LeBron James became a millionaire two weeks before his high school graduation when he inked an endorsement deal with Upper Deck that included a $1 million signing bonus.
But he earned bigger money six months earlier on a frigid night in December when he delivered in the most pressure-packed moment of his career to that point -- a game against No. 1-ranked Oak Hill Academy broadcast live on ESPN2. He finished with 31 points, 16 rebounds and 6 assists -- fairly standard for him in high school -- and somehow managed to exceed unprecedented expectations.
Before that moment, he was a curiosity. Afterward, he was a bona fide commodity. It was James' first truly game-changing moment.
He has had a few more since then, indeed, but few have been as indelible as Dec. 12, 2002. It was a huge event in James' life and a central feature in both a book and a documentary about his senior year of high school.
It was the first time ESPN had televised a high school basketball game in 13 years, wrapped with pregame and postgame coverage, a feature at halftime and the cover story of ESPN The Magazine that week.
Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, Bill Walton and Jay Bilas were on hand to call the game, which got more than 1.5 million viewers, the second most in ESPN2's history at the time. Many came to watch James fail, to flip the channel and declare him a product of hype. Instead, in the first half, James was slamming home dunks and throwing mind-numbing passes that elicited "Are you serious?" screams from Vitale.
The highlights that game created were replayed around the globe, and James' star went white hot. That evening was probably the basis for the seven-year, $100 million deal he got from Nike the following spring. James was always going to receive an impressive shoe deal, but after that night, competing companies decided they had to have him. Just three weeks later, for example, Nike founder Phil Knight flew to watch James in person to amp up the recruiting.
It wasn't the largest endorsement deal of all time, but that nine-figure wager from Nike (Reebok was right there with them in the bidding) on an 18-year-old before the NBA even held its draft lottery that year remains one of the most remarkable deals in the history of American sports. James changed the paradigm for what a basketball prodigy was, and there still hasn't been anyone quite like him since.
The list of James' accomplishments since entering the league is well known, but he's continuing to write his story and refine his legacy. In what portends to be a significant achievement, sometime next year James should become the first player in history to be in the top 10 all time in both points and assists. That's a distinction that will carry a great honor for him, as he has always wanted to be known as a playmaker and not just as a scorer. He has a chance to move into the top 50 all time in total rebounds next season as well. In the playoffs, he's already the all-time leader in scoring, second in steals and third in assists.
Counting stats can be a tribute to longevity, but James' game-changing career hasn't been just about volume. His actions off the court have set new standards and created new goals for so many of his peers, a form of respect in any profession.
Yes, "The Decision" broadcast was panned for its poor taste, but the concept has aged well. Players now routinely take control of announcing their big career decisions and craft essays to explain themselves. James' personal essay in Sports Illustrated when he returned to Cleveland in 2014 came four months before The Players' Tribune launched as a platform for professional athletes.
He was far from the first high-profile athlete to speak out politically, but James' willingness to put his voice behind social causes has encouraged numerous pros to follow. In 2012, when James and Dwyane Wade organized their Miami Heat teammates to pose for a team photo in hoodies after the death of Trayvon Martin, it changed the way NBA players used social media.
Ranking anyone in a category as nebulous as "game-changer" is inherently challenging because the games have so much nuance to them, and personality, talent and charisma intersect at so many angles. James has been called many things in his life and launched as many arguments as he has 3-point shots.
On this topic, though, there's little need for debate. James' status as a game-changer is undisputed.