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Sunday, February 2, 2003
Updated: February 8, 10:39 PM ET
The List: Best high school athletes ever

Page 2 staff

LeBron James is uncommonly good. But just how uncommon? We dove into our collective brainpool and scoured ESPN's Fly High with Delta Bill Bradley Sports Library to try to put LeBron's high school exploits into context. Coming soon: high school throwback jerseys.

Check out our list of the top 10 prep athletes and vote in the poll at right to crown the best ever:

1. Jim Ryun (East High School, Wichita, Kan.)
As a high school senior in 1965, Ryun ran a 3:55.3 mile at the AAU Championships to defeat Olympic champion Peter Snell. His record would stand for almost 36 years, broken in 2001 by Alan Webb. That's one reason he tops this list. Here are some others: Back in the day when sub-4-minute miles were relatively scarce, Ryun broke 4 minutes as a junior. Five of the six fastest schoolboy miles have been run by Ryun, most of them on much slower track surfaces than today's. While still in high school, Ryun competed in the 1,500 meters in the 1964 Olympics, making it to the semifinals.

Later at the University of Kansas, Ryun set the world record for the half mile and ran a 3:51.3 mile to shatter the old record by 2½ seconds. He competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, taking a silver in the 1,500 meters at Mexico City. He is currently a congressman.

Taking Cover
The hype surrounding King James might be unprecedented, but LeBron isn't the only prep athlete to garner national attention. Page 2 recaps the history of high school athletes who have made the cover of Sports Illustrated -- and how they fared following their cover appearance.

2. Tiger Woods (Western High School, Anaheim, Calif.)
Because Tiger hit the international golf scene so early -- as a 16-year-old sophomore he became the youngest ever to play a PGA event -- his high school golf career has been little more than a footnote. But it was still fantastic -- he was named L.A. Times Golfer of the Year his freshman year and never looked back. Woods won three Orange League titles and three Southern Section championships in his high school career, usually shooting under par (he was 39-under overall his senior season) and setting all kinds of records. He also won three straight USGA titles.

3. LeBron James (St. Vincent-St. Mary, Akron, Ohio)
We wouldn't be doing this list if it weren't for LeBron.

4. Lew Alcindor (Power Memorial, New York City)
Lew Alcindor
Before he became a star at UCLA, Lew Alcindor was unbeatable at Power Memorial High School.
Alcindor led Power Memorial to New York City Catholic High School championship in 1963, 1964 and 1965, racking up 2,067 points and 2,002 rebounds in his prep career, both New York City records. In his sophomore season, he became the first soph to make Parade's high school All-American team. Wrote ESPN.com's Sam Smith: "The greatest hype? I'd have to say it was for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then named Lew Alcindor. High school games weren't televised back then, but we did have TV and even a couple of stations. When Alcindor was at Power Memorial High School, his game against Morgan Wooten's DeMatha powerhouse was a national story, especially since Power hadn't lost for several years. DeMatha won, and Alcindor went to UCLA and didn't lose again for several years."

5. Ken Hall (Sugar Land High School, Sugar Land, Texas)
The "Sugar Land Express" rushed for 11,232 yards in his high school career (1950-53), a national record that still stands. He set other longstanding marks as well -- his single-season record of 4,045 yards (an average of 337 per game) stood for 43 years, and his record of 33 100-yard games wasn't topped until Emmitt Smith came along in the mid-'80s. In one game his senior year (in which Sugar Land won the Class A state title), he scored seven TDs and ran for 520 yards -- and then he took the remaining 2½ quarters of the game off.

Hall went to Texas A&M, didn't get along with Bear Bryant, and quit for good when he was a junior. He played pro for five years -- one with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL and four with the Colts, Oilers and Cardinals -- but never matched his schoolboy success.

6. Tim Couch (Leslie County High, Hyden, Ky.)
As a prep QB, Couch set all kinds of national high school records -- most pass completions (872), passing yardage (12,104), TD passes (133), and passing percentage for a season (75.1). Some of those have been broken in the pass-happy years since, but Couch was selected as the best high school QB of the last 20 years, and we agree.

So do others. "Couch is the best quarterback prospect I've seen in 17 years," Tom Lemming, a high school football guru, told SI in 1995. "Better than Jeff George, Ron Powlus and Peyton Manning. He reminds recruiters of John Elway."

Lisa Leslie
Lisa Leslie once scored 101 points in the first half of a high school game.
Couch was no slouch as a hoopster, either. He scored 36 ppg as a junior, tops in the state, and was named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball.

7. Lisa Leslie (Inglewood Morningside High, Inglewood, Calif.)
In Leslie's last home game as a senior in February 1990, she went 37-for-56 from the floor and sank 27 free throws. Then the first half ended, with her team leading South Torrance, 102-24. She had scored 101 points. The game was over -- literally. South Torrance didn't come out for the second half.

That was an incredible display, but more to the point, Leslie led Morningside to two straight state titles, and as a senior averaged 27 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots a game. USA Today recently picked her as the top girls high school hoopster of the past 20 years.

Leslie went on to star at USC and is one of the best players in the WNBA, named the league MVP in 2001.

8. Wilt Chamberlain (Overbrook High School, Philadelphia)
In a preview of what would come when he hit the NBA, Chamberlain scored a city-record 90 points in one game his senior year, even though he only played about 28 minutes (he ran off 60 points during one 10-minute run). He also averaged 50 points a game for the first 16 games of his senior year, and he ended his prep career with 2,206 points. Overbrook won city titles his junior and senior years, and Chamberlain was recruited by more than 200 colleges before choosing Kansas. You know the rest of his story.

Hitting It Big
Here's a look at several athletes who had major breakthroughs on the international sports scene while still attending high school:

  • Bob Mathias: Won the Olympic decathlon in 1948 at age 17, the youngest ever (and repeated four years later).

  • Mary Decker: Set world records in the 1,000 meters, 800 meters and 880 yards as a prep.

  • Marjorie Gestring: Won gold in women's springboard diving at the 1936 Olympics as a 13-year-old.

  • Tara Lipinski: What's in the water in Sugar Land, Texas? In 1997, the 14-year-old became the youngest women's world figure skating champ in history. In 1998, at 15, she won women's figure skating gold at the Nagano Olympics.

  • Kirstin Holum: In 1996, the 16-year-old set a U.S. record in the women's 5,000 meter speedskating event, clocking 7:28.84.

  • Dennis Ralston: As a 17-year-old, he became the youngest Wimbledon champ to date, taking the 1960 men's doubles title with partner Rafael Osuna.

  • Sarah Hughes: The Great Neck North High School (Great Neck, N.Y.) student won gold in women's figure skating at Salt Lake as a 16-year-old.

  • Mary Lou Retton: All-around gold, two silvers, and two bronzes as a 16-year-old (while attending Bela Karolyi GED High in Houston) at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

  • Tracy Austin: Just past her 14th birthday in 1977, she became the youngest player to win a pro event. Also in 1977 she became the youngest player at Wimbledon and U.S. Open (she made it to the quarterfinals at the Open), was ranked in Top 10 in 1978, and was only 16 years old when she won the U.S. Open in 1979.
  • 9. Marion Jones (Rio Mesa High and Thousand Oaks High, Thousand Oaks, Calif.)
    As a 16-year-old, Jones was already one of the fastest sprinters in the world, and won an alternate spot on the 1992 Olympics 400 meter relay team. She chose not to go to Barcelona, but if she had, she probably would have raced in at least one prelim round and taken home a team gold.

    Besides being the best track athlete in California in the early 1990s (in four years, she won nine individual state titles, four in the 100, four in the 200, and one in the long jump), Jones was a great basketball player. In her two years at Thousand Oaks, the basketball team went 60-4 and Jones, a guard, averaged 22.8 points and 14.7 rebounds and was named California's Division I Player of the Year in 1993, her senior year.

    10. Connie Hawkins (Boys High, New York City)
    Hawkins didn't play much at Boys High until his junior year, but two great years of spectacular ball were enough to land him on this list. Hawkins was All-City first team as a junior as Boys went undefeated and won New York's ultra-competitive PSAL (Public School Athletic League) title in 1959. His senior year he averaged 25.5 ppg., including one game in which he scored 60, and Boys again went undefeated and won the 1960 PSAL title.

    Hawkins dunked for the first time when he was 11, and was the original flash. "Connie Hawkins was the best I've ever seen in the PSAL," said a former PSAL commissioner who'd witnessed 50 years of New York high school hoops. Added Sixers coach Larry Brown, "He was Julius before Julius. He was Elgin before Elgin. He was Michael before Michael. He was simply the greatest individual player I have ever seen."

    Also receiving votes:
  • Emmitt Smith (Escambia High, Pensacola, Fla.): Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, started being great early, and he still holds the national high school record of 45 100-yard rushing games. The Escambia running back ran for 8,804 yards (third highest total in prep football history) and 106 TDs in his high school career, averaging more than eight yards a carry in his soph, junior and senior years.

  • Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, Pa.): Bryant took a high school team that was 4-20 in his freshman year to the state title three years later. How'd he do it? With senior averages of 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.8 blocked shots.

  • Danny Ainge (North Eugene High School, Eugene, Ore.): A two-time all-state quarterback, Ainge also starred in basketball (leading his team to two state titles, being named Parade All-American and later enjoying a long NBA career) and baseball (he was playing in the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays two years after graduating from high school).

  • David Clyde (Westchester High, Texas): One of the ultimate phenom flops, Clyde was nonetheless a phenomenal prep pitcher, tossing five no-hitters his senior year.