Saturday, December 14, 2002

Take a deep breath, Dickie V. You, too, Bill Walton.
You sound like giggly schoolgirls around LeBron James, the 17-year-old high school basketball prodigy who received a national coming-out party of sorts Thursday night from ESPN.
James apparently is on pace to be the next Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, plus saving the whale, the tropical rain forest and the child being dangled over the balcony rail by Wacko Jacko.
The hormonal rush of the basketball intelligentsia is fascinating, to say the least, and incredibly premature.
James, as talented as he is, comes with only a zillion questions, none of which is apt to be answered anytime soon. Good luck to the deadbeat NBA team that tabs James No.1 overall in the draft next June. Then check back in three or four years to see if James has been able to meet some of the hype being peddled at the moment.
This is not to disparage James. This also is not to question whether he has the body and skills to be a star in the NBA one day. He has the requisite 6-foot-8, 225-pound NBA frame. He also has a variety of impressive perimeter skills. The combination is unique in someone so young, as Turner Sports studio analyst Kenny Smith noted later in the night between games of an NBA doubleheader.
That is not really the issue. That is the easy part. Let’s see: size, check, quickness, check, jumping ability, check, skills, check. That checklist fits a high number of NBA players, many of whom are no threat ever to appear in an All-Star Game.
It is funny what you can’t measure in an athlete. You can’t measure an athlete’s head, his temperament, his heart, his proclivities and his capacity to resist the shiny apple in the Garden of Eden.
Oh, the NBA sleuths try their best on this end. Before the draft, they fly the anointed ones into town for interviews. They put them through a battery of tests. They make small talk. They hold hands. They take moonlit walks. They do everything they can not to squander the team’s millions on a potential head case or someone who lacks the fortitude to be as good as he can be. And you know what? They miss more than they hit. That is the nature of the business, the way it is, almost predictable.
The sleuths, you see, are not shrinks or mind readers or social workers. They are not babysitters. They are basketball people. They can tell you if a guy can put the ball in the hole. They can’t tell you if a guy will have an interest in raping and pillaging the community, or if he aims to be the Father of our Country in the manner of the worn-out, stressed-out, burned-out Shawn Kemp.
They might get a feel for someone. They might see a red flag. But who knows? Who can predict human nature?
Who knew in 1996 that Bryant was as obsessed as he is with being the best in the NBA? Right. Everyone knew. That is what they all say now. No problem. Bryant’s superstardom was obvious to everyone, except perhaps to the 12 teams that passed on him in the draft before the Hornets took him and dispatched him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
McGrady was the ninth pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, and a disappointment in the first two of his three seasons in Toronto. He appeared to lack fire in his belly. Maybe the notion was encouraged because of his graceful manner on the court. He just did not appear to be working all that hard. Or maybe it was the product of his sleepy-looking eyelids, that poor man’s Peter Lorre thing. He just looked tired. Now he just looks cool as the leading scorer in the NBA.
Bryant and McGrady eventually made the transition from high school to the NBA in a big way, while Leon Smith attempted suicide in Dallas. Right. How do you interview for that? Uh, just wondering, Mr. Prepster, but do you ever feel like killing yourself?
The panting around James is almost disingenuous.
It is hard to say how he will respond to the NBA lifestyle, to the riches awaiting him, to the travel and free time, to teammates with axes to grind, to coaches sweating a pink slip, to leeches who know where all the hot spots in town are and to pretty, young things spilling out of their two-sizes-too-small tops. It is hard to say how he will respond after the opposition knocks him on his keister and he discovers that he is just another 6-8 player in the NBA.
There are just so many variables, and talent sometimes is the least of it.

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