Basketball's next big thing: the King James version
He came prancing onto the parquet floor with the rest of the high school boys, skipping high-kneed like a pony at a show and smacking the basketball in his hands so loudly it could be heard over the din of a packed arena.Skip to next paragraph
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He did warm-up weaves and foot shuffles in tandem with his team, but nearly every person at the 9,000-seat Sovereign Bank Arena was watching only him. When the boys formed two lines for layups, the crowd, in unison, gasped "Oh!" the moment he leapt above the rim and snared a teammate's errant shot.
That was it. A warm-up rebound, and the crowd was abuzz.
His name is LeBron James, and though he's only a high school senior from a small Catholic school in Akron, Ohio, he's become one of the nation's most ballyhooed athletes in any sport, on any level. In the last year, he's gone from a teenage phenom to a virtual icon, sparking not only a bidding war between shoe titans seeking his endorsement, but also a scrutiny by the media normally reserved for superstars and heads of state.
Interest in prodigious youth, of course, is nothing new. Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was noticed in his Harlem junior high, and in the past few years, NBA teams have been plucking prep players in the draft almost as often as those from college. Yet, even as experts hail James as the greatest high school player ever, he is coming of age in an era where charisma and fame count just as much as - or perhaps even morethan - pure, unbridled talent.
Especially in basketball, reaching the level of superstar requires a celebrity cachet and transcendent name - as well as superior skill. Whether it's "Magic" Johnson, "Air" Jordan, or "Shaq," being an icon of this sport demands a nickname easily translated into an effective marketing campaign. So get ready to meet "King James."
This past weekend, I went to see him play at the Isles Prime Time Shootout, an annual tournament in New Jersey that brings together dozens of top high-school teams from around the country. The hype and hyperbole surrounding King James was reaching, well, biblical proportions, and he had been embroiled in a scandal that threatened to end his high school career. But what, exactly, was prompting designers at Nike and Adidas to plot for the rights to make the King James version of the sneaker?
Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he.
Perhaps James's moniker doesn't quite resonate with its allusion to Tudor kings and messianic visions in Elizabethan prose. Still, last February, when James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, the headline read, "The Chosen One."
Even His Airness himself has been grooming the heir apparent, inviting him to exclusive off-season workouts and offering occasional advice. It's as if, as Jordan is set to retire for good this time, a cultural void has set in motion a yearning for the next undisputed hero in sports.
"It's been the cliché, but over the last couple of years, everybody's been asking, who's the next Michael Jordan? Who's the next savior of basketball?" says Keith Hower, an editor for Beckett Basketball Card Monthly, a Dallas-based publication for sports memorabilia. "I think it's just amazing that people are willing to put their faith and spend money on an 18-year-old kid."
But they are. The green and white basketball jerseys of St. Vincent-St. Mary, the 600-student high school James attends, sell for as much as $250 on eBay. Autographed programs go for more than $100.
And the demand to see James play has prompted his school to increase its own profits and exposure, too. It cut a deal with Time Warner Cable to broadcast 10 home games on pay-per-view for $7.95 each. Tickets to see these games in person were also in such demand that the school decided to rent out the University of Akron's 6,000-seat arena. ESPN2 and the YES Network have also broadcast games. And the King James version of generating money has only just begun.
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
The famous verse from Scripture may have little to do with James, of course, but with so much money swirling around the amateur athlete, controversy and scandal were bound to arise. Critics have accused the administrators of St. Vincent-St. Mary of exploiting James's talent - a charge they strongly deny.