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Don't Kid Yourself

For 17-year-old LeBron James, the most-hyped high schooler to aim straight for the NBA, there is no commercial break

January 04, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

It's not the legs that go first any more, it's the innocence, which precedes them by decades.

At 15, LeBron James' illusions were already dwindling fast, his adolescence just begun, his childhood fleeting as a sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio, when he became the first 10th-grade most valuable player at the prestigious ABCD camp and was anointed as next big thing by Michael Jordan, a previous big thing.

Jordan invited him to his workouts in Chicago. Not that Jordan was impressed, but when James broke his wrist last summer Jordan sent him to his orthopedist and his personal trainer.

Just as fast, the infighting to get next to James zoomed to unprecedented heights, or depths.

His surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, on trial last summer for mortgage fraud, introduced into evidence a letter from Adidas' Sonny Vaccaro, confirming that the two men had met "to finalize the time frame that would be acceptable to the family for the submission of proposals" for a shoe contract.

As with Kobe Bryant -- and Jordan -- Vaccaro, who runs ABCD (some coincidence, huh?), arrived first. But Nike soon weighed in, with founder Phil Knight inviting James and the family to Beaverton, Ore., home of the Swoosh.

Vaccaro says James will get a $20-million deal. Adroitly signaling he's in play, LeBron became the first to attend both the Adidas and Nike camps last summer. Now, as his teammates don Adidas shoes, uniforms and warmups furnished by Vaccaro, James may break out his custom Nike sneakers with "King James" on the heels.

It may be risky to give a high school senior a separate-brand-with-royalties deal like Jordan's Jumpman. On the other hand, when Vaccaro worked for Nike, he got Knight to gamble on Jordan and that turned out OK.

When will this end? James is actually having a great time, but for everyone else the answer is: Not a moment too soon.

"To say that he hasn't changed, I wouldn't be telling the truth," St. Vincent-St. Mary Coach Dru Joyce said.

"He's changed, in that he's a little more guarded around people that he doesn't know, around the media. Seems like it's kind of strange but when the world hangs onto every word of a 17-year-old, that's a little tough for a 17-year-old.... But when he's with his friends and in our family unit, he's fine....

"Oh, yeah, I'm concerned because, hey, let's face it, there are a bunch of people who want to latch on and all of them don't have the best intentions or his best intentions at heart."

James is expected to join the fast lane officially this spring, as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. If he had been able to last spring, he'd have gone No. 1 then too, ahead of 7-foot-5 Yao Ming.

In the meantime, everyone wrangles for the favors of a golden child, whose life they're busy complicating.

NBA scouts were following him as a junior. Former Laker Ron Harper, who's from the area, drove Shaquille O'Neal down to sit in the bleachers in the St. Vincent-St. Mary gym. Bryant sent James a pair of red, white and blue sneaks. Cleveland Cavalier Coach John Lucas brought James in to work out with his team and was suspended for two games by the league, which also fined the Cavaliers $150,000.

Bad NBA teams, starting with the Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, are said to be positioning themselves (read: tanking) for the LeBron Derby but James himself is a taboo subject.

Said one GM after James' recent game on ESPN, "I don't want to get fined $100,000 but, oh boy."

The media are doing their own little war dance. Magazines vie to put James on the cover and cable TV picks up his games as St. Vincent-St. Mary "Scholastic Fantastic LeBron James Tour" wends its way from Philadelphia's Palestra, to tonight's game in Pauley Pavilion, to the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C.

An industry has sprung up around James, who's the only one working without getting paid, leading everyone to acknowledge that he's being exploited.

Of course, his courtiers -- pros, press, pitchmen, entrepreneurial school officials who'll bank an extra $100,000 for booking bigger venues and charging $75 for courtside -- say they're just doing their jobs and the problem is everyone else.

Unfortunately, they're all right.

The problem is the process, which is nakedly being shown for what it is: predatory, cold, beyond conscience and regulation.

Happily, or miraculously, James isn't merely enduring the hype, he's surfing it.

"This is real fun," he said after the Palestra game. "If you look at me on the court when I'm playing, I've got a smile on my face. Every time I get out there and play the game that I love, I'm going to have fun."

On the other hand, in a deal he won't fully understand for years, he just traded in his childhood for a job.

Boy in the Bubble

If James feeds off the attention, as his coach says he does, that's fortunate because it's dinner time and, at this level, you eat or you're on the menu.

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