Before LeBron James was breaking the record for most points scored in NBA history, before bellowing CLEVELAND, THIS ONE’S FOR YOU!!! after winning his third championship and before he began piecing together a career that could be considered the benchmark for the greatest ever, he was a 18-year-old phenom making his NBA debut.
Twenty years ago to the day, October 29, 2003, James, who was drafted No. 1 overall by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers four months after he finished high school, made his highly anticipated NBA debut against the Sacramento Kings. He finished the night with 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals, laying the groundwork for what would become one of the greatest careers, if not the best, in NBA history.
Even with the enormous expectations and pressure placed on LeBron’s shoulders at the time of his NBA debut, he still surpassed those predictions over the course of 20 years.
During his first stint with the Cavaliers, while he didn’t win a championship in those first seven years, he led an improbable Cavaliers team to the 2007 NBA Finals. His Game 5 performance in the East finals against the heavily favored Detroit Pistons was early proof of the legendary career that was to come. So too was the iconic buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer in Game 1 of the East finals against the Orlando Magic in 2009.
The next era of LeBron’s career, which started when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010 and was a highly controversial move at the time, is where he saw his most success. It’s where he earned his first two championships, in back-to-back fashion. As well as two of his four league MVP trophies, also in back-to-back seasons. LeBron’s Miami era is also where he was viewed as a villain for “The Decision,” where his words “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” simultaneously broke the hearts of Cavaliers fans and ignited a Heat fanbase for years to come.
But after all that sunshine and success, LeBron sought a new challenge. So he returned home to Cleveland, but this time with significantly more help in the form of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In what should be considered LeBron’s greatest accomplishment of his career, he led the Cavaliers to a 2016 championship over the juggernaut Golden State Warriors after being down 3-1 in the series. It was a redemption moment for LeBron and the city of Cleveland, and his block of Andre Iguodala in the waning moments of Game 7 to help win the title for the Cavs is amongst the greatest moments in NBA Finals history.
After those four years with the Cavaliers, LeBron’s next — and current — era began with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. Though his legacy is still being written with L.A., he’s already led the team to a championship in 2020, and became the all-time leading scorer in NBA history by breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record last season. He carried the Lakers to an unlikely Western Conference finals last spring, and he could very well do the same again next spring when he’ll be 39 years young.
While LeBron’s durability has been tested the most during his Lakers stint, he’s still performing near peak levels every time he puts up a monster performance. And while most players are nearing the end of their careers as they enter Year 20, LeBron has said multiple times his goal is to play with both of his sons in the league before he retires.
It’s been an illustrious two decades for LeBron, a career that even the best prognosticators couldn’t have predicted 20 years ago on this day when “The Chosen One” was suiting up for the first game of his career. Sunday night, LeBron will suit up for his 1,706th game against the same team that kickstarted his career, the Kings. It’s a full circle moment for James, who at 38 years old and 20 years in the league is still writing his legacy.