American journalist Grant Wahl, who died suddenly in Qatar while covering the World Cup, was simply not a football guru – he was also a brilliant basketball mind who played a key role in the careers of some of the biggest names in the NBA.
Wahl spent more than two decades writing for Sports Illustrated beginning in 1996, primarily about football, but also regularly about college ball. Sports Illustrated was by far the largest American sports publication and had a monumental impact on shaping the nation’s opinions of sports stars.
The list of players 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 probably the story that has impacted the modern NBA the most came in 2002, when high school student LeBron James was splashed on the Feb. 18 cover of Sports Illustrated with the bold headline: “The Chosen One.”
The story begins with this unforgettable line from Wahl: “Resplendent in a sleek navy suit, his burnished dome glinting in the light, Michael Jordan enters the tunnel of Cleveland’s Gund Arena, flashes a million watt smile and give LeBron James, the best high school player in the country, a warm handshake, we’re old pals.
Jordan and LeBron. If calling a 17-year-old “the chosen one” wasn’t enough, here’s Wahl forever interweaving the two in one simple sentence.
“He told me that he had received death threats! | 01:05
Wahl had spent more than a year with 17-year-old LeBron James and knew, like everyone who watched him in his 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.
“I have some really cool memories of how innocent he was back then,” Wahl said in 2017. “One of them is bringing his whole binder full of CDs into my rental car. and play them in. And the look on his face when I told him this might have a chance of being a cover story, he seemed to register with him that this might be a really cool thing.
That Sports Illustrated cover — a magazine that typically sold around 3.2 million copies a week — propelled James into national consciousness and stardom.
“All hell broke loose,” LeBron said in his 2009 book with Buzz Bissinger, LeBron’s Dream Team. “I didn’t really understand what it really meant to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated…The cover propelled 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 tried his luck with LeBron. Some had failed (Felipe Lopez and Shea Cotton come to mind), while others had starred – like Kevin Garnett in 1995. But a high school kid on the cover? It was as risky as it gets.
And Wahl, who had a remarkable knack for unearthing the person behind stardom on the court, always worked with great empathy and care for the athletes he interviewed.
“I was afraid,” Wahl said in 2017, “that we were going to ruin the child’s life by putting him on the cover. It’s one thing to report on someone inside the magazine. But when you put a young child on the cover and proclaim him “the chosen one” – maybe “ruining his life” is a little strong, but it took things to such a level that I have felt like his life wasn’t going to be the same after that. The pressure would increase a lot.
The pressure turned into a fever storm, but the rest is history. James would go on to become the greatest high school player of all time before becoming an NBA legend of all time. For years, he carried the nickname that Wahl had inscribed in the national consciousness: Chosen One.
Wahl would go on to write college hoops before his full attention turned to the growth of soccer in the United States – a project which saw him cover the rise of the USA men’s team, the all-conquering women’s team, the burst of MLS competition, and write a bestseller on David Beckham.
After his passing, an emotional LeBron James said, “I really like Grant and having this cover shoot – me being a teenager and him covering this, that 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 for me over time before this cover came out. And I have always watched from afar.
“Even when I came up through the ranks and turned professional and he went into a different sport and things of that nature over the years, every time his name came up, I always thought of myself as as a teenager and having Grant in our building at [St. Vincent’s].
“So this is a tragic loss. It’s unfortunate to lose someone as great as him 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 this iconic story: “Chosen 1”.