No American professional athlete has ever faced higher expectations than LeBron James. Introduced to the country with a Sports Illustrated cover that called him “the Chosen One,” James once said that he was told that he would have been considered a bust if he didn’t turn into a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Fortunately, his status as such was never in doubt. James hasn’t just lived up to those monstrous expectations. He’s actually exceeded them. Across 20 NBA seasons, he has mounted a legitimate campaign for the title of “greatest basketball player of all time.”
Charles Barkley won’t go quite that far. He prefers to stick with best player of his generation, as he does for Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the combination of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But in an interview with Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, he did give James a similar honorific.
“No scandal,” he said of the Lakers star’s two decades in the NBA. “To be, number one, ready at 18, to where he is 20 years later, the greatest scorer in NBA history. I think it’s the greatest story in sports history. For a guy to be that good from Day One and never screw up is amazing.”
As Barkley mentioned, there were other players to thrive coming into the league straight out of high school, like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard. But none faced the same expectations that James did, and none were as successful from the moment they entered the league. In two decades in the NBA, the closest he ever came to a serious off-court controversy was a maligned television special in which he changed teams. Adding to the quality of his story as a professional player, he would later return to his original team, his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and win them a championship.
There will never be a consensus about who the greatest player in basketball history is, but it would be nearly impossible to imagine anyone ever having a career quite like LeBron’s in the NBA or any other sport. No player has ever entered the NBA with higher expectations, and yet he somehow managed to exceed them from the moment he reached the league through his 20th season.