The LeBron Road Show


“I never complained about the media. You all got me famous, but I made myself famous, I think,” said LeBron James in response to yet another analyze-the-hype question in his post-game press conference after his high school tourney game in Trenton, New Jersey, last Saturday. And just as neatly as he sliced up the Los Angeles Westchester defense—James threw down a career-high 52, and at the end of three quarters had personally outscored the nation’s number seven team 47 to 39—he cut to the root of LeBron Mania. “I worked hard,” he said. “I put in every hour to make myself better. Jesus Christ made me famous. None of you all made me famous.”

James is the high school hoops phenom from St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, who is a virtual lock to be the first player chosen in the June NBA draft. And indeed, teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets have gutted their rosters largely in the hopes of securing his draft rights.

Still, when basketball’s It Boy made his New York-area appearance at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, the hype seemed to take everyone by surprise—from the tournament promoters who ran out of media credentials to the fans who tried in vain to schmooze, sneak, or scalp their way into the sold-out arena—except of course the 6-foot-8 prodigy at the center of this hurricane.

“I just feel like LeBron James has a big bull’s-eye,” he said with a tinge of sadness. “I can’t do kid things. I’ve got to stay focused and do the right thing.”

All season long, James has been the living, breathing, walking symbol of all that is wrong with American sports. He’s been branded a sell-out for cruising around in a PlayStation-equipped Hummer. (But what bank wouldn’t make a $50,000 loan to the mother of a young man who’s only months away from becoming a multimillionaire?) He was branded a cheat—and briefly suspended—for accepting some overpriced NFL throwback jerseys. (But a student-athlete with a 3.5 average should understand that a store doesn’t give out $845 worth of merchandise to each person on the honor roll.) He’s been branded a prima donna for back-channeling his disapproval of the Cavs’ firing of coach John Lucas. (But who wouldn’t feel loyal to a pro coach who got slapped with a suspension and $150,000 fine just for letting him practice with his players?)

What’s conveniently overshadowed in all this is that James is a one-man economic engine. Riding on his back, St. Vincent-St. Mary commands $15,000 appearance fees for some games, an estimated $400,000 annual revenue stream that not only boosted the athletic budget but may have saved the entire school. Indeed, the school’s games have been broadcast on ESPN, YES Network, and even on pay-per-view in his native Ohio at $7.50 a pop.

“I don’t know if I’d want to go through it again, but I’m happy I went through it,” James said, busting yet another verbal spin move. “Going to see different spots—Philadelphia, California, North Carolina—I think it’s great. I might see them places again, but my teammates might never see that again, and I’m glad I can provide that for them.”

Rewind 90 minutes to when James took the court, and you could hear the buzz that has become his background music.

“They might be Reeboks,” whispers one daily newspaper reporter to his colleague.

Indeed, what James is wearing has become almost as compelling as how he’s playing. When he does turn pro, the shoe deal that he signs with Nike, Adidas, or Reebok will dwarf his rookie-scale salary, so he’s careful to alternate shoes from game to game so as to keep potential sponsors guessing. On his arms he sports bandages and adhesive patches to cover his tattoos, as per school policy. Also missing are the multi-carat diamond studs that James usually wears in each ear—”cubic zirconium,” he winks. His white headband sports the neutral NBA logo, another nod to the shoe wars, as well as a subtle tweak at the media—James is quick to remind pushy reporters that he’s never actually said that he’ll skip college and head straight to the pros.

As he begins his pre-game warm-ups, James is nothing but sinewy energy. He’s bouncing on his ‘boks, pumping his fists, pounding his chest. Sure, it’s done with one eye on appearance—do most 18-year-olds do anything that isn’t?—but the enthusiasm is also genuine.

As the game starts, James seems to be thinking a little too much. Eager to prove he can defend, he overplays his man, and Westchester’s Trevor Ariza (bound for UCLA next fall) fakes James off his still-uncommitted feet, and flies to the hoop for the game’s first dunk. Given the opportunity to counterslam, James declines. The first time he gets out on the break, he pulls up for an oh-so-stylish finger roll, and the crowd erupts in boos.

Indeed, during the first half, James seems to be playing to the latest round of nitpicking among NBA scouts—the trajectory on his jumper is too flat, and he won’t be able to get it off against pro-level defenders. So he comes out and starts bombing from downtown like a prep Paul Pierce, swishing rainbow after rainbow, including a 42-foot bank shot as the first quarter runs out.

The joke, of course, is that James has transcended scouting. There isn’t a GM in the NBA who would risk passing on a guy who’s constantly being compared to Magic, Michael, and Kobe. Skipping school is the NBA’s newest fashion statement. (You could make a plausible All-NBA Team—Yao Ming, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzski, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant—of guys who never set foot on a college campus.) And with Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old 7-footer who is Serbia’s answer to LeBron James, winning his draft eligibility this weekend, the road to the NBA has veered a little farther away from Duke, North Carolina, and Georgetown.

Even amid the LeBron backlash, the young star has his supporters. At halftime, Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer bends over backwards to sing the young man’s praises. “He still maintains his dignity,” says Palmer. “He’s a great ball-player. His teammates love him. He’s a great human being.”

In the third quarter, his points made, his dues paid, James gives the crowd what they came for. It’s Showtime. He starts hawking the passing lanes, forgetting about the jumper, and looking to get out on the break.

Within the span of about a minute, he throws down an alley-oop and rocks the rim with two breakaway dunks, each more emphatic than the previous. And just when the Westchester defenders think they’ve seen it all, James shows what makes him special. On the break yet again, he eschews the baseline reverse slam in favor of a Magic-to-Worthy semi-no-look to skying teammate Romeo Travis.

When his team calls time out after James’s little highlight reel—as much to give James and the crowd a blow as talk X’s and O’s—the man-child hovers above his teammates, literally and figuratively. James is trying to listen, but his attention wanders. He may be on his way to the NBA and beyond, but for the moment, he still has enough kid in him that he can’t help but sneak a peek at the Jumbotron and smile in wonder at his own instant replay.