- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

CANTON, Ohio It's 7:15 on a Wednesday night. More than 5,000 people have converged upon the hallowed grounds of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but tonight no one has any interest in football.
The throng is headed for Memorial Fieldhouse, paying as much as $25 a ticket for a chance to see the future of basketball. Shaquille O'Neal and former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Ron Harper have traveled to Canton for a piece of the dream, a young man named LeBron James.
The center of attention is a 6-foot-7, 225-pound 11th grader at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in nearby Akron. James is not a typical high school player. He has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He has apparel companies competing to sign him to a multi-million-dollar contract. He has been called the best prep player in the country and has been compared more than favorably to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He is said to be the likely No.1 pick in the NBA Draft whenever he decides to turn pro.
On this night, though, he still is just a high school player leading his Irish against Orange High School.
Orange is not a national powerhouse, but it does feature the triplet sons of former NBA player Jim Chones. Kyle Chones keeps the game close in the early minutes and finishes with 24 points. However, the good genes and the brothers Chones are no match for the young man nicknamed "King James."
James scores 33 points as he leads the Irish, ranked No.5 in the country, to another victory. Along the way, James demonstrates the shooting range, athleticism and dunking abilities that have people dancing in the aisles. Even Shaq, who watches the aerial exploits of former slam dunk champ Bryant on a nightly basis, is left slack-jawed by James' skill.
After the game, several hundred people rush the court and wait by the locker rooms to get James' autograph. As unbelievable as it may seem, most of these fans would rather collect James' autograph than those of the reigning NBA champions.
James' teammates file out of the dressing room, snacking on pizza, heads bobbing to the latest cuts from hip-hop superstar Jay-Z himself an acknowledged fan of James. Celebrity and its trappings are now old hat.
Half an hour passes, and James does not emerge from his pseudo bunker. The hordes of television crews from around the country go back to their trucks to file their reports. The only quotes they'll get tonight come from James' teammates.
Jamie Cavileer, a senior guard for the Irish, has played with James for the past three seasons.
"It is unbelievable for high school basketball. After every game, fans are all over the place wanting his autograph," he says. "You should have seen the game against Oak Hill [Va.] Academy. Carmello Anthony, the best player at Oak Hill, was no match for LeBron. Carmello could not do nearly as much as LeBron. Honestly, LeBron was so much better that there is no comparison."
Anthony, a 6-7, 205-pound senior, is regarded by many recruiting services to be the best of this year's graduating class. Many believe that Anthony and Oak Hill teammate Sani Ibrahim will skip college and go directly to the NBA. Yet, even their combined talents could not contain James, who had 36 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the loss to Oak Hill.
"He's worked hard for it, so I think he should get the attention," says Irish forward Preston Sims. "I would be surprised if he went pro this year, but he is good enough to go. I think he could go. Anything's possible, but I think he'll stick around and graduate."
That didn't seem certain last summer, when speculation was rampant that James would skip his senior year and challenge NBA rules in an attempt to become the first high school junior to leave early for the pros. James and his advisers denied he would try to enter the draft as a junior.
Eddie Jackson, James' father figure, said, "LeBron is going to graduate from high school. We're not going to challenge the NBA ruling."
Tellingly, Jackson is wearing Nike shoes and James' mother, Gloria, is dressed head to toe in Adidas garb. One of those companies will win the James sweepstakes next year and sign him to a contract worth a reported $20million over five years.
That would be just the start of James' financial good fortune. If he is indeed the top pick of the 2003 draft, he will receive a contract worth close to $13million.
At the recent NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, commissioner David Stern rejected the possibility of non-high school graduates entering the draft.
"Our current collective bargaining agreement provides that the player in a high school class has to have graduated and that's the rule we have and that's the rule we will have until the [agreement] is replaced by something else," said Stern, "I would speculate this much; that [the age restriction] won't go down. We think that high school and its completion is a minimum that we would like to even see increased, but certainly not to be decreased."
Stern also said any legal challenge would be unsuccessful, something top labor lawyers dispute.
"I don't think the rules hold water. I don't think the rule was drafted to protect the interests of these high school students," said Peter Poulos of the Cincinnati-based law firm Taft, Stettinius and Hollister. "Their education is not at issue because the rules do not require a player to have a high school diploma. It was drafted to protect the interests of the NBA.
"The rule is vague, with one purpose in mind restraint of trade. It is an arbitrary rule because it is not narrowly tailored to some specific justification."
Is this then a dead issue? If nothing else, James has the support of Adidas basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro, the director of the Adidas ABCD basketball camp. Said Vaccaro: "He could challenge it, and he could win, I think."
The overwhelming view is that James will return to that obscure Catholic high school in Ohio. But he has planted the seed that the NBA can be challenged in its interpretation of who can and cannot play in the league.
If James does not make history as the first to challenge this thought-to-be iron law of the NBA, someday another high school star will. Meanwhile, fans, celebrities, journalists and ticket scalpers alike will continue to make the trip to this corner of Middle America in the hopes of seeing the future of basketball.

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