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The magazine cover LeBron James got tatted on his back

The perennial All-Star exceeded all the expectations placed on him by ‘Sports Illustrated’ in 2002

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He arrived alone, promptly at 8 a.m. No parents, coach, teammates or friends.

It was just high school junior LeBron James, ready to pose for an ambitious 25-year-old who had never shot a Sports Illustrated cover before.

The outcome was far from certain, both for the magazine and for 17-year-old LeBron. The man behind the camera, Michael J. LeBrecht II, was usually an assistant who handled equipment for big-name SI photographers. Some of the magazine’s editors were leaning toward some snowboarders from that year’s Salt Lake City Winter Games for the cover. And several of SI’s previous basketball phenoms had flamed out. LeBron himself had no idea how the Feb. 18, 2002, issue would rocket his already remarkable life into the stratosphere.

“I was worried,” said the writer, Grant Wahl, “that we were going to ruin the kid’s life by putting him on the cover. It’s one thing to do a feature on somebody inside the mag. But when you put a young kid on the cover and proclaim him ‘The Chosen One’ – maybe ‘ruin his life’ is a little strong, but it took things to such a level that I felt like his life was not going to be the same after that. The pressure would get a lot higher.”

This was 2002. Before internet culture, before the iPhone, before video ubiquity. “Viral” still meant disease. Breaking into the national consciousness required a massive punch — like fronting the 3.2 million magazines Sports Illustrated printed every week. We know LeBron today as a world champion about to play in his 13th NBA All-Star Game, a master of all media who controls his image with the same will and skill he uses to orchestrate the Cleveland Cavaliers. But 15 years ago, he was a self-described naive teen, eager to please.

“There are some really cool memories I have of the innocence he had at that time. One of them is bringing his whole binder full of CDs into my rental car and playing them.” — Grant Wahl

LeBrecht had met him a few months earlier, while photographing players at the Adidas ABCD camp. That’s where LeBron announced himself to basketball insiders by dominating one of the nation’s top high school players, Lenny Cooke, whose career never recovered. “I was transitioning from assisting to being a full-time photographer,” LeBrecht said. “I called his mom, Gloria, and we set it up. He had practice that day. We could start at 8 in the morning. ‘That’s cool, but who’s gonna bring him to the high school gym?’ They were like, ‘Don’t worry, LeBron will get there.’ ”

The prodigy drove a borrowed car to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. “He was down to do whatever,” LeBrecht said. They started in the locker room, just LeBron, LeBrecht and one photo assistant. LeBron posed on a desk. Sitting in front of a locker. Then more poses after practice. On the court. Soaring to the rim. LeBrecht remembers his subject as “easy to instruct. It was a long shoot … Whatever I asked, he felt comfortable and did it. It’s always real cool when a subject is down to trust you and do certain things.”

The magic moment happened in front of a black backdrop, with one strip light high, and one low, LeBrecht peering through his Mamiya RZ67 Pro II. LeBron held a pale yellowish-green basketball LeBrecht brought “because I thought it stood out more than a regular ball.”

LeBron’s facial expression looks as if he was simultaneously excited to gaze out at America and amazed by his unwritten future. “That was me trying to draw some character,” said LeBrecht, now a veteran of dozens of SI covers. “Everyone was always all hard, tough, serious. Or happy. I wanted an expression to come from it.”

“The cover pushed me onto the national stage, whether I was ready for it or not.” — LeBron James

Much more came than an expression. “All hell broke loose,” LeBron said in his 2009 book with Buzz Bissinger, LeBron’s Dream Team. “I didn’t really understand what it truly meant to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated … The cover pushed me onto the national stage, whether I was ready for it or not.”

That meant dozens of reporters at his games, as well as constant harassment by agents, autograph seekers and sneaker company reps. LeBron even had difficulty eating in the school cafeteria. A sense of entitlement also seeped into his team’s atmosphere, with the newly minted celebrities skipping classes and partying all night before games. They ended up losing the state championship game, the only year LeBron did not win a high school title. “It wasn’t a basketball season anymore,” LeBron has said. “It was a circus.”

Just what Wahl had feared. He’d gotten the idea for the story based on buzz from the Adidas camp. Wahl pitched his editor, Greg Kelly, who was instantly hooked. From the start, Kelly conceived the title as “The Chosen One.”

“There definitely was that kind of feeling of the Messiah,” Kelly said. “You have to be careful with something like that. We’re not saying, ‘Jesus.’ But things can get overblown in sports. I think it was also used in Star Wars for Luke Skywalker. ‘The Chosen One’ is a feeling that this is kind of a godsend. I think LeBron has been a godsend for the NBA.”

Wahl landed in Akron on short notice and learned that LeBron and his buddies were headed to a Cavaliers game to see them play Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards. Wahl asked if he could drive them the 45 minutes to Cleveland, and LeBron agreed. “There are some really cool memories I have of the innocence he had at that time,” Wahl said. “One of them is bringing his whole binder full of CDs into my rental car and playing them. And the look on his face when I told him this might have a chance to be a cover story, it seemed to register with him that it might be a really cool thing.”

“You have to be careful with something like that. We’re not saying, ‘Jesus.’ But things can get overblown in sports.” — Greg Kelly

Back at the SI offices, LeBron started to get cover consideration when the reporting in Wahl’s story made clear LeBron’s exceptional promise. Wahl quoted Danny Ainge, soon to become general manager of the Boston Celtics, saying he would draft LeBron first right then, as a high school junior. Others testified that LeBron was better than Kobe Bryant in high school. And the story opened with LeBron socializing with Jordan like just another homie.

“I thought it was as close as you can get to a can’t-miss,” said Bill Colson, SI’s top editor at the time.

The magazine had missed before, on prodigies such as Schea Cotton and Felipe Lopez. But it also had connected with other high school basketball cover stars, from Rick Mount in 1966 to Kevin Garnett in 1995. The LeBron James issue was one of Colson’s last. He was in the process of leaving SI over disagreements with new management over direction of the magazine, but doesn’t recall much internal resistance to the LeBron cover. Kelly, though, remembers some pushback from other editors. “To put a junior in high school on the cover was a real departure for SI. It was a ballsy move by Bill Colson,” Kelly said.

And an enormous amount of hype for a kid. Yet 15 years later, despite all the added pressure and scrutiny, LeBron has somehow met or even exceeded the expectations placed on him by that cover. “We’ve seen so many phenoms over the years, and the percentages [for success] are not high,” Wahl said. “I just go back to being so impressed that LeBron has been able to deal with that kind of attention, it’s so rare for someone his age to fight through it. It kind of helped him. It gave him an aura, in a sense.”

It also gave LeBron something else he constantly carries with him, to this day. A tattoo across his back, in bold, ornate letters, reads “Chosen 1.”

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.