TRENTON, N.J. — 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.
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.
And a few weeks ago, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSA) declared James ineligible for the rest of the season after it discovered he accepted two vintage sports jerseys, valued at $845, from a local clothing store. Earlier this year, too, when his mother Gloria gave him a $50,000 Hummer SUV for his 18th birthday, the OHSA began an investigation.
Money was always scarce for James and his mother. She was 16 when she gave birth, a single mother dependent on odd jobs, state assistance, and family friends to provide for her child. Her longtime boyfriend, Eddie Jackson, is the only father James has ever known. Both keep tight control of the people around him, and they refuse to let him be interviewed.
The SUV, it turned out, was purchased with a loan - a bank betting on the future earning power of King James, who should receive no less than $25 million for endorsements after he graduates from high school, as well as a three-year, $11 million NBA rookie salary, after he's taken with the first pick, as most expect. This for a kid who still eats cereal for breakfast and dinner. A judge, meanwhile, halted James suspension for the time being - which allowed him to play at the Prime Time Shootout.
Amid all the controversy, James's vaunted skills were on full display in Trenton. At 6-feet, 8-inches, the 240-pound teen is already bigger and stronger than Jordan was at his prime. His feathery touch on his jump shot, his explosive speed, and his remarkable passing make him more than just a kid with enormous potential. Whoever lands his endorsement could well dominate the market for years just as Nike has done with Jordan.
In the first quarter, James scored 18 consecutive points, including four three-pointers and a skipping, half-court heave at the buzzer. By half time he had scored 41. Starting the second half, he made three straight steals, followed by break-away dunks.
By the end of the game, St. Vincent-St. Mary had blown out a top-ranked team from Los Angeles, and James had scored a career-high 52 points. When he was taken out with 2 minutes to go, he raised his arms, wiggled the tips of his fingers, and urged the crowd to cheer.
There were 48 high school teams at the tournament, over 500 players, but there was only one press conference. After the game, James walked before a throng of cameras and reporters, raised his arms again, and said, "Basketball questions only tonight."
First question: "LeBron, how did it feel to be on the court tonight?"
A big smile. "Well, it felt good for me tonight. I don't know what got into me tonight. Maybe the crowd - probably." Then, as if catching himself, he shifted focus and talked about his team, why they're No. 1 in the country.
Second question: "LeBron, the media scrutiny has been intense. This morning in Trenton, you complained about the media's treatment, but the media, on the flip side, also is the reason you are famous. How are you handling the media and your recent controversies, and how do you plan to go forward with those kind of issues?"
There was an air of defiance, bordering on a taunt. James tilted his head to the side and pushed the sides of his mouth down, showing a surprised, exaggerated frown. "I complained? Where'd you read that? I never complained about the media."
I imagined James with Jordan, who would put his arm over the teenager's shoulder, and explain the art of the interview. This is what to say. Never get rattled. Never get angry. Always, always talk about your teammates.
James went on. "Y'all got me famous, but you know, I make myself famous out there. I worked hard, I put in every hour to get myself better." He shifts uneasily in his chair, and changes his answer. "Jesus Christ made me famous. None of y'all made me famous. Without Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, you know, none of this would be possible."
The questions about the controversies continued, however, and though James didn't seem rattled, he, too, turned a bit defiant.
"If you remember earlier in the season, after the Hummer investigation, I scored 50," he says. "Now after this investigation, I scored 52. So, if something else happens, I'm going to score 52 again." He laughs. "Anytime adversity happens, it doesn't bother me. Off-court things, I let my family handle this over here, and my second family, my teammates, we handle it on the court."