- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

LeBron James has signed a seven-year contract with Nike worth more than $90million, which just goes to show you how wacky we are as a people.

We are Shoe Nation.

We now know what is important in America: education, family, hard work, character and shoes.

Shoes, shoes, shoes.

With Nike, it is almost a quasi-religious experience.

Nike is the $10billion shoe company investing an unthinkable amount of money in a high school athlete because of what he possibly might achieve in the NBA in the years ahead.

James is supposed to be the next Michael Jordan, if not the scientist who develops a cure for SARS.

Maybe James will become a combination of that. Maybe he also will end world hunger, save the whale and inspire world peace. Nike might as well try to get its money’s worth out of James.

Then again, maybe James is going to come down with a headache and not have an interest in much of anything, except to chill out with his friends.

James does not have to sweat another day in his life. He can put up his basketball, start up his Hummer H2 and relax the rest of his life. He has earned it after 18 years and fashioning one heck of a career in high school.

What more does James have to do to earn a position of security in society?

Nothing. Not a darn thing.

It is all over but the closing on a fancy house.

An ESPN camera crew possibly will be there to televise it.

ESPN announcer: “LeBron just reached for an ink pen. Did you see that move? Let’s show the replay.”

This is not to begrudge one penny of the teen’s newfound wealth.

If a company is so mesmerized by a teen that it kicks in a $10million signing bonus, then so be it.

It is just kind of icky, that’s all. You almost feel as if you need to take a good shower and check for lice.

It is hard to understand this madness with shoes.

Perhaps it all goes back to Imelda Marcos, who was all about shoes before anyone else was all about shoes.

Shoes used to be shoes.

Shoes now reveal a person’s philosophy. You wear shoes; therefore, you are. It is that kind of thing.

To be somebody in America now, you must have a zillion pairs of shoes in your closet, and the shoes have to bear the right company logos.

How did this come to be? Some of us must have missed that lesson plan in college.

You can’t tell anyone you shop at Payless. You won’t be allowed into the club then. You will be ostracized, and that is as bad as being told you have only a week to live.

Of course, being a shoe-wearing VIP comes with a price.

A functional pair of sneakers used to cost $20. Now companies put out blinking shoes that cost $150.

Some of these shoes also discuss current events with you, cheer you up when you are down and pick up around the house. Some of them are even potty-trained.

It is really crazy stuff.

Lots of people are shaking their heads over this James-Nike merger.

Some are saying: “Gosh, that is a lot of money to bet on a hunch. It somehow doesn’t seem right.”

Yet some of these same people will turn around and buy the first pair of $400 shoes that Nike dumps onto the marketplace.

Nike eventually will have to increase the price of its top shoes because of its arrangement with James and the prospect of securing the next James.

There probably is a 12-year-old out there right now who has some James in him and who has the birddogs with the shoe companies sniffing his trail.

The kid probably will command a $150million shoe deal and buy a tank to drive to school in his senior year. Or the kid could go with a fully-loaded helicopter by then. We’ll have to wait and see. Who knows what means of transportation will be fashionable in a few years?

Nike has a history of betting on winners, specifically with Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Each man also exhibited a significant quality distinct from athletic dominance. With Jordan, it was the million-dollar smile. No marketing guru could teach that smile, with the ever-active twinkle in the eyes, which said: “Buy, buy, buy.”

With Woods, it is his grace, his cool, clinical, easy manner.

His persona says: “If you don’t go out and buy my shoes right now, your life is empty, pathetic. Go. The mass has ended.”

James beats on his chest. Give him that. He also makes funny faces, as if the end of the world is near.

This is a variation of the towel-waving proclivities of M.L. Carr, the one-time role player with the Celtics.

Role players, because of what they are, have to try harder.

Superstars touch the senses best if they pick their spots, preferably after they have converted a game-winning 20-footer that rips out the heart of the opposition.

James comes across as a cliche, not unlike most know-nothing teens. You see them at the gym. Their shorts are dragging down to their ankles, their heads are messed up on testosterone, and what are you going to do? It is not easy being a clueless young man.

Until they grow out of it, there are not too many life-affirming pursuits for these young men. We already have plenty of rappers. How many Eminems are truly necessary, and nothing against Eminem? He is doing the best he can.

James, in a way, is the first virtual-reality player to come before the NBA. He is Matrix-like.

As the most hyped high school player ever, James does not even need the NBA.

His first contract with the NBA will be merely supplemental income, assuming he sticks with an endeavor he already has conquered.

James could have other interests.

He always could retire from the game before the NBA Draft next month and open a Hummer dealership.

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