article titled, ‘The Chosen One.’ By then, college was no longer a consideration. The only question is whether he would turn pro after his junior year in high school. His petition to do so was turned down by the NBA, but there was no stopping the hype surrounding the player they called “King James.”
Did he live up to the hype? Rookie of the Year … scoring champion … two-time MVP … multi-time all-star, all-NBA and all-defensive team selection. He’s been everything he was supposed to be – just not a champion. He’s trying to rectify that this spring. Off the court, things haven’t come as easily. James, who has never been shy about promoting himself and his brand off the court with numerous endorsements (Nike, McDonald’s among others) and magazine covers (he was the first man on the cover of Vogue), has struggled lately with his public persona, perhaps due to a false sense about what the hype around him is. Once the pride of Ohio, his ill-conceived free-agency announcement sullied his reputation in that state and around the country.
One more thing: LeBron also was a star football player. Not all-world, as he was in basketball, but good enough to be all-state as a wide receiver his sophomore year and lead his team to the state semis as a junior (he didn’t play as a senior), drawing raves from his coach, Jay Brophy: “Ability-wise, he was a Randy Moss-type player. As a person, he’s even better. He has great hands and peripheral vision, it was unreal, and he’s such a student of the game (of football). Could he play in the NFL? No doubt about it.” Wait a minute. Randy Moss … NFL potential? This sounds like an invitation to a future list: The ten most-hyped high school football players.