LeBron James was anointed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated when his picture graced the cover of the magazine while he was still only a high school junior.

Nothing like a little pressure.

But James had the talent to be motivated by it, rather than intimidated. Two decades later, he has more than lived up to the seemingly impossible expectations that were set for him.

On Tuesday, King James became the NBA’s all-time scoring king by surpassing the league’s career record of 38,387 set by fellow Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

James is a rare example of a player jumping directly from high school to NBA superstardom. It’s a path he wouldn’t have been able to take under the current collective bargaining rules, which require players to be 19 years old and at least 1 year out of high school to be eligible for the NBA Draft.

Conventional wisdom says that he would still have eventually caught and passed Abdul-Jabbar and claimed the record even if he’d have had to delay his entry into the league by a year. He’s still at or near the top of his game at the age of 38.

But it’s fun to speculate on how things might have turned out had he been forced to spend a 1-and-done season in college.

It’s a game people around basketball have been playing since James was a teenager.

“I remember him having a presser at the ABCD Camp before his senior year in high school,” Sporting News columnist and Big Ten Network analyst Mike DeCourcy recalled. “He announced the list of schools that were his finalists. We were laughing. It was like sitting there listening to George Carlin. We knew the deal. We knew it wasn’t happening.”

It was so well known that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo didn’t bother wasting any time recruiting him.

“I saw him as a freshman and realized he ain’t going to college,” Izzo told interviewer Graham Bensinger in 2022.

But what if he had? Where might he have gone?

He was asked that question directly last year as part of an interview on ESPN’s Bird-Taurasi Show.

“You can’t say Ohio State, because we know you’re a Buckeye through and through. What college would you have gone to,” former WNBA star Diana Taurasi asked.

“In a different world, and this is going to ruffle a lot of feathers,” James said, “it would have been between Duke and North Carolina.”

Imagine how that choice might have added to or altered a rivalry already considered the best in all of sports. Better yet, imagine how different the course of history might have been had he decided to stay close to his beloved Ohio home?

It’s at least worth a closer look. So let’s hop into the Wayback Machine and explore the possibilities if  LeBron James decided to spend the 2003-04 season in college.


James developed a close bond with now-retired Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski during their time together with the U.S. Olympic team. But he was an adult and a fully-established NBA superstar by the time that relationship was formed.

The dynamic would have been completely different had they crossed paths at an earlier stage of James’ career. Instead of being respected equals at the top of their respective professions, Coach K would have been more of a mentor or father figure to a teenage James.

But that wouldn’t have mattered, in the opinion of former Blue Devil and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.  “He would have fit in great.

“LeBron is a great teammate and maybe one of the best passers to ever live, so it would never have been about him, even though he would have garnered all the attention,” Bilas said. “It would have been similar to when Zion (Williamson) was at Duke. After he blew up, they experienced it a little bit. But not to the extent LeBron would have been. He’d have been an even bigger deal.”

The Blue Devils were already loaded during that 2003-04 season.

Stocked with a roster that included 6 future NBA players, including JJ Redick, Luol Deng and Shelden Williams, they went 31-6 and advanced to the Final Four. They ended up losing to eventual national champion UConn by a point in a game decided by a no-call on a drive by Redick, who was only a sophomore at the time, with 11.6 seconds remaining.

Had James been on the floor in that situation, there’s a good chance he would have the ball. At 6-8 and 240 pounds, there’s a good chance he would have been able to play through the contact of UConn’s Emeka Okafor and scored – perhaps even drawing an and-1.

There’s also a chance that with James commanding so much attention, Redick would have more uncontested looks from 3, rendering a late-game no-call moot.

Who knows? With James playing for a college team surrounded by so much NBA-caliber talent, his Blue Devils could potentially have become the 1st team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to finish a season undefeated.

“He would have been the best player,” Bilas said of James. “He would have been the National Player of the Year and he probably would have been the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.

“If you asked those questions when he was in high school, maybe there’d be some mystery to this. But there’s not a lot of mystery knowing what we know now.”


As much of an impact as James might have had for Duke in 2003-04, his influence would have been even more profound had he chosen to play his 1 college season 8 miles up the road in Chapel Hill.

Roy Williams had just returned to his alma mater from Kansas to clean up the mess created by his predecessor Matt Doherty and was in Year 1 of a rebuild with a core of players who won a national championship in Year 2.

As it was, Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Jackie Manuel managed to finish 19-11 in 2003-04 and get the Tar Heels back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 3 years. They won an opening round game against Air Force before falling to 3rd-seeded Texas at Denver’s Pepsi Center. Rival Duke was in the same region, but their potential Elite 8 showdown never materialized.

Adding James to the mix would have made UNC a much tougher out in March. Assuming, that is, if anyone would have been capable of knocking that team out.

All-American center and current team radio analyst Eric Montross, a member of UNC’s 1993 title team, is hesitant to proclaim that the Tar Heels would have won the national championship with James in the lineup. 

But he would have loved to have seen how far that team could have gone. 

“When I think about LeBron, regardless of what his high school instruction was like, being in a position to soak up all the good instruction that the coaching staff (at UNC) could have given him,” Montross said. “I think it would have been really fun to see.”

Montross believes that James would have gotten more out of a season playing for Williams, or Krzyzewski for that matter, than just the opportunity to cut down a net and get a head start on his collection of championship rings.

“No matter how advanced his physical body might have been at that age, he still would have been a freshman in a man’s game. Even in college,” Montross said. “That’s what’s exciting thinking about that scenario, to see one of the greats in an environment where he’s learning from someone who’s a great coach. 

“What that might have turned into, we’ll never know. Obviously he got to the pinnacle of the game and is still there. But surely that would have meant something.”

Ohio State

Turasi’s assumption that the Buckeyes would have been James’ obvious college choice makes sense. A native of Akron, he often refers to himself as a huge Ohio State fan and he can be seen from time-to-time on the sideline for Buckeyes football games wearing a No. 23 jersey. He also has an honorary stall in Ohio State’s basketball locker room.

But DeCourcy, who has covered 32 Final Fours during his award-winning career, isn’t as convinced it would have been a slam dunk. He believes that the surrounding talent – or lack thereof – on a team that eventually went 14-16 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten under coach Jim O’Brien would have led James to look elsewhere.

Unless, as he has done several times during his NBA career, he could have a hand in picking his teammates. 

“What I think is that he would not have gone to Ohio State alone,” DeCourcy said. “There would have to have been more good players to come with him, whether it was Chris Paul or someone else. And there weren’t that many good players in that class, which is part of the problem.”

Tony Stockman, a serviceable 6-1 junior guard who transferred from Clemson was the best player on the 2003-04 Buckeyes. Terence Dials was a 6-9 sophomore forward and JJ Sullinger was a 6-5 sophomore guard. All averaged in double figures that season. None of them made it to the NBA.

“They didn’t really have a point guard on that team, so LeBron solves that problem,” DeCourcy said. “Tony Stockman was a pretty good perimeter shooter and with the looks he would have gotten with LeBron as his teammate, would probably have improved his percentage. 

“Terence Dials was a big guy who could defend, rebound and convert inside and again, he would have had attention drawn away from him. And JJ Sullinger could really drive the basketball. He would have fit well with LeBron, because it’s always been good for LeBron to have a secondary attacker.”

James would undoubtedly have elevated that Buckeyes team. But as was the case with his early days with the Cleveland Cavaliers, there’s only so much 1 player – even 1 of the top 2 of all time – can do by himself.

“That’s the thing I don’t think people realize about LeBron,” DeCourcy said. “He took some of the worst teams ever and made them relevant. I think he would have made them a contender, even though the talent wasn’t there in general to be outstanding.”


Don’t laugh.

The thought of the leading scorer in NBA history playing a season of college ball for the hometown Zips might seem absurd now. But keep in mind that James has always had a deep love for his hometown. He’s still just a kid from Akron, after all. He still owns a home in Summit County and continues to do charitable work benefiting the community there.

It wouldn’t have been out of the question to think he’d at least consider playing for his hometown college. 

Not only did his high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, play its home games in Akron’s arena. Two of his teammates with the Irish – classmates Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce – signed to play for the Zips in 2003-04.

“That was a really good group that had a great future ahead of them,” said Dan Hipsher, Akron’s coach at the time. “They were winners.”

Akron went just 13-15 (7-11 Mid-American Conference) that season. By the time Travis and Joyce were seniors, the team won 26 games and played in the NCAA Tournament. With James in the equation, there’s a realistic chance the Zips could have lapped the field in the MAC and gotten into the tourney right away.

Once there, James could have become his generation’s answer to Larry Bird at Indiana State by leading a small school in his hometown to the Final Four. 

“It would have been a dream,” Hipsher said. “Having him would have turned a mid-major into a high major. It would have been like Bird or David Robinson at Navy. You have a guy like that and you become a Top 25 team.”

The bottom line

James has often said that his decision to skip college and go right to the NBA was driven by finances. And he doesn’t regret making it. But he has also expressed a twinge of sadness over missing out on the college experience.

It’s an experience UNC’s Montross said goes beyond the rivalries, frat parties and March Madness. 

“In our basketball museum, there’s a Chicago Bulls championship ring on display,” he said. “It’s one that Michael (Jordan) gave Coach (Dean) Smith after every championship they won. He did it because he believed that without his time at Carolina, he would not have been as good as he was.

“When you think about the impact of a college coach on a terrific young player, that reflection may give us some insight into what it might have been like had LeBron experienced a great coach in college even for a year.”

As much fun as it is to speculate on where James might have played had done that, there’s an even more juicy scenario to consider.

What if he wouldn’t have played basketball at all?

To hear James talk, it wasn’t an implausible option.

“If I would’ve had a better QB, I might’ve continued to play football,” he said on Monday Night Football’s “ManningCast” in 2021. “I took way too many hits.”

He wasn’t joking. As a tight end during his first 2 years of high school, he caught 103 passes for 2,065 yards and 23 touchdowns and was ranked as the No. 1 football prospect in Ohio. He had the height and skill to outjump defenders for catches and the strength to run them over once he got the ball in his hands.

Although it’s never been verified, James claims to have been offered contracts by both the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.

Even if that’s the case, no one can argue that he made the right choice by sticking to basketball or  choosing the NBA over a season in college. Except maybe those at Duke, UNC, Ohio State and anyone else with dreams of what might have been had King James played for their school.