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James' Season Ends With a Photo Finish

Celebrated high school player ruled ineligible after posing for pictures in exchange for two jerseys worth $845.

February 01, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

The "Scholastic Fantastic LeBron James Tour," featuring one of the most celebrated players in the history of high school basketball, will not appear soon at an arena near you -- or anywhere, for that matter.

James' high school career, pending a possible appeal, came to a sudden and unceremonious end Friday when athletic officials declared the Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary High standout ineligible for the remainder of his senior season after he accepted free sports jerseys from a clothing store.

According to an investigation completed by the Ohio High School Athletic Assn., James was given two retro jerseys worth a combined $845 last Saturday in exchange for posing for pictures that were to be hung on the store's walls.

By accepting the jerseys, replicas of those worn by former Chicago Bear running back Gale Sayers and former Washington Bullet center Wes Unseld, James violated OHSAA rules stipulating that athletes can't receive free apparel worth more than $100.

James also violated association rules stating that an athlete forfeits amateur status by "capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value."

"In talking with the store's personnel, I was able to confirm that on Jan. 25 the merchant gave clothing directly to LeBron at no cost," OHSAA Commissioner Clair Muscaro said in a statement. "This is a direct violation of the OHSAA bylaws on amateurism, because, in fact, LeBron did capitalize on athletic fame by receiving these gifts."

James reportedly will appeal the decision. Gloria James, his mother, told Associated Press through attorney Fred Nance that the family was "deeply disappointed" with the ruling and was weighing its options.

"We're going to abide by the ruling," St. Vincent-St. Mary Coach Dru Joyce told Associated Press. "We think that maybe there are some facts, that I don't know what they are, that could change things. But the bottom line is, that we're moving on as a team."

While the violations apparently ended the 6-foot-8 swingman's high school career, they did not hinder his prospects of becoming the top player selected in the June NBA draft.

"It won't affect his status one iota," said a scout for a Western Conference team. "Prior to this incident he was going to be the first pick in the draft, and now, he'll be -- guess what? -- the first pick in the draft.

"Let's face it, the NBA draft is about talent. Certainly, other factors come into play, but you're not talking about major character issues here. It's just bad judgment. He should have known better."

James' indiscretions will likely have larger repercussions on the high school level. Nationally top-ranked St. Vincent-St. Mary, which has five games remaining before the playoffs, must forfeit Sunday's victory over Akron Buchtel because James played after having compromised his amateur status. And the Fighting Irish (13-1) might no longer be favored in every game they play.

There is also the issue of whether subscribers to a pay-per-view service televising St. Vincent-St. Mary games in parts of Ohio will receive a partial refund because of James' absence. Attendance at Fighting Irish contests is almost certain to plummet, especially when the team plays at venues outside its home state.

Westchester Coach Ed Azzam, whose nationally ranked Comets are scheduled to play St. Vincent-St. Mary next Saturday in the PrimeTime Shootout in Trenton, N.J., said he was concerned the game might not be played in the wake of James' dismissal.

Azzam speculated that event organizers might blanch at the prospect of paying a hefty appearance fee to a Fighting Irish team devoid of its top draw.

St. Vincent-St. Mary was paid $15,000 last month to play Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Pangos Dream Classic at Pauley Pavilion.

"I don't even want to go to New Jersey," Trevor Ariza, Westchester's top player, said upon learning that James had been declared ineligible. "They're a good team still, but I don't know what beating them would mean."

Organizers of the PrimeTime Shootout did not return phone messages and officials at St. Vincent-St. Mary could not be reached.

James refused to comment on the jerseys Thursday at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards, where he was honored as the area's top high school athlete for the second consecutive year.

Recently, James has garnered more attention for his off-court behavior than for his playing ability. He became the subject of consternation among many in the high school basketball community last month when he began driving around a Hummer H2 equipped with three televisions and computer game hookups.

An OHSAA investigation into the vehicle concluded Monday, when Muscaro ruled that James would not lose his eligibility for accepting the vehicle from his mother, who had bought it as an 18th birthday present. Gloria James had provided the association with loan information.

James also made news by backing his sport utility vehicle into the car of an 88-year-old woman. There were no injuries, and James told the woman he would pay for the damage.

The brouhaha stirred growing debate about the pitfalls of teenage athletic stardom.

"I don't know if it sends up a red flag to other high school players because [James is] not a normal high school player," Azzam said. "There hasn't been anyone like him that I know of with that much attention."

The Western Conference scout said he wondered whether James was surrounding himself with the right people.

"He hasn't been getting the best leadership and all at 18 years old," the scout said. "But most 18-year-olds in those circumstances might have done worse things. As long as it's not drugs or anything of that nature, it doesn't raise a red flag.

"In some ways, this might have been good for him to wake up and realize that he is responsible for his actions."

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