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High School Sports
LeBron's the name, high school basketball is the phenom's game

Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Mike White, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

He's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He graced the front of ESPN The Magazine this week. Two shoe companies are willing to give him millions of dollars for his services. Basketballs with his autograph are selling on eBay for as much as $400. He has a bodyguard.

LeBron James has made the cover of the major sport magazines more often than some guys who are already in the NBA. (Associated Press)

This is the story of a basketball star. But this isn't about Michael, Shaq or Kobe. This is about a young man who wasn't old enough to drive little more than a year ago.

Welcome to the Life of LeBron.

LeBron James is a 17-year-old senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. He is a teenager with the body of an NBA veteran (6 feet 8 inches, 240 pounds) and the charisma of a pop star. He was a magazine cover boy before his senior class pictures were taken.

A star? Phenomenon is more like it. He is the most talked about high school athlete ever in America. Some call him King James, but it has gotten to the point where he has become a one-name wonder. Like Michael, Shaq and Kobe.

LeBron.

James is what coaches call the complete package. He can play any role on the floor and comprehends how the action is unfolding instantly. His strength, agility, jumping ability and peripheral vision set him apart. Spectators and scouts marvel at his passing skills, his ability to make his teammates better.

Tonight, James brings his act to Mellon Arena. St. Vincent-St. Mary will play New Castle High School in the middle game of Steel City Hoopla. Show time is 6 p.m. and tickets are going for $10 to $50. Two games involving top Western Pennsylvania teams also are part of the event. Chartiers Valley meets Aliquippa at 4 p.m. and Hempfield Area takes on Sto-Rox at 8. A youth-league game kicks off the day at 3 p.m.

Mellon Arena officials are hoping for a crowd of 8,000 or more. All eyes will be on James, the way he likes it.

"I love it," James said last week. "I want to be on all the magazines. I want all the spotlight. I'm not being selfish. If I'm in the spotlight, that means my team is in the spotlight, too. That's all I'm about, me and my team."

Pittsburgh is one stop on the LeBron tour this year. St. Vincent-St. Mary also will play at the Palestra in Philadelphia; UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles; Trenton, N.J.; the University of North Carolina; the University of Dayton; and Ohio State. The team played a game in Cleveland Thursday night that was nationally televised.

"He's a world tour," said Sonny Vaccaro of adidas Shoes and Sports Apparel. "The legend of LeBron has surfaced quicker than anyone in the history of sports. He has a biography before he even has a life."

Vaccaro is well-known to many Pittsburgh basketball junkies. Decades ago, he started the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an all-star game at the Civic Arena that showcased the top high school players in the country. He now is the point man for adidas basketball, in charge of trying to get James to sign an endorsement contract with adidas after his days at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Vaccaro expects James will turn pro after high school.

Adidas and Nike are battling to land James. St. Vincent-St. Mary wears adidas uniforms and warm-up suits. But James wears both adidas and Nike shoes.

The money the two companies are offering is staggering.

"I don't want to say how much, but I'm sure you've seen the reported numbers -- $25 million over five years," Vaccaro said. "Let's just say that's pretty close and we could even exceed those numbers."

The legend of LeBron

How does a high school basketball player who lives with his mother in subsidized housing in Akron become so big, so well-known and such a megastar?

"Y'all did it," James said, referring to the media.

Then he stops and smiles.

"As a matter of fact, I did it myself," he said. "But I knew if I kept working hard, it was going to come."

But who could have predicted the day would come when St. Vincent-St. Mary would put some of their games on pay-per-view television in 14 Ohio counties for $7.95 a pop? Who could have predicted a St. Vincent-St. Mary playoff game last year would attract a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 at Cleveland's Gund Arena? Who could have predicted Michael Jordan would become James' pal and workout partner?

"I guess we kind of started it," said Tom Gaffney, one of a handful of sports writers at the Akron Beacon Journal who covers James and St. Vincent-St. Mary.

The Beacon Journal started covering James when he led St. Vincent-St. Mary to a state championship as a freshman. Then he started playing to rave reviews at national AAU tournaments and summer basketball camps against the best high school players in the country. He kept growing, and so did the legend. Last summer, Coach John Lucas of the Cleveland Cavaliers had James work out with some of his players. Lucas was fined $150,000 by the NBA for the action.

Nowadays, the Beacon Journal gives more coverage to James and his team than to the Cavaliers.

"But I think the Sports Illustrated cover pushed it over the top," Gaffney said.

James was on the cover in February under the headline "The Chosen One."

One hundred media credentials were issued for Thursday's game between St. Vincent-St. Mary and Oak Hill Academy at the Cleveland State Convocation Center in downtown Cleveland. The contest was played in front of 11,523 fans and a live national television audience on ESPN2. Dick Vitale, the network's top basketball commentator, and Bill Walton, something of a legend himself as a player, were on the broadcast team.

For tonight's game against New Castle, reporters from the Dallas Morning News and Denver's Rocky Mountain News will be on hand. So will scouts from the NBA's Miami Heat and Vancouver Grizzlies.

James' mom, Gloria, and St. Vincent-St. Mary officials are trying to control reporters' access to James. No one-on-one interviews with newspaper reporters are allowed. Before a news conference in Cleveland on Tuesday, St. Vincent-St. Mary Coach Dru Joyce put down one rule: No questions about James' future, that is, the college or pro question.

"These guys are teenagers," Joyce said of James and his teammates. "They have a life and we want them to remain teenagers as much as they can."

Pat Diulus is a promoter in Cleveland who helped plan a few St. Vincent-St. Mary games this season, including tonight's game at Mellon.

"He now has a bodyguard [who] sits with him on the bench at games," Diulus said. "I know it sounds vain and smug, but that's how many people are after him. It has nothing to do with being afraid of someone coming up and punching him. It's just that he's still a high school student and still a young man, and they're trying to keep him as normal as possible."

Money now, money later

How normal can a teenager be when a Sports Illustrated cover with his autograph on it is selling for $83 on eBay?

"The spotlight hasn't messed me up," James said. "I chose this life, and there's no way I'm trying to get away from it."

All eyes will be on LeBron James when he brings his game to Mellon Arena tonight for the middle game of the Steel City Hoopla. (Tony Dejak, Associated Press)

But it seems everywhere James goes, dollar signs are around him.

For example, St. Vincent-St. Mary might make $200,000 on basketball this season. The school moved all of its home games last season to the 6,000-seat JAR Arena on the campus of the University of Akron because ticket demand was so great. Most of the team's home games are being played this year at JAR. Promoters are reportedly paying at least $10,000 to stage some of the games outside of Akron. The school has been careful to make sure players don't miss any school days because of the schedule.

Vaccaro, who wants to make James rich, has heard the complaints of exploitation.

"I think it's the American dream come true. I just hope it carries on," Vaccaro said. "The only exploitation comes by the rules that amateurism puts on him that allow other people to profit. But he's gaining, too. The only problem I have with the whole system is that he should've been able to sign a contract by now and put it in a trust fund or something for when he's done with high school, just because of the fear of injury. If he gets hurt, we're all going home tomorrow. I'll still love him, but I won't offer him millions of dollars if he gets hurt."

Although James said he was looking at a few colleges, no one expects him to be on a campus next year. He'll be in an NBA uniform.

"In all my 38 years of being involved in high school basketball, he's the best I've ever seen," Vaccaro said. "He does things at this age that no one else did. Not Moses Malone. Not Kobe. Not Tracy McGrady. Not anybody. Other than Magic Johnson, he's the best passer I've ever seen. And he has a tremendous feel for the game that belies his age."

Bob Gibbons is a nationally known high school talent scout who runs a recruiting service in Lenoir, N.C.

"I've rated him better than Kobe Bryant was at the same age," Gibbons said, comparing James to the Lakers guard who went directly to the NBA from high school.

James had 31 points, 13 rebounds and six assists Thursday in his team's 65-45 win over Oak Hill, which was ranked the No. 1 team in the country by USA Today. Last season, James averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists a game.

James has the body of an NBA forward, the passing ability of a point guard and wonderful jumping ability. Marty Blake, the director of NBA scouting, said he couldn't predict if James will be the No. 1 pick in the draft, but did call him "a miracle child."

"What people don't understand is he's a very gifted player from a savvy standpoint," Blake said.

Vaccaro believes James is ready for the NBA right now.

"He already has all the other things that we had to wait for from the other kids," Vaccaro said. "Kobe's just starting to bulk up his body and he's been in the NBA for a while. This kid is there now."

But James shot only 59 percent from the free-throw line last year and 34 percent from 3-point range. As gifted as he is, he knows his game isn't perfect.

"I think I have to hit the 3-pointer more consistently, the free throw more consistently and rebound more consistently," James said. "I'm trying to rebound more this year."

Joyce has coached James since his days in AAU basketball, before high school.

"I just worry we're putting LeBron on such a pedestal that it's going to be hard for him to live up to it," Joyce said.

Under the microscope

While James has wowed many with his talents, some worry about what is going on around him.

"I saw him play the summer before his junior year and he hustled and had a great attitude," said Gibbons, the scout. "This summer, you could already see the change already beginning to set in. He wasn't the same kid I observed the year before.

"It was a sickening spectacle this summer with the entourage he had with him. They called him King James. If this is a new King James version of basketball, then heaven help us, because this is exactly what the sport doesn't need."

Gloria James was only 17 when she gave birth to her son. His father is not part of LeBron's life.

Gloria James has come in for her share of criticism. When LeBron was undercut by an opponent in a game last year, Gloria ran onto the court. In the ESPN magazine story, she complained how LeBron has to pay for a parking space at St. Vincent-St. Mary like the rest of the other students.

A man known as an adviser to LeBron has gotten into trouble with the law. Eddie Jackson, a former boyfriend of Gloria James, was recently convicted of real estate fraud and is to be sentenced soon.

Vaccaro takes public hand-wringing about James's off-court life in stride.

"How can LeBron not change?" Vaccaro said. "He can't go anywhere without being bothered. People are selling his autographs. He doesn't know who to trust."

Much of James' personal life has already become public. In the ESPN story, he admitted trying marijuana.

"I've learned a lot and I'm still learning," he said. "I'm only 17. I'm teaching my teammates and they're still teaching me. With age, you get trust and more knowledge."


Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975.

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