Finding the most qualified candidates for an all-decade team in boys hoops may not be as daunting compared to sports such as baseball or softball because of basketball's tendency to market individuals and emphasize star power.
While the "hype machine" surrounding boys basketball existed long before Y2K, there is no doubt the individual responsible for putting prep hoops in the national spotlight and on national television regularly is LeBron James. Similarly, there is no debate the 6-foot-7 wunderkind from St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) should be the ESPN RISE Player of the Decade. LeBron also headlines our All-Decade All-America Team for boys basketball.
The only worthy discussion lies in how James compares to the best players of previous decades. The reason? Not only did the 220-pound point forward live up to the tremendous hype, he transcended high school sports and became a cultural phenomenon during his senior year.
A quick review of LeBron's resume reveals a 102-5 record for the Fightin' Irish during his four-year career (1999-2003). During that time, SV-SM suffered only one in-state defeat and won three Ohio state titles. The only time the Irish didn't win the state title was James' junior season, when he averaged 29 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.3 blocks and was named ESPN RISE's National Player of the Year.
Reliable basketball sources suggested at the time James could have been the top pick in the NBA draft after his junior season. The fact James and his team were even better than expected during the 2002-03 season further separates him from every other player this decade.
SV-SM went unbeaten on the court (26-0), defeating teams from California, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Illinois -- including three ranked in the top 10 of the final FAB 50. James earned national player of the year honors again and a FAB 50 national title, helping his team excel while competing in pay-per-view games and made-for-TV showcases nationwide.
"He's one of the top five ever to play the game," said Hoop Scoop's Clark Francis, who has witnessed every Nike All-American and ABCD Camp between 1983 and 2006 except two. "He's about as good as anyone. But remember, Felipe Lopez was unbelievable. Danny Manning, too. I saw Clark Kellogg at the 1979 Derby Festival Classic and he was as good as I've ever seen."
Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports, who became involved in the McDonald's All-American Game the year Kellogg played in 1979, also proceeds with caution in labeling James the best ever. "Had LeBron come in any earlier era, would he have been allowed to display that versatility? There were other all-time players great at their positions, but coaches now encourage multi-dimensional kids."
Of the players we've seen and evaluated, James would be on par with the two best prep players from the 1990s (Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd) and surpass anyone from the 1980s. To call him the best ever, however, would be a statement influenced by his economic impact on the high school landscape and his standing as the most recognizable team sport high school student-athlete of all time.