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Promised Land

Moses Malone could tell LeBron James a thing or two, but the kid will have to learn for himself

June 26, 2003|J.A. Adande | Times Staff Writer

Moses Malone once stood in LeBron James' shoes -- only he wasn't paid $90 million to wear them.

Malone, one of the best rebounders in the history of the NBA and a member of the basketball Hall of Fame, was one of the first players to take the step James will complete in tonight's NBA draft, bypassing college to travel from high school straight to the pros.

James, the 18-year-old who just finished his senior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio, is the most celebrated. By the time his name is announced as the Cleveland Cavaliers' choice with the first pick in the draft -- only the second high school player to be drafted No. 1 overall, after Kwame Brown in 2001 -- he already will have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, played several nationally televised games and signed the richest shoe contract ever with Nike.

Malone awaits at the other end of the road now, having established the standard for success that all prep draftees should strive to meet.

But back in his rookie year with the ABA's Utah Stars in the 1974-75 season, fresh out of Petersburg High in Virginia, Malone was not an NBA champion. He was not a three-time most valuable player. He was not one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

"I was homesick," Malone said.

This isn't merely leaving the nest to land on a nearby branch. It's entering a new forest of challenges and experiences thrown at you without any preparation.

"Lifestyle, mental toughness, different type of players," Malone said. "High school is a different game, because everybody isn't stronger than you."

Malone averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds as a rookie, yet he still felt worn out playing in 83 games.

"In high school, I played like 25 games," Malone said. "I was homesick my first year. Once you get through that first year and you get through all your games, then you know how all these guys played. Then you know what you've gotta do."

And that's the lesson from two decades' worth of high school players who went straight to the NBA. From Malone to Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves to the newly crowned rookie of the year, Amare Stoudemire of the Phoenix Suns, the common refrain is that the NBA is something to be experienced, not talked about.

"We can give [James] all the advice in the world, but he's going to get it firsthand," Garnett said. "Believe that."

After Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby made the leap to the pros in the early 1970s, it would be 20 years until another high school player was drafted. That was Garnett, from Chicago's Farragut Academy, with the fifth pick by the Timberwolves in 1995. Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia) and Jermaine O'Neal (Eau Claire High in South Carolina) followed the next year. Fourteen more high school players have been drafted since.

It took Stoudemire a month to start registering under an alias at hotels, and to keep a watchful eye on the people in the lobbies.

Brown, the No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Wizards from Georgia's Glynn Academy in 2001, discovered a way to find fellow teenagers on the road: Ask the hotel concierge the directions to the nearest Dave & Buster's.

"The league is a thing where you've got to feel your way through it," Garnett said. "No one can prepare you. You talk to a lot of different guys but it's on-the-job training. Until you live it, it's totally different.

"I learned how to be more ambitious. I learned how to be confident. I learned how to believe in others. But I also understood that no one wants it for you. You've got to want it for yourself. That's probably the biggest thing. You've got to want it for yourself."

But how many people will want a part of James? One possible pitfall of his selection by the Cavaliers is that it might be impossible to escape all of his hometown hangers-on.

"Entourages get broken down as you go," Garnett said. "It gets smaller and smaller. You have a group of people that you trust. As you go, the [other ] people are exposed. The ones that have agendas are exposed. If you're smart, you let them go. It usually works itself out at the end."

Bryant, the son of former professional basketball player Joe Bryant, wanted the NBA and all that came with it from an early age. It was "pure coincidence," he said, that he came into the league a year after Garnett. Just a matter of birth dates.

From the first time he wore his Laker uniform, Bryant acted as if he were wearing a three-piece suit. After games, when his older teammates prepared for a night on the town, Bryant could be seen leaving the Forum with videotapes of that night's game or upcoming opponents in his hand.

"You realize this is your profession," Bryant said. "This is your job. This is what you want to do. So you be professional about it. You do it to the best of your ability. It's not about going out and partying, this, that and the other. You're a working man. Be a professional.

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