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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Hype Wagon Is Out of Control

January 06, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

The endless hype swirling around LeBron James, anointed the best young basketball player since Michael Jordan, is a result of a media and technology frenzy, where the click of a mouse spreads news faster than word of mouth.

In this era of the 500-channel television, the focus of high school sports is changing in ways few could have imagined.

Just eavesdrop in the bleachers, the hallways, the parking lot and listen to what teenagers, their friends and parents are talking about. They're debating Nike vs. Adidas, discussing $20-million shoe contracts and wondering which school has the coolest sweats. It's all about glamour and style.

Gary McKnight, boys' basketball coach at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, was trying to explain at a news conference at Lawry's in Beverly Hills after a prime-rib lunch, the phenomena of 1.67-million television viewers tuning in to watch James on ESPN2 last month.

"I think people out there love the innocence of high school basketball," he said with a straight face.

Nearby, one of the promoters who helped lure James to a sold-out Pauley Pavilion on Saturday with a $15,000 appearance fee paid to his high school team from Akron, Ohio, was whispering into a cell phone, "Get the limo ready."

It's absurd to treat teenage athletes like movie stars, but get used to it. The innocence of high school sports is disappearing, replaced by a celebrity value system that rewards those with unique skills no matter their age.

"This isn't the limit," warned Omar Wilkes, a Kansas-bound senior from Los Angeles Loyola who held a news conference in October to announce his college decision. "As athletes keep getting bigger and better, so will the attention. These are changing times."

People want to be entertained. They navigate through hundreds of niche channels on cable and satellite TV. They use powerful search engines on the Internet to find everything they want.

Covering teenage sports prodigies offers drama, suspense and curiosity. It produces good TV ratings, thousands of Web hits and in the case of James, packed arenas. After giving the nation another two-hour dose Saturday night of the 6-foot-7 James, ESPN2 followed with a broadcast Sunday of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl from San Antonio that featured one of the nation's most sought-after high school quarterbacks, Chris Leak, revealing his college choice at halftime.

Leak, a 17-year-old from Independence High in Charlotte, N.C., threw for a national-record 185 touchdowns in his varsity career. He was offered a scholarship by Wake Forest as an eighth-grader. He detailed his recruiting trips in a diary on ESPN.com. Throughout the first half of the All-Star game, the TV announcers kept promoting Leak's impending decision, trying to build suspense. It was the perfect made-for-TV gimmick, with Leak an active participant.

Finally, Leak put an end to the charade. He read from a prepared statement and announced Florida as his college choice, disappointing the other finalists -- USC, Florida State, Iowa and Texas -- but allowing others to mercifully switch channels. Don't give Leak the Heisman Trophy for 2005 just yet.

Last February, running back Lorenzo Booker of Ventura St. Bonaventure announced his college choice live on ESPN. He picked Florida State over Notre Dame. A year later, he still hasn't played in a college game after using a redshirt season because he couldn't beat out the players ahead of him.

Whether Booker becomes an All-American remains to be seen. But he was the chosen one last year, built up by the Internet recruiting experts as the top prospect in the nation.

Now it's time to move on and discover the next teenage prodigy who's going to follow James and make the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The focus is turning to 13-year-old Freddy Adu, a soccer player from Maryland who moved to the United States from Ghana when he was 8.

Last month, Newsweek magazine proclaimed that Adu "looms as potentially America's first breakout international star and a future mainstay of U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams."

At 12, he led his club team to a national championship. He's training year-round with the U.S. under-17 national team in Florida. How many months will it be before Adu makes his debut on ESPN2? And what will happen when the media frenzy descends on him?

"I know a lot of people want media attention, but I don't know if they want that much," said D.J. Strawberry, a Maryland-bound basketball player from Mater Dei and the son of former major leaguer Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry knows what his father went through and saw this weekend what James is going through after playing against him.

"There's always going to be cameras in his face, autograph seekers in his face, media in his face," Strawberry said. "You're not going to stop it."

Such is life for a high school sports phenomenon in these strange times.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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