Don't Kid Yourself

Times Staff Writer

It's not the legs that go first any more, it's the innocence, which precedes them by decades.

At 15, LeBron James' illusions were already dwindling fast, his adolescence just begun, his childhood fleeting as a sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio, when he became the first 10th-grade most valuable player at the prestigious ABCD camp and was anointed as next big thing by Michael Jordan, a previous big thing.

Jordan invited him to his workouts in Chicago. Not that Jordan was impressed, but when James broke his wrist last summer Jordan sent him to his orthopedist and his personal trainer.

Just as fast, the infighting to get next to James zoomed to unprecedented heights, or depths.

His surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, on trial last summer for mortgage fraud, introduced into evidence a letter from Adidas' Sonny Vaccaro, confirming that the two men had met "to finalize the time frame that would be acceptable to the family for the submission of proposals" for a shoe contract.

As with Kobe Bryant -- and Jordan -- Vaccaro, who runs ABCD (some coincidence, huh?), arrived first. But Nike soon weighed in, with founder Phil Knight inviting James and the family to Beaverton, Ore., home of the Swoosh.

Vaccaro says James will get a $20-million deal. Adroitly signaling he's in play, LeBron became the first to attend both the Adidas and Nike camps last summer. Now, as his teammates don Adidas shoes, uniforms and warmups furnished by Vaccaro, James may break out his custom Nike sneakers with "King James" on the heels.

It may be risky to give a high school senior a separate-brand-with-royalties deal like Jordan's Jumpman. On the other hand, when Vaccaro worked for Nike, he got Knight to gamble on Jordan and that turned out OK.

When will this end? James is actually having a great time, but for everyone else the answer is: Not a moment too soon.

"To say that he hasn't changed, I wouldn't be telling the truth," St. Vincent-St. Mary Coach Dru Joyce said.

"He's changed, in that he's a little more guarded around people that he doesn't know, around the media. Seems like it's kind of strange but when the world hangs onto every word of a 17-year-old, that's a little tough for a 17-year-old.... But when he's with his friends and in our family unit, he's fine....

"Oh, yeah, I'm concerned because, hey, let's face it, there are a bunch of people who want to latch on and all of them don't have the best intentions or his best intentions at heart."

James is expected to join the fast lane officially this spring, as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. If he had been able to last spring, he'd have gone No. 1 then too, ahead of 7-foot-5 Yao Ming.

In the meantime, everyone wrangles for the favors of a golden child, whose life they're busy complicating.

NBA scouts were following him as a junior. Former Laker Ron Harper, who's from the area, drove Shaquille O'Neal down to sit in the bleachers in the St. Vincent-St. Mary gym. Bryant sent James a pair of red, white and blue sneaks. Cleveland Cavalier Coach John Lucas brought James in to work out with his team and was suspended for two games by the league, which also fined the Cavaliers $150,000.

Bad NBA teams, starting with the Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, are said to be positioning themselves (read: tanking) for the LeBron Derby but James himself is a taboo subject.

Said one GM after James' recent game on ESPN, "I don't want to get fined $100,000 but, oh boy."

The media are doing their own little war dance. Magazines vie to put James on the cover and cable TV picks up his games as St. Vincent-St. Mary "Scholastic Fantastic LeBron James Tour" wends its way from Philadelphia's Palestra, to tonight's game in Pauley Pavilion, to the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C.

An industry has sprung up around James, who's the only one working without getting paid, leading everyone to acknowledge that he's being exploited.

Of course, his courtiers -- pros, press, pitchmen, entrepreneurial school officials who'll bank an extra $100,000 for booking bigger venues and charging $75 for courtside -- say they're just doing their jobs and the problem is everyone else.

Unfortunately, they're all right.

The problem is the process, which is nakedly being shown for what it is: predatory, cold, beyond conscience and regulation.

Happily, or miraculously, James isn't merely enduring the hype, he's surfing it.

"This is real fun," he said after the Palestra game. "If you look at me on the court when I'm playing, I've got a smile on my face. Every time I get out there and play the game that I love, I'm going to have fun."

On the other hand, in a deal he won't fully understand for years, he just traded in his childhood for a job.

Boy in the Bubble

If James feeds off the attention, as his coach says he does, that's fortunate because it's dinner time and, at this level, you eat or you're on the menu.

The Palestra is sold out, with 8,722 coaches (among them the 76ers' Larry Brown and Bryant's Lower Merion coach, Gregg Downer), players (Allen Iverson), NBA scouts (Lakers, Indiana, Memphis, Denver) and hard-core Philadelphia fans, awaiting something special.

Sonny Hill, local schoolboy legend (he could dunk at 5-10 in the '50s when that was unheard of) and youth organizer, who played against Wilt on this court as a teenager, talks to an old friend, now a pro scout, who asks not to be identified, lest he get hit by the league's 100K hammer.

"If I had him," Hill said of James, "I'd tell him what I told Kobe: 'Go get me a big-time shot.' "

The scout says he has talked to people in Jordan's Santa Barbara summer camp -- Mike took LeBron there too -- who say James' shooting isn't that bad.

This was to be a lark for St. Vincent-St. Mary but no one expected such furor and, worse, the criticism that the school is the one cashing in on James. Joyce says he was all for this but now shows the strain.

"We knew going in that it wouldn't be easy, that there were going to be a lot of pressures," he said. "But it's something we chose so we can't complain about it now.

"People have to understand, I didn't do this for all this [attention]. I did this for the Palestra, a shrine to basketball ... Pauley Pavilion, John Wooden. Hey, if I had that opportunity to take my kids to play there, oh yeah, I'm going to do it again....

"I mean, there are kids who dream about just playing on their high school team. These kids played on their high school team and were able to play in some of the best basketball venues in the country."

Yes, in the midst of this celebrated-and-getting-bigger story, is a high school team.

The other players from the 600-student school look normal, if you think back to high school. There's a tall youngster, about 6-5, a chunky one ... and then, there he is, the tallest of the Fighting Irish at 6-7 1/2, 231 pounds.

The offense runs through James, who also guards the best opponent, even a 6-1 guard like Strawberry Mansion High's Maureece Rice, who recently broke Chamberlain's Philadelphia city scoring record.

On the first play, Rice, isolated on the cat-quick James, crosses over on the dribble and James stumbles, bringing the hyperventilating crowd to its feet. Rice misses the open 18-footer or the crowd might have run onto the floor.

James announces himself with an eye-popping reverse dunk and holds Rice scoreless for three quarters. James is so good the question of proving himself never seems to come up. It just happens.

Twice, Strawberry Mansion players grab him to keep him from dunking, resulting in intentional fouls. The crowd turns hostile at the end when he and Rice start going one on one on every possession, as if they were in the park.

James taunts the crowd, but he's not really upset.

"I think it was great for me to have the fans get me, for once," he said, cheerfully.

He has just scored 26 points, with eight rebounds, five assists and seven steals, made nine of 11 free throws and three of nine three-point attempts. His legend advances.

'The One' of the Moment

Of all the questions that arise about James, the easiest to answer is, "How good is he?"

If Bryant was the greatest prospect, that distinction may now belong to James, who's bigger, as athletic, extraordinarily skilled, and a better playmaker than the young Kobe.

Bryant is no longer a prospect but a star. James is only starting his journey, and hype cuts both ways. If James goes three seasons without saving his probably woebegone NBA team, will anyone remember it was three seasons before Bryant became a starter, and four before he averaged 20 points?

No one has ever been given, or taken for, such a ride. Last season, as a junior in high school, James appeared on Sports Illustrated's cover as "The Chosen One."

Not to be outdone, ESPN the Magazine just had James on its cover and offers saturation coverage, including a recent story purporting to sort through the children of the world, seeking the next Shaq.

Included were a 17-year-old Greek, a 6-7 junior college woman, a horse named Baby Shaq and a 6-year-old named Aaron Lock. The son of Rob Lock, who played at Kentucky, and his wife Valerie Still, who was twice a playoff MVP in the now-defunct ABL women's pro league, Aaron is 4-10 and towers over his fellow first-graders at Tyler Run Elementary in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

This was, of course, a joke, although its taste was questionable.

A northern Ohio cable company offered eight of James' games for $7.95 each. ESPN2 gave him his national debut, which was not only controversial but boffo (thanks, Billy Packer), drawing a 2.0 cable rating, highest for the network since its coverage of Dale Earnhardt's death.

After that, the question of whether it was appropriate was passe. New York's Yankee Entertainment Sports Network snapped up the rights to a game and ESPN2 scheduled a second.

And of all the questions, the most difficult to answer now, with the horde descending and walls going up, is, "Who is James, really?"

From the Boondocks

James' mother, Gloria, was 17 when he was born. He never knew his father, who would do jail time. Mother and son still live in subsidized housing in an area called the Boondocks.

Jackson, a friend of Gloria whom she says LeBron calls Dad, served time in jail for drug trafficking, just pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud and was sentenced to three more years. Gloria spent seven days in county jail for trespassing, contempt of court and disorderly conduct.

James dropped out of school -- "In fourth grade, I missed 82 days of school. Out of 160," he told ESPN the Magazine -- before moving in with the family of his Pee Wee football coach long enough to straighten out.

From this turmoil emerged a prodigy on the court and a remarkably poised-looking young man off it. James is a beat unto himself for several media outlets -- the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Web site devotes an entire page to him -- and the regulars say he's nice, perhaps the calmest one in this.

As Bryant, who was gracious and well mannered, couldn't have been called unaffected, not after taking pop singer Brandy to his prom, neither can the outgoing James.

James has been heard woofing, "King James!" after dunks. He wore a "King James" T-shirt at ABCD last summer and had so many people around him, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that James' "entourage members have their own entourages."

Gloria comes to games in a St. Vincent-St. Mary jersey with "LeBron's Mom" on the back and is anything but shy about discussing the money that's coming, in a voice that can be heard several rows away. She and Jackson have been all over, checking out marketing opportunities, in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, here last summer for Magic Johnson's charity game.

Of course, Mom might be out of her depth in this situation and if her son is in over his head too, he can stay afloat.

"I may be getting a lot of hype, you know, but I've got my friends and my family keeping me levelheaded," James said after the game at the Palestra.

"Who knows if someone [another prep] who comes after me will get a lot of hype like this, but I hope they do, you know? I hope people keep making this game of basketball the greatest sport in the world.

"Why shouldn't we get a lot of exposure? It makes us work harder, you know? We want to be in the spotlight, just like people that are grown-ups, people that are in college and the NBA."

Afterward, the team stops at Abner's, a cheesesteak place a few blocks away, to sample the local cuisine.

Joyce, relaxed again, chats with patrons. James poses for photos with several excited youngsters.

They're like any high school team again and James is like any player, almost.

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Following LeBron

*--* You can call it the "LeBron James National Tour" -- or just the "Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School 2002-03 boys' basketball schedule." Either way, James and his teammates may be appearing in a gym near you this season. A look at his season to date, and highlights of the rest of the schedule: Dec. 1 George Junior Republic (Ohio) James had 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a season-opening 101-40 victory at the University of Akron Dec. 7 Julian (Ill.) In a 75-50 victory at the Akron's Challenge of Champions over a perennial Chicago power, James had a triple-double: 15 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists Dec. 12 Oak Hill Academy (Va.) In his first national television appearance, James scored 31 points and added 13 rebounds and six assists in a 65-45 blowout of the nation's top-ranked team, at the Cleveland Convocation Center Dec. 15 New Castle (Pa.) Appearing at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, James had 32 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in an 82-48 victory Dec. 17 Willard (Ohio) James had a season-high 36 points and 10 rebounds in a 103-49 victory at the University of Akron Dec. 22 Strawberry Mansion (Pa.) Playing at the Palestra, James had 26 points, eight rebounds and five assists in an 85-47 victory Dec. 28 Brookhaven (Ohio) Playing in the featured game of the Ohio Scholastic Play by Play Classic, James led St. Vincent-St. Mary to a 67-62 victory in overtime in a battle of unbeatens, scoring 27 points, with 10 rebounds and three assists On the schedule * Tonight -- vs. Mater Dei at Pauley Pavilion * Jan. 12 -- vs. Detroit Redford at the Fast Break to the Lake event at the Cleveland Convocation Center * Jan. 20 -- vs. R.J. Reynolds (N.C.) at the University of North Carolina * Feb. 8 -- vs. Westchester at the Prime Time Shoutout in Trenton, N.J * Feb. 16 -- vs. Kettering (Ohio) Alter at the University of Dayton

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