LeBron James in a Duke or North Carolina uniform?
It could have happened had King James gone to college instead of jumping straight to the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, but he most likely would’ve ended up at Ohio State.
During an ESPN2 rebroadcast on Friday of a 2002 game between James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (OH) team and Oak Hill Academy (VA), Dick Vitale said James’ college list at the time featured Duke, Florida, Louisville, North Carolina and Ohio State. Vitale did the game at Cleveland State University along with Bill Walton and Dan Shulman.
Playing like a man among boys, James finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a 65-45 victory.
In comments since, James has strongly hinted he would have stayed home in Ohio and played for the Buckeyes. Jim O’Brien, then the Ohio State coach, was courtside for the game.
“For sure I would’ve been one of those kids if I would have went off to Ohio State or I would have went off to any one of these big-time colleges where pretty much that 23 jersey would have got sold all over the place without my name on the back but everybody would’ve known the likeness,” he said in 2019 when discussing California’s Fair Pay to Play Act.
Had James been a high school senior in 2005 instead of 2003, he would have had to spend at least one year in college because the one-and-done rule came into effect with the 2006 NBA Draft. Now there are expectations that one-and-done will go away for the 2022 Draft.
Also of note in the rebroadcast were that Walton, Vitale and St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II expressed concerns about James’ future.
“I’m concerned about the NBA lifestyle,” Joyce said during an on-air interview in the Oak Hill game. “Will it chew him up?”
Said Vitale: ”I just worry about exploitation. I worry about money on the side and the unsavory people trying to make a buck or two off of him, that’s scary. But as far as his skills, you can’t hide that kind of talent.”
Added Walton: “The one thing you can’t predict is whether he’ll stay healthy and whether he’ll have the work ethic [necessary].”
Nearly two decades later, James has put all those questions to bed.
The Lakers star is in the conversation for the Greatest of All Time, and has never suffered a career-threatening injury. At 35, he is a 16-time NBA All-Star, a three-time NBA champion (including one in Cleveland for his home state) and a three-time Finals MVP. This past season he passed Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time scoring list. And he hasn’t had a single scandal — save his decision to announce “The Decision” in 2010 — in his entire career.
Flashing back to that game in 2002, all the ingredients were there, most especially the love of the game and the overpowering will to win.
”I’m more happy we won,” James said in 2002. ”It’s not about putting on a show, it’s about playing my game.”