In the past few months, LeBron James has solidified his status as the best basketball player in the game, effectively turning his name into an all-purpose noun. “The LeBron James of ______” is a synonym for “best.” It’s fair to say at this point that Sports Illustrated was justified in hyping him up and putting him on its cover as “The Chosen One” as a high school junior.
Over the years, a handful of other young athletes have been placed into the same category: either being compared to a legendary athlete or declared the savior of their sport. Let’s look back at the athletes deemed “The Next Big Thing” and see who was able to live up to that title.
3. 1981: Bobby Carpenter
In 1981, Bobby Carpenter became the first U.S.-born hockey player to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, the first U.S. citizen to make the jump to the NHL directly from high school, and the first U.S.-born hockey player to be featured on the cover of SI.
Although Carpenter’s production as an offensive weapon significantly declined after a few seasons, his career in the NHL spanned 18 years and over 1,000 games, including a trip to the All-Star game in 1985 and a Stanley Cup championship in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils.
At the end of the day… Carpenter never became a legendary hockey player, but his early success helped shape a less Canadian-centric NHL.
4. 1986: Kristie Phillips
At age 14, Sports Illustrated called Kristie Phillips “The New Mary Lou” — a reference to Mary Lou Retton, the first female gymnast from outside Eastern Europe to win the Olympic gold medal in the Gymnastic Individual All-around competition. One year later, Phillips won four medals at the Pan An Games, two of which were gold, a gold medal in All-around at an USA vs. USSR dual meet, and a senior All-around title in the national championships. She became the favorite to capture gold at the Olympics.
However, a growth spurt left her unable to perform at the same level, and by the time the 1988 Olympic Trials rolled around, Phillips had fallen from America’s hopeful to the second alternate on the U.S. Olympic team. She didn’t travel with the team to Seoul to compete.
After her Olympic dreams were over, Phillips focused her attention on cheerleading, and later moved to coaching gymnastics. She had a comeback in the sport as a competitor and exhibition star in the late 1990s, and was eventually honored as the USA Gymnastics Sportswoman of the Year in 1999. In 2006, Phillips was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
At the end of the day… It’s easy to consider Phillips a bust, since she never made it to the Olympics, but it obviously wasn’t her fault that her growth spurt held her back, and she was able to remain a major part of her sport.
5. 1988: Todd Marinovich
As a baby, Todd Marinovich was introduced to a strict diet and workout regimen designed to make him the perfect athlete. With his father at the reins, Marinovich became one of the top high school football players in the state of California, and in 1988 he was called “the first test-tube athlete” by Sports Illustrated.
Unfortunately, that test failed, as Todd, once out from under his father’s intense training, was more interested in surfing, art, and, unfortunately, hard drugs than football. And the man “bred to be a superstar” would eventually get arrested more times in his life than he threw TD passes in a short-lived NFL career.
At the end of the day… Let’s just say you never want to be compared to Todd Marinovich.
6. 1989: Jon Peters
As a senior, Jon Peters of Brenham, Texas — who had already won three state titles — set a national high school record for consecutive wins and became the only high school baseball player to capture the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But in his sophomore year of high school, Peters had already undergone arm surgery, and more surgeries followed in the next few years. The one-time phenom was completely finished with baseball by the time he reached 21, having only captured a single win in college.
At the end of the day… Genetics giveth and genetics taketh away.
7. 1991: Eric Lindros
As a teenager, Eric Lindros was declared “The Next One” — a reference to Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One.” Before entering the NHL, Lindros played in the Ontario Hockey League, where he won pretty much every award available. He went on to become the first pick in the 1991 NHL Draft, a seven-time All-Star, a gold medalist for the Canadian Olympic team, and the winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) and the Lester B. Pearson Award (most outstanding player) in 1995. Unfortunately, his aggressive playing style caused him many injuries and concussions, which shortened his career.
At the end of the day… Lindros is right on the cusp of being a Hall of Famer, having been on the ballot, but passed over four times.
8. 1995: Kevin Garnett
In his senior year of high school, Kevin Garnett was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois, the Most Outstanding Player at the McDonald’s All-American Game, and the National High School Player of the Year by USA Today.
He was drafted with the fifth pick in 1995 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and became the first player to be drafted straight out of high school since 1975. And ever since then, it’s been the Kevin Garnett show.
At the end of the day… His show is always sold out.
9. 2000: Michael Phelps
At the age of 15, Michael Phelps became the youngest male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years, qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics, where he finished fifth in the butterfly. Several months later, he broke the world record in the 200-meter butterfly to become the youngest man ever to set a swimming world record. Over the next two years, Phelps would dominate the 2002 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and the 2003 World Championships. The cover above is from 2004, as he was gearing up for the first Olympics in which he was expected to medal.
And the rest, as they say, is history, as Phelps would go on to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, in addition to having the all-time record for Olympic gold medals (18).
At the end of the day… We may never again see someone rise to an occasion in the spotlight quite like Phelps. His dominance of his sport is unequaled. Go, America!
10. 2002: LeBron James
11. 2003: Michelle Wie
At age 10, Michelle Wie became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. At age 14, she became the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA Tour event, and later that year she won the Women’s Amateur Public Links tournament, becoming the youngest person ever to win a USGA adult event. And a week before her 16th birthday, Wie turned pro.
Over the next seven years, Wie would only have two professional wins, and she currently ranks 84th in the world.
At the end of the day… Wie is a classic case of someone who seems to have simply peaked. There’s nothing outwardly wrong with her, but the competition caught up to her.
12. 2003: Freddy Adu
At age 10, Freddy Adu allegedly turned down a six-figure offer to join the Italian soccer club Inter Milan. By age 12, everyone in the world wanted him. And in 2004, at the tender age of 14, Adu became the youngest player to appear in an MLS game and the youngest scorer in MLS history.
But over the next few years, Adu’s spotlight faded, and despite several stints with the U.S. national team, he has never been able to live up to the expectations.
At the end of the day… Consistency has been the major issue for Adu, who is now with his ninth team in as many years, and he is widely considered a bust in the soccer world (and rumored to be older than he’s always said he is).
13. 2004: Sebastian Telfair
As a high school standout, Sebastian Telfair became the subject of a documentary, a book, and a Sports Illustrated cover story. He signed a sneaker contract with Adidas and was selected with the 13th pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Unfortunately, his high school success never carried over into the NBA, and he is now a bench player with his seventh team in nine years, averaging just over 14 minutes and 5.6 points per game in the 2012-‘13 season.
At the end of the day… Telfair hasn’t been a terrible NBA player, but he’s undersized, doesn’t shoot that well, and isn’t quite quick or shifty enough to make up for those disadvantages. He basically can’t create any trouble for the guy defending him.
14. 2005: Sidney Crosby
Expectations were so high for Sidney Crosby that ESPN referred to the 2005 NHL Draft Lottery as the “Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.” And Crosby has lived up to that billing.
In only his second season, Crosby led the NHL with 120 points and became the youngest player to win a scoring title in any major North American sports league. In 2008, Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the following year he took home the Cup, becoming the youngest captain in NHL history to win a championship.
At the end of the day… According to a recent SI cover, Sidney Crosby is the most amazing player in the NHL, so there it is.
15. 2009: Bryce Harper
As a 16-year-old, Bryce Harper was considered the LeBron James of baseball, making headlines by, for example, hitting the longest home run ever recorded at Tropicana Field. After his sophomore year in high school, he earned his GED so he could enter the minor leagues, and in the June 2010 amateur draft went No. 1 overall to the Washington Nationals.
In his first major league season, Harper was selected to the National League All-Star team, and followed that up with the NL Rookie of the Year trophy.
At the end of the day… With his second All-Star team selection in as many years, it seems like Harper is on pace to meet his high expectations. Just as long as he can keep his attitude in check. He’s a sassy young feller!
16. 2012: Jabari Parker
Jabari Parker is the latest basketball phenom to get the LeBron James comparison. In addition to a handful of first-team All-American selections and the 2012 national boys’ Gatorade Player of the Year title, Parker was also named ESPN’s National Freshman of the Year, National Sophomore of the Year, and National Junior of the Year (he was injured his senior year).
Parker will play for Coach K this upcoming season at Duke University and then likely jump to the pros.
At the end of the day… Sports Illustrated might have jumped the gun on this one, as Andrew Wiggins has now leapfrogged Parker to become the hottest new kid in hoops.
17. August 14, 1987: Tim Tebow
From that day, the day of his birth, Tebow has been hand-picked by God to be “The Chosen One.” Decent at sports.
At the end of the day… Doesn’t matter. Tebow.