American journalist Grant Wahl, who passed away suddenly in Qatar while covering the World Cup, was just not a football guru – he was also a brilliant basketball mind who played a key role in the careers of some of the NBA’s biggest names.
Wahl spent more than two decades writing for Sports Illustrated from 1996, mostly on football but also regularly covering college ball. Sports Illustrated was by far the biggest American sports publication, and had a monumental impact on shaping the views of the nation when it came to sports stars.
The list of players that Wahl met and wrote about in college or high school is littered with NBA champions and All-Stars: Steph Curry, John Wall, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Al Horford, James Harden, Brook Lopez.
But the story that probably impacted the modern NBA the most came in 2002, when LeBron James, a high school junior, was splashed on the February 18 cover of Sports Illustrated with the bold headline: “The Chosen One”.
The story begins with this unforgettable Wahl line: “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.”
Jordan and LeBron. If calling a 17-year-old the ‘Chosen One’ wasn’t enough, here was Wahl forever intertwining the two in one simple sentence.
Wahl had spent over a year with the 17-year-old LeBron James – and knew, like all who watch him in those early days, that he was something truly special.
But he also remembers the naivety and down-to-earth nature of the young gun.
Wahl once drove LeBron and some high school friends 45 minutes to Cleveland to watch Michael Jordan play the Cavaliers.
“There are some really cool memories I have of the innocence he had at that time,” Wahl said in 2017. “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.”
That Sports Illustrated cover – a magazine that typically sold around 3.2 million copies a week – rocketed James into the national consciousness and superstardom.
“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.”
Sports Illustrated had bet big on young high school prodigies before Wahl took his chance with LeBron. Some had flopped (Felipe Lopez and Shea Cotton come to mind), while some had starred – like Kevin Garnett in 1995. But a high school junior on the cover? That was as risky as it gets.
And Wahl, who had a remarkable knack for unearthing the person behind the on-court stardom, always worked with great empathy and care for the athletes he interviewed.
“I was worried,” said Wahl in 2017, “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.”
The pressure grew into a fever storm, but the rest is history. James would go on to become the greatest high school player of all time before turning into an all-time NBA legend. For years, he carried the nickname that Wahl had enshrined in the national consciousness: Chosen One.
Wahl would continue to write college hoops before his attention turned in full to growing football in the US – a project that saw him cover the rise of the US men’s team, the all-conquering women’s team, the breakout of the MLS competition, and write a best-selling book on David Beckham.
After his passing, an emotional LeBron James said: “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 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. Vincent’s].
“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.”
LeBron will always carry a part of Wahl’s legacy – and tattooed on his back is the title of that iconic story: ‘Chosen 1’.
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