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Man of the Moment? It Has to Be James

Times Staff Writer

On his way out of the building Wednesday after winning the Gatorade high school male athlete of the year, LeBron James had a simple request.

Could he get one of those bottles of Gatorade on the wall?

Everything else about James has been so extraordinary, so advanced, so far beyond the scope of normal life that it’s easy to forget he’s an 18-year-old with basic needs, able to find humor in the smallest acts.

As lights flashed from cameras, James focused on teasing his mother, winding her disposable camera to take the next shot.

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The ESPY Awards came to town Wednesday, and so did LeBron. Tough to decide which is a greater product of hype, but by now they’re almost inseparable. James was nominated for Breakthrough Athlete (which he lost to New York’s Alfonso Soriano). But to ensure he’d have stage time, ESPN had James present the award for Best College Player.

While Los Angeles has seen its share of red-carpet events (Wednesday’s venue, the Kodak Theatre, is site of that little thing called the Oscars every year), nothing like James has ever hit this town. It’s an unprecedented amount of attention for a guy who has accomplished so little outside of high school competition.

A crew from “Access Hollywood” was waiting for him when he landed at the airport. Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Orlando Jones wanted him to come on their talk shows.

“There’s nothing ever to compare with this in high school sports,” said Bruce Weber, the publisher of Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director, the administrator of the Gatorade awards. “I’ve been in Scholastic Coach for 38 years and never seen anything like this.”

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James signed a $90-million shoe contract with Nike, and that was before the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the No. 1 pick in the draft. He threw out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians-Cincinnati Reds game, then signed autographs for the players and exchanged jerseys with Ken Griffey Jr. More than 15,000 watched his first summer league game in Orlando. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has assigned a reporter to the LeBron Beat full-time for the upcoming season. Not the Cavaliers -- LeBron.

“It’s working the way that I’ve always dreamed,” James said. “I chose this life. I chose this lifestyle, so I just have to take it for what it is.

“It seems like a lot from the outside, but the way I set it up, it’s not too much. It’s not pressure.”

A promotional release for the ESPY Awards listed James first. Above Barry Bonds, the single-season home run record-holder. Above Carson Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner. Above Serena Williams, the No. 1 female tennis player in the world. Above Michael Vick, the only visiting quarterback to win a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers in legendary Lambeau Field.

His fame is spreading so quickly that he even creates buzz at the places he isn’t.

Somehow, word spread that James would be at boxing night at the Playboy Mansion on Tuesday.

That was news to his agent, Aaron Goodwin, who said James wasn’t allowed to attend because he was too young.

James is still at the stage where his face isn’t immediately recognized everywhere he goes. He sat unnoticed for five minutes at a celebrity bowling event Tuesday night. When someone finally recognized him, he immediately became the focal point of the party.

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“I’d rather have people run up to me to sign autographs than not run up to me at all,” James said. “That means being good on and off the court.”

Said Goodwin: “It’s so much coming at him, it’s hard for an 18-year-old to even deal with it. The best thing about it is, he’s trying.”

He made a good first impression when he crossed paths Tuesday afternoon with NBA legend Julius Erving.

“He saw me and came over to give up some props,” Erving said. “He’s showing respect, so that’s good.”

Erving was one of the NBA’s first crossover commercial stars. But he never had to live up to as much initial hype as James. To this day, more people can probably name James’ high school (St. Vincent-St. Mary) than Erving’s college (Massachusetts).

“He seems to be handling it like this is what he expected,” Erving said. “That’s a good thing. If you have expectations like that, you’re less likely to be disappointed.

“With him, the support group around him is going to be the key. Ultimately, his accountability is going to be himself. He’s supremely confident, but those around him -- the family members, and the professionals who are now entering his camp -- they will determine his success and his failure.”

James’ mother, Gloria, her cousin, two friends and his agent were among those at James’ table for the Gatorade luncheon, Gloria having just arrived in town.

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It’s hard keeping up with LeBron, as demonstrated by this week’s schedule.

Monday night, summer league game in Boston. Tuesday, fly to L.A. Wednesday, Gatorade award, then the ESPY Awards. Then back to Boston for another game Friday.

Which is why there’s only one more thing James desires.

“I need a vacation,” he said.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

ESPY WINNERS

Cross Cutter Categories (voted by ESPY Academy)

Best Female Athlete: Serena Williams; Best Male Athlete: Lance Armstrong; Best Team: Anaheim Angels; Best Coach/Manager: Jon Gruden; Best Comeback Athlete: Tommy Maddox; Best Breakthrough Athlete: Alfonso Soriano; Best Game: Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State-Miami; Best Record-Breaking Performance: Emmitt Smith breaks Walter Payton’s rushing record; Best Sports Movie: “Bend It Like Beckham"; Best Male College Athlete: Carmelo Anthony; Best Female College Athlete: Diana Taurasi; Best Moment: Pete Sampras wins U.S. Open to end Grand Slam drought; Best Action Sports Athlete: Shaun White; Best Disabled Athlete: Marlon Shirley; Best Outdoors Sports Athlete: Jay Yelas.

Fan Voting Categories (voted by fans on ESPN.com June 14-30)

Best Major League Baseball Player: Barry Bonds; Best NBA Player: Tim Duncan; Best WNBA Player: Lisa Leslie; Best Bowler: Walter Ray Williams Jr.; Best Boxer: Roy Jones Jr.; Best Driver: Tony Stewart; Best NFL Player: Michael Vick; Best Male Golfer: Tiger Woods; Best Female Golfer: Annika Sorenstam; Best NHL Player: Jean-Sebastien Giguere; Best Jockey: Jose Santos; Best Male Soccer Player: Ronaldo; Best Female Soccer Player: Katia; Best Male Tennis Player: Andre Agassi; Best Female Tennis Player: Serena Williams; Best Male Track and Field Athlete: Tim Montgomery; Best Female Track and Field Athlete: Gail Devers.

Arthur Ashe Courage Award: Pat Tillman and Kevin Tillman.


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