“Whatever team decides to pick me on June 26, 2003, I won’t let them down. I'm just coming in looking to be a leader on a team that's just trying to get better from season to season.” —LeBron James, April 2003

You would laugh at this notion now, but when LeBron James was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, there were a lot of questions about whether he was even worth the hype. His high school games with St. Vincent-St. Mary were broadcast on ESPN. James landed on the cover of some of the most influential magazines in sports, from SLAM to Sports Illustrated

He was touted as a once-in-a-generation player, but people had heard this before. And after all, first overall picks were a crapshoot. You could end up with Kwame Brown. Or you could end up with Tim Duncan. A team might bank its hopes on Michael Olowokandi, or it could add Shaquille O’Neal to their squad. Your franchise might select Allen Iverson, or decide to start over with Anthony Bennett. 

James was the next one, and against all odds, he somehow exceeded the hype that surrounded him. In his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he became their franchise player and emerged as the face of the league. He authored remarkable performances like The 48-Special against the Detroit Pistons. He led the Cavs back to the NBA Finals. 

Back in July 2010, at the start of this decade, James found himself heading to free agency still without a championship. As he sat across from reporter Jim Gray at the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, preparing to make the biggest decision of his career, James was about to chart the course of the NBA for the next decade. 

On that night, when James announced he was leaving Cleveland to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he ushered in the player empowerment era that we are in today. Hours after his announcement, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert released his now-infamous Comic Sans letter, calling James narcissistic and framing his departure as a “cowardly betrayal.” It helped set the stage for what would be a significant shift in power from the owners of the league to the players. 

Forgotten about The Decision (aside from the fact that Kanye West was somehow present for the announcement) is that James actually used the event to raise more than $3 million for the Boys & Girls Club. That evening would turn out to be the worst PR blunder of his basketball career so far. From there, James used his public platform and voice to amplify social issues, and his power to continue fighting for a more profitable future for basketball players at every level. 

Oh, and there is the basketball part. The Decision kickstarted a streak of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances, which yielded three championships for James, ending all of his early narratives and silencing doubters who questioned his incomplete resume and ability to deliver in the clutch. (Not all the doubters were silenced, though; here’s guessing you’ve been reminded that James is 3-6 in the Finals in his career by someone online.) 

This was the decade of LeBron James. He wasn’t only the defining story of the NBA, but he is arguably the most important athlete in North American sports, and still, in his 17th season, and turning 35 in December, the best player in the game. It’s crazy to think his story is still not over. 

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