James Isn't First to Take This Path

Times Staff Writer

LeBron James, straight from high school to predicted stardom in the NBA. It's an old story line really.

Baseball players have always been able to turn pro out of high school. A 15-year-old, Joe Nuxhall, debuted in the major leagues in the 1940s.

Child gymnasts have moved to Houston to study with Bela Karolyi and child tennis players have enrolled in Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla. The star of the U.S. 17-and-under soccer team, which also trains year-round in Bradenton, is 13-year-old Freddy Adu, who's expected to turn pro at 15. An Orlando, Fla., high school junior, Ty Tryon, has joined the PGA Tour.

Nor has this phenomenon of subsidization, specialization and year-round participation -- in other words, professionalizing our children -- gone unnoticed. There are several books on the subject, including "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" (gymnasts), "Inside Edge" (ice skaters), and "Raw Recruits" (basketball players).

Nor has awareness, or shame, slowed the process. On the contrary, it's speeding up. As a 1999 Time magazine article noted: "The good news is that the cold war is over. The bad news is that the East Germans won."

More attention is paid, and controversy attached, to basketball players. They're often from poor backgrounds, there's rampant corruption and they're bypassing the powerful NCAA, which has tradition on its side and a standing media lobby.

But even in such a Wild West ethos, what's happening with James is the granddaddy of them all. No one, not Wilt Chamberlain in the '50s, Lew Alcindor in the '60s or Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant, who pioneered the children's crusade in the '90s, got such a crush.

"Total opposite," says Jeremy Treatman, Bryant's assistant coach at Lower Merion High, and now the promoter of the "Scholastic Fantastic LeBron James Tour."

"Kobe's big press started to come December of his senior year. There was a newspaper article that said: 'La Salle or NBA?' Kobe was a trend-setter 'cause here was this kid with a 3.0, 1100 SATs, good neighborhood, wealthy family. What in the world was he doing this for? People were mad at him. Why are you giving up the chance to go to Duke or to La Salle?

"People from Philadelphia didn't see him at [a Christmas tournament in] Myrtle Beach. They didn't see him at ABCD. They didn't understand what they had here.... I still think they don't understand. They had a treasure here and they just didn't understand."

Garnett turned pro out of high school in 1995 with little controversy, but he was 6-11. When Bryant, a 6-7 guard, came out a year later, he encountered waves of skepticism from NBA people, who would soon have to rethink their approach.

Seven years later, it's so common for players at any position to come from high school, there's little discussion about what James' decision will or should be.

Of course, Bryant didn't understand what he was giving up, and wouldn't for years.

During last season's All-Star weekend in Philadelphia, James and St. Vincent-St. Mary played mighty Oak Hill Academy in nearby Trenton, N.J., and half the league's general managers drove up. James overmatched Carmelo Anthony, who's now at Syracuse and projected as a high lottery pick.

Meanwhile, Bryant who had always insisted he never regretted his decision, discovered perspective.

"It's being tired, wanting to sleep in," Bryant said of the life he'd chosen.

"Running around, hanging out with your buddies, playing video games -- you can't do that. You have to watch film. You have to go to practice every day.... But I wanted to play against the best. So I was, like, 'I'm just going to do this and whatever comes my way, I'll just deal with it, but this is my focus.... '

"I remember when I first came into the NBA. I used to ride around the UCLA campus, just looking. Checking out some of the students, imagining what it would have been like if I'd have gone to school."

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