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LeBron James pays tribute to Grant Wahl, the journalist who introduced the world to LeBron James

LeBron James says he’s never forgotten the impact Grant Wahl had on him when profiling him as a teenager for the cover of Sports Illustrated, a story that is largely remembered for introducing James to the world at large.

James dunks Photo by Dave Saffran/NBAE via Getty Images

Sports Illustrated is no longer the national conversation-setter it once was, but way back in 2002, being on the cover of the then-weekly magazine was a huge deal. Before the internet and social media turned sports discourse into a daily battle, the front of that magazine was a sign of what the biggest story in sports that week was. So when then-SI journalist Grant Wahl wrote a cover story on LeBron James, just a 17-year-old high school junior at the time — under the somehow not-hyperbolic, and ultimately prescient caption, “Chosen One” — it served as much of the sports world’s introduction to a teen who is now on-track to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and arguably greatest ever player.

The story, like the best longform profiles, reads like a window back in time, to a moment before LeBron vs. Jordan debates, when Jordan was just trying to help a precocious kid work on his fundamentals and asking about his mom:

Resplendent in a sleek navy blue suit, his burnished dome gleaming in the light, Michael Jordan steps into the tunnel of Cleveland’s Gund Arena, flashes a million-watt smile and gives LeBron James, the top high school player in the country, a warm, we’re-old-pals handshake. “Where’s Mama?” Jordan asks.

“She’s in New Orleans,” LeBron says, grinning at the memory of how well his mother, Gloria, had gotten on with Jordan when they met in Chicago last summer.

It’s 10 p.m. on the last night of January, and the moment feels charged, even a little historic. Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent.

Jordan has just hit another buzzer-beater to sink the Cavaliers, but another game is afoot. A spectacularly gifted 6’7”, 225-pound guard who averages 29.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists for St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, LeBron is thought to possess all the elements necessary to do for some apparel company what Jordan did for Nike. Not only does he have the requisite high-flying game and an Iversonian street cred that Jordan himself lacked, but he can also turn on the charm when necessary. It’s why LeBron is a year from signing what’s expected to be the most lucrative shoe deal in history for an NBA rookie, estimated at $20 million over five years, and why Jordan, who represents his own division of Nike athletic wear, would want LeBron in the Swoosh family.

Tonight, however, LeBron is wearing a black coat and stocking cap bearing the logo of Adidas, his high school team’s sponsor, which Jordan can’t help but notice yet chooses to ignore. They schmooze for a few minutes, bantering about LeBron’s upcoming game, until Jordan leaves, offering this piece of advice: “One dribble, stop and pull up. That’s what I want to see.”

LeBron nods and smiles. “That’s my guy,” he says. All things considered, it’s hard to decide what’s more impressive—that LeBron could be hailed as the best high school player even though he’s only a junior, or that many NBA scouts believe he would be the first pick in this year’s draft (if league rules didn’t forbid his entering it), or that he can get an audience with Jordan as easily as a haircut appointment.

The whole story is stellar writing, worth a retroactive read in its entirety, and I wish I was bringing it to you just to simply appreciate it on its merits. Unfortunately, as you’ve likely heard, the reason it is resurfacing again is that Wahl, 48, died suddenly yesterday while covering the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands in Qatar.

After the Lakers’ game on Friday night, LeBron James was asked about the trailblazing soccer writer who also wrote one of the most famous basketball stories of all time, and he spoke fondly of the late journalist (transcript via Dave McMenamin of ESPN, link added for context mine):

“First of all, my condolences go out to his family. I saw his brother say something as well. Until we get further details into what transpired [I will not comment further on the nature of his death]. But I’m very fond of Grant and having that cover shoot — me being a teenager and him covering that, it was a pretty cool thing. And he was always pretty cool to be around. He spent a lot of time in my hometown of Akron covering me over the course of time before that cover story came out. And I’ve always kind of watched from a distance.

“Even when I moved up in the ranks and became a professional and he kind of went to a different sport and things of that nature over the years, anytime his name would come up I would always think back to me as a teenager and having Grant in our building down at St. V.

“So, it’s a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as he was and I wish his family, like I said, the best. And may he rest in paradise.”

James later shared some more thoughts on Twitter:

This is obviously an incredibly tragic loss, and our thoughts go out to Grant’s family and friends at this time.

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