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Turning Stars Into Dust

February 11, 2003

Isn't this fun, ruining the childhood of a basketball prodigy for entertainment's sake? Poor kid plays well, makes good. And we get to watch. LeBron James won't even be drafted into the pros until May, just before he's finished high school. At 17, the Ohio boy got a national magazine cover. At 18, national TV and newspaper exposure. His mom, who lives in public housing, got a loan without collateral to buy her boy a $52,000-plus Hummer with three TVs. Prime-time TV schedules are rejiggered to sell beer and trucks around his talent. This non-Akron paper printed 101 articles mentioning James. Pretty soon, society is likely to witness the downfall of another celebrity who got too rich too quick and then tut-tut while seeking the next falling star.

Big surprise that James isn't complaining about limos, banks of cameras, his phony entourage, athletic shoes embroidered with "King James," a legal system weighting justice scales in favor of playing time over punishment for accepting gifts. Let's be honest: American star-making is a disgusting, predatory process with fervent propagators and willing victims, each of whom makes scads of money and justifies it all because the public is curious. And we are. It's like "Murder on the Orient Express"; everyone sticks the knife in, but no one knows whose stab was fatal. So all can claim innocence, right?

James may be a phenomenal player, a nice guy, swell student, class joker, all that. But he's a kid. He should be worried about pimples and proms. He scored 52 points against mortal teens. But if ESPN and 200 media members weren't there, would it really matter? James hasn't done anything worth a penny of a $30-million shoe endorsement. It's all impatient potential.

If he's so great, there's time to prove it. Someone needs to ground this kid now for his own good -- and maybe ours. Maybe not his mom, a kid herself at LeBron's birth. Not his father, who's been absent. What about his private school, $t. Vincent-$t. Mary, which has done OK from this sudden celebrity? His coach? A lawyer? A real friend? Someone? Anyone?

What are we teaching this youngster -- and millions of others silently watching? The judge who restored his high school eligibility will be popular. His mother will get a house. Some shoe company gets a new Michael Jordan: "Run like LeBron." The NBA sells shirts and tickets. TV snags viewers. We get entertained. It all fits snugly. But maybe we, as a free society of individuals, need to go to our rooms one by one and think awhile about our need to follow, to fawn, to cheer, to pander, to bask and to shake our heads about all those other shallow people who do exactly the same.

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