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We Deserve a Break From This

LeBron James’ high school career finishes the only way it could have, classically ....

The greatest, craziest senior year any aspiring superstar ever had came to an overdue end in last week’s McDonald’s Classic, which was once a harmless all-star game that gave preps their first national exposure. Now, like everything else at the elite level of youth basketball, it’s a caricature that could be renamed the Not Even the NBA Is This Dysfunctional Classic.

Of course, it took James, whose sin is his incredible promise that turns everyone around him into drooling entrepreneurs, to take it to its greatest depths.

Media day, until then a casual affair in which grateful teens did whatever it took to become famous, turned into a formal news conference ... which James was going to boycott, according to his family’s wishes.

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You can see why they’re sensitive. James’ mother, Gloria, known for her exuberance (as when she yelled, “What’ve you got for me, playa?” at Nike Chief Executive Phil Knight), recently became even more celebrated for giving her son a $50,000 Hummer. This was before he got in trouble for accepting retro jerseys, was suspended, went to court and was reinstated.

Not that Gloria has taken a vow of silence. She was the only mom who ventured on the court during the dunk competition, standing among the competitors as her son, of course, won.

Under urging by McDonald’s officials, he did attend the news conference, but with conditions:

Reporters could only ask about three things: being selected to play in the game (now there was an upset, the game having come to Cleveland because it was close to his home); being named McDonald’s player of the year (whippy do), and his visit to the Ronald McDonald House.

“Any questions outside of that will not be answered,” McDonald’s spokesman Kevin Bradbury said, “and if we have to, we’re going to stop the press conference.”

Bradbury additionally threatened to revoke the credentials of any kamikaze prep writer asking anything else. Aware it was on thin ice, reporters tiptoed through it with queries like these, as noted by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Todd Zolecki:

“How does it feel to dunk?”

“Is this the cherry on the sundae of your high school career?”

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Presumably, Bradbury lurked nearby, ready to pull the plug at the first mention of the words “retro” or “Hummer” or, even worse, “pre-cooked burgers.”

The game was the usual preening, rim-hanging, no-defense debacle. James looked OK, was named MVP but didn’t make a shot longer than five feet.

Not that pro scouts needed convincing. However, striking a cautionary note, ESPN’s Tim McCormick warned against crowning James one of the greats yet.

Gee, no kidding.

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Something’s getting lost in translation. There’s no such thing as an 18-year-old great. However dazzling, James is a prospect, but so was the MVP of the ’94 game, Felipe Lopez.

Nor is it surprising James isn’t a good shooter. Few major athletes are at 18 since they get to the basket at will. Shooting typically improves in the pros. If his does -- in the two or three seasons it’ll take to get his feet under him -- he’ll be some player.

This event was once special, offering a first glimpse of the stars of tomorrow. There were memorable games, like 1981, when a late bloomer from Wilmington, N.C., named Michael Jordan stole the show, and 1989, which became a coming-out party for a relatively little-known center named Shaquille O’Neal.

By 1996, the year after Kevin Garnett jumped to the NBA and started the prep migration, the game had degenerated into such a sloppy farce, Kobe Bryant looked like any other Lost Boy. A Laker scout marked him down as not ready. It wasn’t until Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, got Jerry West to work Kobe out, as a personal favor, that the Lakers became interested.

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GMs now often leave after the practice sessions, making their scouts stay for the game. Then comes an education in generational differences, as when DaJuan Wagner’s large posse from Camden, N.J., entered Cameron Indoor Stadium as soon as the doors opened in ’01, filled up the seats behind the East bench and sat through the national anthem.

Aside from James, the pros this time were primarily interested in 6-9 Kendrick Perkins, 6-10 James Lang, and 6-8 Travis Outlaw, all thought to be interested in coming.

However, insiders are suggesting a prep jailbreak, with everyone trying to get in the door before David Stern gets the union to agree to bar everyone under 20.

An age limit should have been instituted years ago, except for the truculence of the union, which sees it as a freedom issue, rather than one of protecting its members from early retirement. But in real life, no one knows how hard Stern will press for it over economic issues, or how hard the union will fight it.

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In any case, nothing is likely to happen for a year. But what would this nether world be without agents trying to scare kids into turning pro (and signing with them)?

These being the creme de la creme of prospects, lots of the big kids could get drafted late in the first round, so you may soon also be hearing about 6-9 Charlie Villanueva (committed to Illinois), 6-8 Ndudi Ebi (Arizona) or 6-8 Kris Humphries (Duke).

Thumbnail scouting reports:

Perkins -- Not only isn’t he Baby Shaq, he’s not Baby Eddy Curry. Has some skills but is overweight. Isn’t as light on his feet or as good a prospect as Curry.

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Lang -- Lost 70 pounds but needs to go for an even 100. Hasn’t picked a school but should. A good freshman year and a slimmer body would get him in the lottery.

Outlaw -- As athletic as advertised and as raw. The NBA guy who told me he could go in the lottery just dropped him into the 20s.

Villanueva -- Ran his mouth about how little love he was getting, signaling he’s one of the immature teens, rather than one of the grown-up ones. For what it’s worth, he can run and dunk.

Ebi -- Looked better than Outlaw. Even played defense on James and gave him trouble with his length and quickness.

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Humphries -- Has a rare weight-room sculpted body but isn’t big enough to play inside in the pros. Needs to get the Mike Krzyzewski buffing job and hope he grows two inches.

And that does it for another year. Let’s just hope James doesn’t get into any more trouble....

Oops. Who turned out the lights?

Faces and Figures

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Tell me another league this stuff could happen in: During an on-court disagreement, Chicago’s Marcus Fizer, injured and wearing civilian clothes, and Detroit’s Ben Wallace started barking at each other. Said Wallace later: “I’m not going to worry about a guy trying to be tough with a pink tie on.” Replied Fizer: “Tell him to pick on somebody other than a guard. He damn sure didn’t come close enough to say anything to me or do anything about it. And by the way, let him know that the tie was Gucci.” ... More from fashion week: Latrell Sprewell, trying to in-bound the ball in Madison Square Garden, was accosted by designer Calvin Klein, who wobbled over, put his hand on Sprewell’s arm and started talking to him before an usher led him back to his seat. Sprewell didn’t know who it was. Klein’s people had no comment.... Seattle’s Brent Barry, after Jordan scored 26 points to lead the Wizards to a victory: “Ray [Allen] tried to answer him, but you don’t answer God that often.”


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