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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

A Real Swoosh-Buckler

May 23, 2003|Mark Heisler

LeBron James just got a sneaker hookup for $90 million, almost eight times the size of his $12-million NBA contract, and a trading card deal that's supposed to be the biggest for any rookie in sports history.

What else is there?

Oh yes, the actual career....

In the hype that won't stop happening, the NBA moved its lottery to see who got this prospect of prospects to prime time and, heartwarmingly enough, the winners of the LeBron Invitational were none other than his hometown, downtrodden Cleveland Cavaliers.

The draft is June 26, but dispensing with the usual charade, the Cavaliers made no secret of who they'll take. "To have this opportunity to be able to add a player that will impact this organization the way [James] will, it's just a great, great time for this organization and a big step forward for us," General Manager Jim Paxson said via conference call.

"I come to work each day and try to do the best job that I can but sometimes luck does play into it and tonight we got lucky."

Of course, there is a little matter of what the Cavaliers, and Nike (which must have been thrilled to learn where its new $90-million spokes-teen will be for at least the next five seasons) can expect right away.

Even in an age in which preps have proven they can make the jump, the transition takes years, even for the budding superstars among them.

As a rookie, Kevin Garnett averaged 10.7 points in 28 minutes. Even playing for a rebuilding Minnesota team, he didn't get to 20 points a game until season No. 4.

In Kobe Bryant's first season, he averaged 7.6 points in 15.5 minutes. He didn't become a starter until season No. 3.

As a Toronto rookie, Tracy McGrady averaged 7.0 points in 18 minutes. He didn't become a starter until his third season and was so upset about it, he left that summer as a free agent and went home to Orlando.

The Cavaliers understand this, or as owner Gordon Gund noted, "I think what we all need to be aware of, he's young and there's a big jump from high school to the pros and I hope everybody will allow that time to happen so he has time to mature to develop as a player and as part of a team."

Nevertheless, how this will play, in the case of a young player who has been publicized so much more than any of the other young players, remains to be seen.

"We will have to help him but I think it's a nice problem to have," said Paxson.

"If you look at what's happened through his high school career, and all the choices he has had to make, even over this last week, I feel pretty confident that we'll have an infrastructure in place that will help this young man be able to make the transition.

"Having said all that, he wants to be a great player. I think he understands to do that, you've got to be focused on what you're doing."

Actually, James' choices were getting wilder, and being scrutinized ever more closely.

After he accepted then-Cavalier coach John Lucas' invitation to work out with them last summer, the NBA suspended Lucas for two games and fined the team.

James' unemployed mother, Gloria, gave him a $50,000 sport utility vehicle. The Ohio prep ruling body suspending him for accepting two retro jerseys valued at $845, before it was overruled in court.

Of course, James' high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, 40 miles south of Cleveland, also moved his games into larger arenas, barnstorming the country on what was promoted as the "Scholastic Fantastic LeBron Tour" and selling TV rights to local cable networks, as well as ESPN and YES.

Even for a hype two years in the running, this was a socko ending.

The thing kicked into high gear over the 2002 NBA All-Star break in Philadelphia when many of the league's GMs drove to nearby Trenton to see James' team play Carmelo Anthony's Oak Hill Prep powerhouse in a Christmas tournament.

Oak Hill won but James was spectacular. NBA scouts were all but unanimous: If LeBron -- then a prep junior -- had been in last spring's draft, he'd have gone ahead of the eventual top choice, Yao Ming.

Anthony then looked like a small power forward who'd have to get bigger and stronger if he was to play inside, or hone his skills if he were to move outside. He subsequently slimmed down and became a high-scoring small forward at Syracuse, leading the Orangemen to the NCAA title.

James was already dazzling: a full-sized wing player at 6-6, 230, with explosive jumping ability, a high skill level, a rare feel for the game and an unselfish approach, even while playing with teammates who weren't in his class.

"Anthony has progressed immensely," said Orlando GM John Gabriel, who saw them at Trenton. "LeBron was more of a finished package....

"I would take LeBron. He has all that star quality."

Last winter, speculation on what the sneaker companies might offer James was around the $25 million that Adidas' Sonny Vacarro kept throwing out, which would have been crazy enough.

In 1984, Michael Jordan got an unheard-of $1 million for a long-term deal with Nike.

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