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LAKERS VS. CLEVELAND Tonight at Staples Center, 7:30
p.m., FSN

No Intro Needed

LeBron James ready to burst onto the NBA scene, and he seems prepared for the hype

October 16, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Multimillionaire, global icon, the NBA's greatest draw since Michael Jordan ...

What's left for LeBron James to do?

Of course, there's his actual NBA career, which hasn't started yet. Not that this story has gotten ahead of itself, but at halftime of the Cleveland Cavaliers' exhibition opener here, he has two points, having missed every shot longer than a dunk. One week and two more exhibitions later, he's averaging 8.0 points and shooting 33%.

There are 20,862 people in the Palace for his debut. A Detroit Piston official estimates for a normal exhibition against the Cavaliers, they'd get about 3,000, which means 7,000 season-ticket holders would have stayed home.

The national media has turned out in force too, giving a breathless quality to everything, however mundane. When the team bus pulls into the arena before the morning shoot-around, four TV cameramen rush around to the front to capture ... James getting off a bus!

Cavalier publicist Bill Evans, setting up the press scrum, asks: "Besides Paul [Silas, the coach] and LeBron, does anyone want any of our other players?"

Says someone: "Do you have other players?"

This story now embodies the word "hype" as it feeds on itself before James has done a thing, but it's not, as skeptics say, the invention of the league, the media or the sneaker companies. Believe this: If any of them could actually create such a phenomenon, there would be more of them.

Something this big can only flow from the public's response, which in this case is huge. Advance ticket sales already project the Cavaliers as the league's second-biggest road draw this season, after the Lakers. Nike signed James to a $90-million deal, twice as much as Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson got in their first sneaker deals, combined. Coca-Cola signed James to a $12-million deal, bigger than Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick's.

Before James embarked on his first NBA season, he had a Jordan/David Beckham-type off-season, making a presentation with Julius Erving at the ESPY awards, dominating the summer league in Orlando, Fla., where they moved his games from the Magic's practice facility into the sold-out T.D. Waterhouse Centre, dominating the Shaw summer league outside Boston, going back home to Akron, Ohio, where Nike had arranged for Greg Anthony and an ESPN crew to follow him as he talked to kids at his old school, Margaret Pack Elementary.

Only one person seems to understand how absurd it gets and it's the golden child himself. Notes James, sitting in a classroom at Pack, in an off-hand, on-camera comment to a friend:

"I'm telling kids what to do and I'm, like, only 18."

Whatever he is, he's changing the ground rules, or confirming the new ones.

Commissioner David Stern tried for years to get a rule discouraging young players from leaving school early. It wasn't only idealism, it was good business, recalling the days when the NBA reaped promotional windfalls from the arrival of players such as Duke's Grant Hill, who was a star after going to the NCAA Final Four three times.

Now, along comes James, who's already a bigger sensation than Hill ever was -- commercially -- without benefit of college or Final Four appearances.

Coincidentally or not, Stern now downplays his opposition to the Children's Crusade, even as he gushes over James' impact. At last spring's NBA Finals, asked the annual question about the imbalance between West and East, Stern noted: "For myself, these things are ebbs and flows. Let's see how LeBron James and Darko Milicic add to the fabric of the East."

Because the Cavaliers went 17-65 last season, it might be a tad early to expect an 18-year-old to gather them up and redress the balance of power. Nevertheless, James' impact -- commercially -- suggests to Stern that his league has still got it.

"I am stunned by the emergence of the fanfare around LeBron James," Stern said recently. "Here we have two of the most sophisticated marketers in Nike and Coca-Cola, who have invested tens of millions of dollars in a market-place investment that this professional basketball player is a professional icon....

"It's great for LeBron, but it says wonders about the NBA on the global stage."

Of course, this all adds up to monumental pressure on the prodigy, but he's comfortable at the center of the hurricane that follows him everywhere, including to Staples Center for an exhibition against the Lakers tonight.

"This?" he said after his exhibition debut, pushed up against a wall by a 50-person gaggle of cameras, microphones and tape recorders.

"I handle this. This goes on every day all day. It's not hard for me."

Just wait.

The Legend and the Kid

"They [young players] get so spoiled so early.... The thing that I think separates him from so many players, he truly respects the game. That's why I'm so excited about him coming in the league.

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