LeBron Playing in Real World


There’s a category for the high school game between Westchester and St. Vincent-St. Mary appearing on Fox Sports Net 2 today: reality TV.

This isn’t “Hoosiers” or even “The White Shadow.” It’s the mercenary world of prep hoops, and it’s about as far removed from the days of pompoms and handmade signs as the latest suede Air Jordans are from canvas Chuck Taylors.

Westchester is traveling across the country in the middle of the school year to play St. Vincent-St. Mary, a month after LeBron James’ squad came from Ohio to play in Pauley Pavilion.


Perhaps they could have met in the middle of the country, but Westchester already played a tournament in Houston during the winter break, which came after a trip to Las Vegas. And the St. Vincent-St. Mary LeBron-a-thon already has made stops in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

And it’s not as if this jetting around stuff is new.

“The top high school programs, for the last six or seven years, have been traveling or playing in top tournaments throughout the country,” Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said. “These one-game extravaganzas are not local teams against local teams.

“It’s all about money. These guys that run the events are making money. Are the kids being exploited? To a certain degree, everyone’s being exploited.”

For some reason the outrage comes only when the players try to get something back.

James, the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, has been on the cover of national magazines trying to attract young readers. Some of his games were offered on pay-per-view on Ohio cable. The first of his two appearances on ESPN2 drew landmark ratings.

Today’s game at Sovereign Arena in Trenton, N.J., is expected to draw a sellout crowd of more than 7,500.

And James almost had to miss it because he accepted a couple of throwback jerseys?

Ohio High School Athletic Assn. bylaws state athletes forfeit amateur status by “capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value.” After a local shopkeeper gave him Gale Sayers and Wes Unseld jerseys, James was banned for the rest of the season until a judge granted a temporary restraining order this week.


For most athletes, high school will be the only chance they get to capitalize on their athletic fame. The quarterback dates the homecoming queen in the glory days before he has to report to his cubicle at work every morning.

But for high-profile players, there is money to be made, sometimes lots of it. Shoe companies want to slap their logos all over teams, outfitting schools such as Westchester with shoes and sweatsuits. St. Vincent-St. Mary made almost $300,000 off the basketball program last year -- and that was before the LeBron hype gave the school the gumption to charge adults $15 to see him play at home games this season.

Capitalization is all around. So is consumerism, the rampant sense of you-are-what- you-buy fed to society through a steady diet of music videos and “MTV Cribs.” James bought into it, driving around in a Hummer H2, styling in NBA-ready clothes, jewelry flashing around his neck. It was out there for him. He didn’t rob anybody to get it, he simply cashed in.

“Everything a kid sees, he wants,” said Westchester star Trevor Ariza. “That’s just kids. If [James] deserves it, let him have it. From what he’s doing, the way he’s handling everything, I think he deserves it.”

Ariza doesn’t mind or resent any of the hype heaped on James this season.

“I’m happy for him,” Ariza said. “It got him a No. 1 draft pick in the league next year. But the bad part is, when he messes up, the whole world is on him.”

Which is why Ariza isn’t sure he would want to trade places with James.

“I don’t know,” Ariza said. “I probably couldn’t handle it right now.”

There’s no way you could get Azzam to switch with St. Vincent-St. Mary Coach Dru Joyce.

“I’d hate to be their coach, because the distractions have been monumental,” Azzam said.

Simply sharing the same court as James has sucked the Comets into his world, a sphere of extraordinary attention, as evidenced by the barrage of phone calls Azzam received this week.


But the Comets aren’t new to the spotlight. They showed up last year on an ESPN documentary on the Clippers called “L.A. Hoops” when the cameras followed Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles hopping a fence to watch Westchester and Hassan Adams (now at Arizona) in action.

And the Comets have known controversy as well: They had two players suspended this season for providing false information to transfer to the school.

“We’ve got our share of problems,” Azzam said. “I shouldn’t say problems -- our share of attention. It’s a real pain. I’m happy ... I’m not in the middle of” the James situation.

In all likelihood, the LeBron Phenomenon is a culmination and not the tip of the iceberg.

“You don’t get a lot of LeBrons,” Azzam said.

Remember when Kevin Garnett made himself available for the 1995 NBA draft straight out of Farragut West Academy and everyone thought high school players would overtake the league? In the seven drafts since then, a total of 22 high school players have applied for the draft, according to the NBA draft handbook. Three per draft amounts to snowflakes, not an avalanche.

Don’t bemoan the loss of an innocence that went out with wooden backboards.

You know what qualifies as purity these days? James and his legal team seeking reinstatement. At this point he’d be better off protecting his assets (such as his knees) and staying on the bench rather than risk injury. And he could go ahead and sign a $25-million shoe deal and start cashing the checks.

But he’d rather come back and play high school basketball. Because while the adults wail, the kids are enjoying playing the game in their free sneakers.


“You can make the game harder than what it really is by getting into the media and everything like that,” Ariza said. “Really, all you’re doing is getting on the court and doing what you do every day.

“I think the adults are the ones that are overplaying it.”

Now that’s on the money.


J.A. Adande can be reached at