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COMMENTARY

Many at Fault in James Case

February 02, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

If you want to know who's to blame in the LeBron James mess, as an ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor bleated Saturday morning, the short answer is: "Who isn't?"

Let's start with ESPN, which is hardly a detached innocent in this story, after it jumped into the hype with both feet, adding telecasts of James' games as fast as it could count the bumper ratings and secure the rights, pooh-poohing the debate about propriety.

The problem is, ESPN was just doing what it does, as was everyone else, networks, cable companies, agents, the media, relatives and friends. This means no one will feel responsible, nothing will be done to make sure this can never happen again, and some day, it'll happen again, but worse.

This wasn't a tragedy, because in the end nothing will have been hurt except some feelings. James will still go No. 1 in this spring's NBA draft, the money tap will open legally and all of this will be a messy moment in time.

What this was, was a farce. If you can tell me how the world got so crazy that two "retro" uniform tops could be valued at $845 in the first place, I'll tell you how we can turn this thing back around.

In the meantime, all the principals in this story are going to be bashed for the sins of all of us.

Here they are, in what I would argue was reverse order of actual responsibility.

* LeBron James -- He's poor, he's 18, the world spreads itself out before him like a banquet table and starts passing him the delicacies and he's supposed to know better?

* Gloria James -- As outrageous as she was, she's just a mom, if a particularly exuberant one who yells, "What've you got for me, playa?" to Nike's Phil Knight at Magic Johnson's charity game last summer. She delivered LeBron when she was 17, never had anything and, it's abundantly clear, is still a child herself.

One also wonders what kind of a world this is when an unemployed mom can give her child a $50,000 Hummer (with not one or two but three TVs), then produce papers showing it was purchased with a proper loan, which someone made, despite the fact she had no collateral. This makes it OK with the Ohio prep ruling body ... which then busts the kid for jerseys.

* Coach Dru Joyce and the St. Vincent-St. Mary's High administration -- They didn't do James any favors by scheduling games all over the country, but if you haven't noticed, the days when prep teams just went by bus and the only televised games were in the state tournament are long over.

Teams have been crossing the nation to play for years. A Florida school, Miami Christian, just crossed the country three times in three weeks, playing in Hawaii, going home, flying back here to play Fairfax, going home and returning a week later to play Santa Ana Mater Dei. But no one had ever seen a hype like this one, and the SVSM people just got sucked in.

* The entourage -- This is a big favorite. Who can resist trashing a bunch of "yes" men, teen-aged and older, with dollar signs in their eyes?

As if someone expected them to pass up the gravy train when it stopped in their neighborhood? All stars these days are surrounded by sycophants, otherwise known as friends, relatives, personal assistants, agents, bodyguards, et al, or as they're known on the street, "my peeps."

I find it hard to indict the peeps, however, since everyone else acts as if they want to be in the entourage, selling the stars everything at cost -- cars, suits, furniture, etc.

* The media -- It was a show people wanted to see, which is what the networks are in business to provide. It was a legitimate, if revolting story, so the media couldn't duck it, which, of course, just made it bigger and more revolting.

Imagine the "SportsCenter" anchor asking his correspondent in Akron, bundled up and standing in the snow outside the high school, if Joyce believes the media are to blame.

Now, imagine the shot you don't see -- a whole line of camera crews and supporting personnel from the other networks -- lined up outside St. Vincent-St. Mary's, as if it were the White House.

* The bird-dog industry -- These are your basic AAU coaches, tournament organizers and newsletter publishers. Once, they existed to service the college game (in which even the most honorable men, such as Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski, wrote fawning letters to 15-year-olds) by identifying young prospects. Then the best players started bypassing college to go directly to Go and collect their millions, making the business that much crazier and more corrupt.

* The sneaker companies -- Now here are some guys who, as Desi said, got some 'splaining to do. Not that they ever do.

You'd think they could operate their billion-dollar businesses without running around bribing every prep star and his high school with their equipment. Not that you should hold your breath waiting for reforms. The companies have been exposed in scandal after scandal, but if they ever slowed down, it wasn't because of shame but the economic downturn.

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