It is obvious LeBron James can play.
The Akron, Ohio, teenager might, in fact, be the best high school basketball player ever. He might be better than Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at Power Memorial, better than anyone who jumped from the preps to the pros, including All-Star starters Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O’Neal. The 6-foot-8 James is expected to be the first pick in June’s NBA Draft.
It also is obvious James has been the focus of more hype and controversy than any high school basketball player ever.
At 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, accompanied by the words, “The Chosen One.” His mother didn’t just buy him a car for his 18th birthday, she bought him a custom-made Hummer, complete with several TV sets and the words “King James” inscribed on the headrests. The games of his St. Vincent-St. Mary team, played in packed college arenas and viewed by fans who pay inflated prices, are televised on ESPN2 and regional cable.
Most recently, James was suspended for two games for accepting a pair of expensive “throwback” jerseys. Reportedly, he already is lined up for $20 million to $30 million in endorsements. He has his own security force and, supposedly, Michael Jordan’s cell phone number.
Here is where things become less obvious and questions arise.
Is it meaning all of it too much too soon for James? Has his perspective, his view of the world and what to expect from it, all been compromised if not utterly skewed at the age of 18? Is his head screwed on right? Is he getting good advice?
Even if the answers to any or all of the above are negative, what will it all mean later, much later, after NBA commissioner David Stern calls his name first at the draft and James strides to the podium wearing a smile and a suit more expensive than the cars driven by many of his classmates?
It might take a few years to find out. In lieu of answers, there is concern.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about him, heard he has a Hummer and all this other stuff,” said the Wizards’ Kwame Brown, who two years ago was the first high school player drafted No.1. “I’m just wondering if all this attention’s going to be too much. Fame is fleeting, and there’s a lot of attention he’s been getting, and I don’t know if he’s being set up for a fall or what.”
Brown isn’t the only one wondering about that.
“From what I read, [James] is drunk with power and living the life of a multimillion dollar guy before he even gets the money,” said Jack Llewellyn, an Atlanta-based sports psychologist who works with professional athletes. “He’ll have an incredible adjustment. … One thing that bothers me is that he has his own security force. What the hell is a security force and why does he need it?
“I think people, slowly but surely, are pulling pieces off the reality puzzle to where it’s going to be a blank board soon. It’s like you have a kid who gets all Ds on his report card and you say, ‘Son, if you get Bs, I’ll get you a new car.’ Then you give him the new car now. That’s what bothers me about all these rewards and all these material things.”
James has shown a Jordanesque ability to rise above the distractions and elevate his game. After serving one game of the suspension, James scored 52 points on Saturday as the No.1-ranked prep team in the country (according to USA Today) beat No.7 Westchester from Los Angeles 78-52.
“If you remember early in the season after the Hummer investigation, I scored 50 points,” James said after the game, which was played in Trenton, N.J., as part of something called the Primetime Shootout and witnessed by a full house of 8,500. “After this investigation, I scored 52. These off-the-court things don’t bother me. I let my family handle it.”
The transition from high school to the NBA is hard enough, the difference in competition incalculable. It isn’t merely boys to men, it’s boys to large, powerful, incredibly gifted, sometimes cranky men who are a tad resentful of a young newcomer’s hype and money. Then there’s the other team.
“Some teammates are not going to like that he’s out of high school,” said Brown, providing insight as much to his own situation as James’. “They’re going to feel like he didn’t pay any dues. He has a Hummer already coming in, and some people are not going to like that. So he’s going to have to play through it all and never stop believing in himself. He’s got to stay focused.”
James will learn the NBA “is politics. It’s more than basketball,” Brown said. Asked what that means, Brown, talking in the Wizards dressing room before a game, said, “I can’t get into it here. Just put it like this: There’s more to the game and the league than basketball. And you understand that.”
Brown, who grew up in a small town (Brunswick, Ga.), was hardly a secret while playing in high school. After he was drafted, he was honored with Kwame Brown Day and got the key to the city. But Brown had a mentor a minister and family friend a strong male figure in his life James seems to lack. And the attention and scrutiny Brown received paled compared to James’.
Although he appeared mature for a high school player, Brown struggled during his rookie year, feeling the wrath of coach Doug Collins and Jordan in particular. He has improved a little this season but not much, and his personality seems to reflect it. One moment he’s pleasant and friendly, the next he is shouting at a public relations woman or sneaking out of practice through a side door to avoid the media.
Life outside the game “is going to be a tough adjustment,” Brown said. “It’s all about time management. You practice in the morning, two hours. After that, the day is yours. What are you going to do? You have a lot of time to get in trouble. If you’re on an older, veteran team, nobody’s going to want to hang out with you that much because they have wives and families at home. I had to learn. There’s only so much PlayStation you can play.”
Among other high school players drafted by the NBA, James is being compared with the likes of Bryant and Garnett, not the troubled Leon Smith nor the talent-deficient Korleone Young, whose flames extinguished quickly. James is not DeShawn Stevenson, drafted in the first round by Utah in 2000, whose notoriety mainly entails a sexual assault and getting into a fight the night of the draft. James is considered far better than Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis, Jonathan Bender, Darius Miles, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Brown, who are still finding their respective ways.
James is expected to make an instant impact like Amare Stoudemire, the Phoenix Suns’ sensation who is contending with Yao Ming for rookie of the year honors. Stoudemire, asked what advice he would give James, said, “Be able to take care of your business off the court. Off the court, you’re basically your own company. You’re the CEO of your own company. If you’re not prepared to be the owner, don’t come out.
“There’s a lot of tricks of the trade to it,” said the 20-year-old Stoudemire, who attended six high schools and whose mother spent time in jail. “It’s not just highlight reels and fast cars. It’s being able to take care of your business. Understand what’s going on and stay on your toes. A guy can steal more money with a pen than he can walking into a bank with a shotgun. You’ve got to be pretty much prepared for it.”
Bryant, for all his skills, intelligence and strong family background, needed a period of adjustment. O’Neal required four years in the league and a trade from Portland to Indiana to blossom. Orlando’s McGrady pretty much experienced the same thing. He was miserable with Toronto during his first three years.
“When I was in Toronto I’d sleep all the time because there was nothing to do,” McGrady told the New York Times. “It was so cold outside, and my bad habits just carried over.”
A native of Auburndale, Fla., McGrady said it was vital that he return home and surround himself with friends and family. Stoudemire, whose mother and brother moved with him to the Phoenix area, said, “Being around my family gives me great joy. And I think it allows me to play better, play with more passion because I know my family is watching. They’re proud of me.”
Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh, who drafted Bender and Harrington and traded for O’Neal, said a trusted support system will be crucial for James.
“It all depends on the kind of advisors you have,” Walsh said. “Look, they’re going to run into things because they’re so young. Their awareness level is not that high. But if you have good advisors, whether it’s family or agents, they can usually guide them through those things. If there’s a problem, it’s because they have a posse or people who are going to hit on them.”
This is a red flag with James, whose potential as a human cash machine already is evident.
“Is anybody helping him right now to deal with everything,” Llewellyn said, “other than getting into his wallet?”
Most NBA teams have staff members and coaches who work with young players and facilitate their adjustment. Some players, like Stoudemire and Harrington, bring family with them. Walsh added O’Neal’s former high school coach to his staff. For Bender, “We went out and hired people,” Walsh said.
The Pacers also had a group of unselfish veterans like Mark Jackson, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin. Harrington ended up living with Antonio Davis.
“Those guys were unbelievable,” Walsh said. “They helped those guys a lot. … Whoever takes [James] has to have people in place for him. He has to know they’re there for him.”