The King Holds Court LeBron James: High school star on another level

Posted: December 16, 2002

CLEVELAND — With dozens of cameras trained on him, a crowd of 11,523 spectators focused on his every move, and at least 10 NBA scouts dissecting every play, high school basketball sensation LeBron James threw down a thunderous dunk Thursday night, then watched as the real show started.

James tilted his head back slightly, and, like a minister at the pulpit, opened his arms toward the rafters. He let the cheers and bright lights of the Cleveland State University Convocation Center wash over him.

Known as King James to promoters and 'Bron to his friends, James, the player many say is the best to ever compete at the high school level, has garnered national attention since his freshman season three years ago. But this season, the frenzy surrounding James has soared off the charts.

That frenzy arrives in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Last week, a game between James' team, St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio, and Oak Hill Academy, of Mouth of Wilson, Va., was telecast nationally on ESPN2. James has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine and the front page of USA Today. He is that big.

"He is one of those young teenage phenoms - like a Venus or Serena Williams or an Alex Rodriguez or someone like a Kobe Bryant - who is so rare and so unique and gifted," college basketball hypemaster Dick Vitale said.

"People talk about hype, but you can't hide talent. You can't hide greatness."

*

On Sunday, St. Vincent-St. Mary will play Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion High at the Palestra as part of what has become known as the "LeBron James Tour." The game is scheduled just eight days before James' 18th birthday.

On the court, James wears a green headband and sparkling emerald-green adidas sneakers. Those shiny sneakers match the green in the uniforms James' team wears - outfitted by the same athletic apparel company. He wears jersey No. 23, just like his onetime hero - and current confidant - Michael Jordan. Two tattoos decorate James' arms.

James, who stands 6-foot-8, jokes about his ears being too big. But there is nothing imperfect about his play. Some say his game features elements reminiscent of the great ones - Jordan's midair flair, Bryant's style, and Magic Johnson's creativity. If that is the case, James' future paychecks will be as golden as his team jersey.

But before James departs for the NBA - it is a virtual certainty he will not stop for college - he must negotiate his final year at St. Vincent-St. Mary, a small Roman Catholic school of 600 students. It is there, and on basketball courts across the country, that James lives his life front and center.

The spotlight that shines on James has been both cruel and kind, spectacular as fireworks one night, blinding and intrusive the next. James, and those around him, are learning quickly about life in that spotlight.

Magazine stories have chronicled his life on food stamps and in Akron's subsidized housing. They have examined his close relationship with the boisterous mother who gave birth to him at age 16. And they have reported on the intrigue surrounding his surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, who, after pleading guilty, was sentenced to three years in jail last week for money-laundering and forgery.

In northeast Ohio, everything James does is news.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper runs a James Journal. Local television stations report on nearly every one of his games, and sports-talk radio debates his future in the NBA.

His home games are being played at bigger arenas than his high school gym and are sold on pay-per-view here for $7.95 a game. That has raised debate about whether James is being exploited by the school's contract with the cable company.

The frenzy surrounding James has become too much, the school says. One-on-one interviews with James are no longer permitted, due to the overwhelming number of requests. Last week, the cover story in ESPN Magazine portrayed James' family as convicts and his coach as a hypocrite.

"It's unfair of us as adults to hang on every word of a 17-year-old," coach Dru Joyce II said last week, sitting in his small office off the unspectacular school gymnasium.

"When you think about that, it kind of makes you question what that says about us. I'm hoping I've got more of a life than to genuflect over everything a 17-year-old says."

With a coat wrapped around a replica of her son's jersey, James' mother, Gloria James, declined to answer questions as she left the arena Thursday night. Her son had dazzled, scoring 31 points in a prime-time performance.

"No, I don't do interviews," she said, "because they lie."

The only one who still warms to the spotlight seems to be LeBron James.

"I want to be on the cover of all the magazines," James said at a news conference prior to the showdown with Oak Hill. "I want all the spotlight. If I'm in the spotlight, that means my team is in the spotlight. I'm having real good fun."

Whether a teen should jump from high school to the NBA is hardly even a point of debate anymore, since so many have made that leap.

If James is not ready for the next level, nobody is saying. It has been reported that the U.S. Olympic team, coached by the 76ers' Larry Brown, may ask James to represent the country in Athens in 2004. But one source said that will not happen.

Germantown Academy played against James and the Irish last season when GA featured three Division I college prospects. As much as GA coach Jim Fenerty believes in players attending college first, he said James is the exception.

"LeBron is the most talented I've ever seen play," said Fenerty, who also saw Kobe Bryant play at Lower Merion. "He's very unselfish, and he sees the floor extremely well."

Others say the expectations on James are too great, that it is unrealistic to expect him to have an immediate NBA impact.

"There is no way he will live up to the hype," said one general manager who asked not to be identified. "It's unfair, because no one - not Michael, Kobe, [Kevin] Garnett - has had an immediate impact on the league, with the exception of Shaq."

One NBA scout who spoke on the condition of anonymity said James' strong, chiseled body - he weighs 240 pounds - will help at the next level. What Joyce worries about are the temptations James will face as a multimillionaire in the NBA.

"I don't know a whole lot about the NBA lifestyle off the court," he said. "I just hear rumors about it. That's not the lifestyle I'd want to put anyone in, let alone a 17-year-old."

Even when the school issued a no-autograph policy for students, James was not the one who asked for it.

"LeBron doesn't care," said Patty Burdon, public relations director at St. Vincent-St. Mary. She works mostly with the basketball team. "To him, these are the kids he's gone to school with his whole life."

Loose and easygoing, James, who enjoys playing practical jokes, does not shy away from celebrity; he embraces it.

"I'm out all the time," he said. "Me and my friends, we're out going to basketball games, going to movies. If it messed me up, I'd go to school, go to practice, and go home.

"But I chose this life and there's no way I can get away from it. And I'm not trying to get away from it."

Many people ask what keeps James grounded - or if he is. Reports mention his two-way pagers, the cell phones on his hip, his gold Lincoln Navigator, and his meetings with rapper Jay-Z.

But he still adheres to the school dress code, and during games, he covers his tattoos - one that reads King James, the other dedicated to his mother - with bandages, as per team rules.

James has a girlfriend, maintains a "B" average, has taken the Scholastic Assessment Test and is a member of the school's "merit roll." He was an all-state wide receiver on the football team last year, before deciding not to play as a senior.

The team will not miss a single day of school to play basketball or travel this season. The same boys he played with as a fourth grader are still his best friends. With James the headliner, they don't mind singing backup.

"Enjoying the ride," senior Sian Cotton said.

James hopes the lights will stay bright and focused on him.

"This attention, I brought it [on] myself," he said. "I knew if I was working hard, it was going to come. If I keep doing what I'm doing right now, I'll be successful at what I'm doing."

And he'll keep shining.

Contact Shannon Ryan at 610-313-8097 or sryan@phillynews.com.

LeBron James' High School Statistics

PTS. REB. ASST. STEALS FG%

2002-03 22.3 14.3 6.3 3.3 43.3

2001-02 28.0 8.9 6.0 3.0 56.5

2000-01 25.3 7.4 5.5 3.7 58.4

1999-2000 18.0 6.2 3.6 3.1 51.6

(2002-03 statistics through Thursday)

If You Go

What: Scholastic Play-By-Play Network Classic.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: The Palestra.

The lineup: Penn Charter vs. Simon Gratz, 1 p.m.; Camden Catholic vs. St. Joseph's Prep, 2:45 p.m.; Cardinal Dougherty vs. Chester, 4:30 p.m.; Strawberry Mansion vs. St. Vincent-St. Mary, 7 p.m.

Tickets: Online, tickets are available at www.scholasticpbpnetwork.com. By phone, tickets may be purchased by calling 215-546-1608 or 1-800-477-6849. Tickets also are available at the Scholastic Play-by-By Network, 1420 Walnut St., Philadelphia, and at the Palestra box office on 33d Street.

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