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It Brings Feast Fit for a King

January 04, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

It was a luncheon fit for a head of state. The guests ate prime rib, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and Yorkshire pudding served from stainless-steel push carts while sitting in a finely appointed dining room.

The obsequious hosts delivered the requisite podium joke and piled on the praise. There was even free limousine service available afterward.

All this, to honor a high school basketball player.

The luncheon Friday at Lawry's in Beverly Hills was ostensibly held to recognize the eight teams playing in the Pangos Dream Classic today at Pauley Pavilion. But it probably wouldn't have been held -- and certainly at not such an opulent venue -- without LeBron James.

Already tabbed by many experts as the No. 1 pick in the June NBA draft, James is a 6-foot-7 swingman with limitless potential. James came to the Lawry's luncheon with his Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates to talk about their game against Santa Ana Mater Dei at 6:30 tonight.

The phenom hadn't even been served lunch before being interrupted (though he probably didn't mind since he was later seen leaving the restaurant toting a chicken sandwich and a strawberry milkshake from Burger King).

There was a request from a photographer for James to pose near the entrance of the restaurant.

"I need two minutes with him," the photographer told one of James' handlers.

"You've got a minute," James snapped back.

Still, James sat patiently during the session, insisting that his teammates be included in several of the pictures. It was the first of many interruptions during one day on a nationwide tour that will include stops in Philadelphia, North Carolina and New Jersey before the end of the season.

Yet, James seemed to be handling all the attention with aplomb.

"It's real fun for me," he said. "When it stops being fun, I won't play no more. This is great for me and my team. We're just enjoying the ride right now.

"If I didn't want to do this, I'd stay at home. And I'm out all the time."

James answered most of the questions lobbed his way with ease, especially when he was asked whether his diamond earrings were real.

"These are fake," said James, his heavy jewelry accentuating his gold Adidas warm-up outfit.

"They cost 25 cents each out of a gumball machine."

Money won't be an issue soon. James stands to make many millions more from his first shoe deal than his first NBA contract.

Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight joked with his star player, Minnesota-bound guard Wesley Washington, that this coming winter James will be a multimillionaire while Washington will be "wearing long johns in Minnesota." But Washington said he wasn't irritated that all the attention was being lavished on James and St. Vincent-St. Mary, which is 7-0 and No. 1 in the nation in at least one ranking.

"I don't think people think this is just 'The LeBron James Show,' " said Washington, who is averaging 14 points a game for the 15-1 Monarchs. "I think people understand there's a whole bunch of other talent here. There are like 15 or 20 guys here going Division I [in the four games today]."

Washington said he wouldn't be intimidated today because he had played on a team -- along with Mater Dei teammates Harrison Schaen and Trevante Nelson -- that defeated James' team to win the eighth-grade national Amateur Athletic Union title.

"It's just another great game," Washington said, "against another great player we've come across."

Only this player is good enough to command his own luncheon.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Boys' Basketball

What: Pangos Dream Classic.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

When: Today.

Schedule: Los Angeles Loyola vs. Lakewood Mayfair, 3 p.m.; Compton Centennial vs. Carson, 4:45 p.m.; Santa Ana Mater Dei vs. Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary, 6:30 p.m.; Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln vs. Vallejo, 8:15 p.m.

At stake: Probable NBA lottery pick LeBron James, a 6-foot-7 swingman, leads St. Vincent-St. Mary against Mater Dei in the featured game of the day. St. Vincent-St. Mary (7-0), which features James and two other players who have signed with NCAA Division I schools, is No. 1 in at least one national ranking. Mater Dei (15-1), led by Maryland-bound forward D.J. Strawberry and Minnesota-bound guard Wesley Washington, is ranked as high as No. 5 nationally and is No. 1 in The Times' rankings. In its other nationally televised appearance this season, St. Vincent-St. Mary defeated then-No. 1 Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy, 65-45, behind James' 31 points.

Tickets: Some upper-level seats are still available. The $10 admission is good for all four games. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster or at the Pauley Pavilion box office.

Television: Mater Dei vs. St. Vincent-St. Mary, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2.

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