LeBron James. There's never been a player this good for this long.
But how do you even measure that?
We've tried to do so in a number of ways. Ahead of his first meeting with Zion Williamson, I detailed the list of challengers to LeBron's throne over the years. On the heels of his fourth NBA title, our Kyle Irving outlined the list of players that LeBron has denied - and helped - in winning a title while Benyam Kidané documented five times that LeBron reminded us he's still at the top during this past season.
And while the above lists quantify his greatness in a number of ways, they overlook some of the things numbers can't measure - the aura and essence of LeBron that makes him an icon, something that numbers may not be able to measure but the words of the people, who are fans and followers of the game alike, can.
So, after watching LeBron hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the fourth time in his career, I decided to ask around to document the first memories a few people have of LeBron, myself included.
The answers weaved a story that only begins to paint a picture of his sustained excellence.
For me, it was some time during LeBron's senior year of high school, either in 2002 or 2003. I was an eight-year-old third grader, and the only thing I loved as much as basketball was sneakers.
I'd heard about LeBron on a show like "Pardon The Interruption" or something, but it wasn't until ESPN teased a game featuring James' St. Vincent-St. Mary Irish squad by showing an up close look at a pair of green and gold player edition (PE) shoes that read "L 23 J" on the side that I realized he wasn't the typical high school star; I'm thinking "only NBA players are supposed to get PEs!" while simultaneously beginning my nine-year plan to become a player of that calibre by my senior year.
My dad, Gil, who spent a season playing in the NBA and served as an analyst for the Hornets franchise from 1988-2012, wasn't exactly as impressed right away.
"I heard about him," he recalled to me. "But when I heard about him, I couldn't conceptualize this high schooler - because I had been one myself - getting so much acclaim and so many accolades about how good he could be. I felt like at that early age and with his amount of experience, you can't be but so good, and I know about high school competition.
"You're playing against young people who aren't gonna play anymore, so I kinda doubted how really good he could be. You know, a lot of hype, let's talk about him, let's get it on TV, but what did that really mean?"
It meant that James and the Irish were a mainstay on national television where he lived up to the hype, leading the team to a 25-1 record (the one loss was a forfeit) and the team's third Ohio High School State Championship in his four years. By the time James declared for the NBA Draft on April 25, 2003, the upcoming Draft Lottery might as well have been renamed the LeBron James Lottery.
He was, quite possibly, the most can't-miss prospect … ever.
"I remember being a kid during the '03 draft and at the time thinking his all-white suit was fresh," said Mitchell Wilbekin, my former teammate at Wake Forest, who spent the last two seasons playing professionally in Turkey. Like me, his eight-year-old eye was on the fashion but he's since walked back his take, clarifying that "looking back, not so much."
Once the draft passed and the ink dried on LeBron's lucrative endorsement deal with Nike, the basketball world collectively anticipated James' debut against the Sacramento Kings on Oct. 29, 2003.
But it would be another month before James and the Cavs first visited New Orleans Arena, where my dad and I would get our first up-close look at him on Nov. 26, 2003, 12 days after Jay-Z released The Black Album.
One year after we watched him in our living room, the most hyped 18-year-old ever took the floor right in front of our eyes. In a grind-it-out 82-72 loss, James scored 15 points (on 5-for-17 shooting), dished out nine assists and pulled down eight boards.
It's pretty much exactly how my pops remembers it, too, as he recalled that "the first couple of times I saw him play, he didn't have great games because it was early in his career - first time on the court, playing against men."
In retrospect, it's amazing to think that an 18-year-old flirting with a triple-double isn't exactly a great game, which speaks to what we've come to expect from LeBron.
The next season, the Hornets moved to the Western Conference, meaning we'd only see the Cavs twice a year. Watching his growth from a distance made his ascend seem that much more rapid; in the first meeting between the two teams, LeBron finished with 22 points, a then-career-best 14 assists and nine rebounds in a nine-point win.
Four days later, he turned 20.
While that 2004-05 season saw the 20-year-old James earn the first of a record 16-straight All-Star and All-NBA selections, Cleveland again missed the playoffs. From there forward, he'd see to it that wouldn't happen anymore.
In my dad's eyes, that's when James transcended.
"I saw him play this game against us one night when he was hitting 3s," Big Gil told me. "And he hit so many 3s that he decided to - because he was a young guy at the time… - he took his hand and held it up and took the other hand and mimicked a cigarette lighter as if his hand was on fire."
I remembered watching this game but had to look up when it happened, realizing that it wasn't just any night my dad spoke of, it was the Cavs' season opener. After missing the playoffs and hearing knock after knock on his jump shooting, James opened the 2005-06 season by shooting 6-for-7 from 3, including five in a row, to finish with 31 points in a blowout win.
And you'd better believe there was extra motivation in being lined up across from his buddy Chris Paul, who was suiting up for his second NBA game, ever.
Welcome to the league.
That same season, he'd go on to help the Cavs end a seven-year postseason drought, finishing second in MVP voting behind Steve Nash. In 2006, James was just 21 and there was already enough evidence there to argue that he was the best player in the league.
A year later, my guy Mitch was thinking even bigger than that: "(The) '07 playoffs weren't my first time seeing him play but it was when he became my favourite player, so it's the most vivid (memory)," he told me. "Series tied 2-2 I believe in Detroit and he scored the last 25 points to help an undermanned Cleveland team seal the win.
"I'll never forget watching that thinking this dude might become the G.O.A.T one day."
It's vivid for me, too. The image of LeBron doubled over after emptying out so much to will that team to a win at just 22 will forever stick with me, as it's what I consider to be one of the first true defining moments of his NBA career.
And it made me wonder how other generations were introduced to LeBron, so I sought an answer.
Jared Albert, the younger brother of one of my best friends, is a high school senior in New Orleans, LA, who's picking up scholarship offers to continue his football career in college. Born in 2002, Jared said his first memory of LeBron came in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.
When implored to elaborate, he added that "(In) Game 1, dude dropped like 50 and they lost. I was like 'yeah, this dude nice,' then kept watching and he was dominating every game."
It was eye-opening to me in that I'd actually largely forgotten about his 49-point Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, instead, using his Game 2 buzzer-beater to remember his performance in the series.
This made me realize just how many unforgettable moments the latest generations have had to be introduced to LeBron.
Teens born after his debut might have first learned about James through "The Decision," while those born after his first playoff appearance in 2006 might first remember James from one of his first two title runs in 2012 and 2013.
Born after June 2010? LeBron's played in 90% of the Finals series of your lifetime, which is … pretty wild.
To be clear, it's not necessarily the memories themselves. Most athletes of prominence draw us in with their ability, which, in turn, causes us to marvel at what they do. But with James, it's how he makes us, as fans of the game, feel in those moments.
You didn't have to be a Cavs fan in 2016 to feel some sense of fulfillment when James made good on his promise to deliver Cleveland - and Northeast Ohio - its first major professional sports title in over 50 years, doing so in historic fashion.
You didn't have to be a fan of sports to be moved by James' opening of the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, OH in 2018.
Now, it's 2020, and we watch in awe as LeBron, who many of us were introduced to nearly 20 years ago, become every single thing he was predicted to be.
Considering the fact that an intro to one of his high school games mentioned him in the company of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, the fact that LeBron's lived up to the hype is nothing short of impeccable.
And he's still going.
With James showing no signs of slowing down, there's a new generation of young NBA fans that will be introduced to the game by seeing LeBron chase - and break - NBA records as he moves closer and closer to reaching his 20th season in the league.
There will be young fans that fall in love with the game after watching James play. That is feeling something.
The stories may have been different but there was one common thread among those I asked about LeBron.
While Mitch, a two-year pro, felt LeBron could become the G.O.A.T. over 13 years ago, Jared, the high school senior quickly responded by saying "he's the greatest of all time" when asked how he felt about LeBron.
Most surprising to me, however, was my dad, who's seen just about every player in the never-ending G.O.A.T. debate play in person. That night in 2005 when LeBron caught fire from deep caused him to have a moment of realization.
"Here's this guy that's 260 (pounds), 6-8 (or) 6-9, as quick as Chris Paul, (you) can't stop him when he gets by you, making 3s so much that he had to set his hand on fire. Then I realized what I was watching. Not the second coming but the first coming, and I think he's undoubtedly the G.O.A.T.
"Everybody says it, and I'm not arguing with it."
Everybody might not be saying it but you'd be hard-pressed to find another player that can evoke a similar sentiment from generations that span from 1949 to 2002, and beyond. Add that to the growing lists of accolades and accomplishments and couple it with James' influence off the court, and it makes sense that he's reached No. 1 on a lot of lists.
That is how you measure sustained excellence. What more can I say?
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