LeBron James is only 36. Emphasis on the only because he’ll be entering his 19th NBA season this October. For as long as James has been the talk of the sports world, one might think the Los Angeles Lakers forward would be older at this point.
But anyone who keeps up with basketball lore knows that James has been “The Chosen One” since he was 17. Before he could vote or legally drink, the high school junior had already established his permanence in the spotlight.
That February 2002 Sports Illustrated cover featuring a youthful James with his mouth agape, arm outstretched and his signature headband on display changed everything. Especially at away games.
“It would be more people. It would be more girls. It would be more fans,” Romeo Travis, James’ former teammate at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, told Yahoo Sports. “And even more adults just trying to get autographs and pictures of the next phenom.”
LeBron's influence on the celebrity high school recruit era
Kenny Clark, a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings at the time, was one of these adults invested in the young basketball star. He recalls traveling with his friends to witness James play in person.
Flash forward to 2019, and his son Skyy Clark is playing for James’ Strive For Greatness AAU team. It was at a Las Vegas tournament that spring, Skyy said, that his popularity began to rise. The five-star point guard was a high school freshman at the time.
Now 17, Skyy is in the spotlight before his high school graduation just like James was. It’s just that when James was his age, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Skyy has achieved the digital age’s equivalent: 261,000 followers and counting on Instagram. One of them is James. The Montverde (Fla.) Academy senior said he hopes to reach 400,000 followers before he ships out to Kentucky for school next year.
James, often tagged as the face of the recently emerged player empowerment movement, could also be considered the catalyst for the era of the celebrity high school recruit. Sure, before 2002, high school basketball stars garnered fame in their cities or states, and the late Kobe Bryant captured national attention for his accomplishments on the court at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia. Bryant even took Brandy of “Moesha” fame to his senior prom.
But the frenzy surrounding James was different. It was, as one ESPN announcer put it ahead of the network’s broadcast of St.Vincent-St.Mary’s game against top-ranked Oak Hill in December 2002, “LeBron Mania.”
The good and bad of social media's impact
Social media and technology have only bolstered this phenomenon of the famous basketball recruit. Many of the nation’s top high school prospects are quasi-celebrities with dedicated followings. Their social media posts receive thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. Fans watch their highlights on YouTube.
Bronny, James’ 16-year-old son, has 5.9 million Instagram followers. His Sierra Canyon teammate Amari Bailey, the No. 3 player in the class of 2022 and a UCLA commit, posed for a picture with rapper Drake which the basketball star posted on his own account. Before LaMelo Ball played for the Charlotte Hornets, he became a household name at 15 in part because of his brother Lonzo and father, LaVar. The internet has done wonders for the exposure of the nation’s top high school hoopers.
It’s because of this exposure that Skyy didn’t go unnoticed when he and his father were at Barclays Center for Game 7 of the Nets-Bucks NBA playoffs series in June. People stop him at airports. On the street. At malls. Even when he recently tried going to the gym in Kansas City.
“It took us 30 minutes to get from the front door to the actual court which was maybe … 100 feet [away], just because so many people were stopping him asking for pictures and autographs,” the elder Clark told Yahoo Sports.
Skyy’s classmates are just as starstruck sometimes, so they treat him differently than they would if he wasn’t a rising basketball star. He insists he’s just a “regular kid that hoops.” Skyy doesn’t “big time” people, as his father put it. He stays grounded and runs everything by his parents. He says he puts God first. But he enjoys stardom's perks, the positive influence he can have on people.
“Whenever something that I care about pops up, I make a post about it or I post something on my story about it, so I use my platform for good, ” Skyy told Yahoo Sports.
Yet, he admitted, “There have been moments when I just want to shut it down.”
Fans can be ruthless. They go after James. After Kevin Durant. Twitter raked Ben Simmons through the digital coals for his performance in this year’s NBA playoffs. Top high school prospects are no exception to public criticism, especially when they opt to take their talents elsewhere rather than the universities fans support.
Unlike Durant, for example, Skyy said he doesn’t really read the comments. Neither does Jada Williams, a 16-year-old phenom from Blue Springs, Missouri, and a five-star recruit in the class of 2023. The UCLA commit has been active on Instagram since she was in sixth grade when she and her godfather started recording videos of her basketball journey. Since then, Williams has accumulated 262,000 followers on the platform.
She never anticipated being in the spotlight at 11 or 12, or to have cameras on her at middle school basketball games. It was a lot, she said, but she decided to make the most of it. Still, with much attention and success, comes hate.
“I’ve been through some tough times with losing friends and jealous people, but I think really what got me through all that is really just staying grounded and knowing that God is in my heart always,” Williams told Yahoo Sports.
Regardless of the haters, she’s making noise for the next generation of women’s basketball players. Along with UConn’s Azzi Fudd, the No.1 player in the class of 2021 who had her own LeBron James moment in February when she posed for an ESPN cover story with the subhead “She’s the One,” Williams is becoming a familiar face.
What do athletes have to show for their fame?
Travis played basketball with James at St.Vincent-St. Mary during the pre-smartphone era, so he doesn’t aim to dunk on today’s youth and their affinity for social media. He can’t imagine what it must have been like for Zion Williamson in high school or how it is for the class of 2022’s top prospect Emoni Bates to already live under so much pressure and scrutiny at such a young age. He does wonder, though, if some of the best high school basketball players are “crowned too early.”
“They’re not being able to complete the mission,” Travis said. “They’re not being able to actually go as far as people expect them to, and that’s demoralizing for them mentally.”
That expectation is not the only dark side to this celebrity. Name, Image and Likeness rules have dominated the collegiate sports conversation, but similar questions about the exploitation of athletes have cropped up at the high school level, too.
Williams has already made this connection. She remembers one basketball tournament held at Hy-Vee Arena in Kansas City. The venue was sold out and packed. Everyone was there to see Mikey Williams, the No. 8 prospect in the class of 2023. The 17-year-old has enough clout that his 3.1 million Instagram followers and much of the basketball world simply refer to him by his first name.
“We play in these sponsored tournaments and we’re paying a lot of these people to come watch and we don’t really benefit off of it,” Jada said. “And we work so hard and we’re so dedicated. We give up a lot.”
These tournaments and elite high school basketball showcases are often sponsored by brands such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas. Admission to these events isn’t free, and it’s not uncommon for individual players, rather than teams, to be marketed.
Take the recent The Battle Basketball Showcase, which James’ high school alma mater St. Vincent-St. Mary hosted. Bronny, suiting up for James’ Strive For Greatness team, highlighted the tournament that saw several top basketball recruits go head-to-head. Adding to the event’s high profile, NBA veteran Danny Green hosted this battle of top prospects. In a 99-97 loss to Midwest Basketball Club on the first day of the tournament, Bronny scored nine points, dumped off three assists and snagged two steals as well as a pair of rebounds in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,300 fans. Tickets were $25 apiece.
Tournament organizers and sponsors enjoy big paydays, Travis said. All the athletes might have to show for, though, is some new gear. Maybe 20,000 more social media followers.
“These kids are being used at an alarming, disgusting rate and nobody wants to discuss it,” Travis said. “Everyone’s acting like it’s for the kids. It’s not for the kids. If it was for the kids it wouldn’t be an EYBL. It wouldn’t be a Nike tournament only … so it’s not about the kids, it’s about the money.”
It’s not as if things were much different in 2002 when James and Travis still suited up for the Irish. Time Warner Cable announced in November of that year an option for customers across northeast Ohio to purchase 10 St. Vincent-St. Mary games on pay-per-view for $7.95. No players got a dime, of course. Not then, or when season tickets sold for up to $125 for the Irish’s nine-game home schedule. Meanwhile, copies of “The Chosen One” Sports Illustrated issue with James’ signature on it sold for $200 each on eBay.
Will social media followers translate to NIL paydays?
Had James gone to college after high school rather than the NBA, he probably could have made $3 million to $6 million a year in endorsement deals under today’s new NIL rules, said Chase Garrett, CEO and founder of Icon Source, a company dedicated to helping athletes build their brands in marketing, social media or elsewhere.
Just because athletes like Skyy and Jada have sizable social media followings, Garrett said that follower counts may not directly translate to a fixed amount of cash earnings. It’s about the brand athletes build and how that manifests online. Location matters, too. Lexington, Kentucky, isn’t as flashy as Los Angeles, but Skyy could make up to six figures or more there, especially since people are already so invested in the high schooler.
“... We’re seeing the most markets that are really jumping on this are places like Starkville, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Florida, where they’ve never had professional teams and athletes in the area to work with that are now engaging,” Garrett told Yahoo Sports. “... Kentucky is probably one of the best places. In the Southeast, college sports are so strong.”
James fulfilled Sports Illustrated’s prophecy. He’s considered the greatest basketball player ever depending on which circle one is in. What he has accomplished — actually living up to the hype — is rare.
For other players, college can become a pipe dream. Injuries happen. Things don’t work out. High school stars who don’t grow beyond teen stardom, make a Division I roster or sign with a pro team as LaMelo and Jalen Lewis have done may never see that kind of money, despite their influence and mass appeal.
Travis figures if top high school basketball players could even pocket $100 for their appearances in tournaments, that could take some financial burden off families who need the money. People buy into young stars because they want to see potential, Travis said, but not everyone is LeBron James. Not everyone measures up to expectations.
Lenny Cooke is a prime example. Cooke, the former high school phenom deemed in 2012 by the New York Times as the “Star-to-be who never was.” Cooke, the player once ranked above James and Carmelo Anthony. Cooke, whose struggles in school and gruesome leg injuries stifled his shot at the NBA and any kind of professional basketball career. Twenty years ago, he was the next big thing. Now, Cooke is only written about for being a bust.
No one knows what the future holds for up-and-comers like Skyy Clark, Jada Williams and other high school basketball royalty. For now, they’ll meet high-profile celebrities and increase their followings. They’ll enjoy their influence and count their blessings. All the while, they’ll keep their eyes on the dream, on the league.
Kenny Clark said his son is doing something right. He’s influential. He signs autographs and has articles written about him. He inspires a sense of pride in his family, including his younger brother ZZ who is building a following behind his own budding basketball career.
Despite all of that, Skyy still likes to think of himself as a normal kid. Though James refers to himself as the King and had experienced more fame (and made people more money) at 17 than perhaps some professional athletes or B-list celebrities, he demonstrated a similar humility as he moved up the basketball ranks. The world knew James as “The Chosen One,” but for him it wasn’t that deep. He was “just a kid from Akron.”
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