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For James and NBA, The Future Is Now

By Mike Wise and Greg Sandoval
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E01

DENVER -- LeBron James's agent cannot fathom what GQ's editors were thinking. Who were they to bump his client from the magazine's cover for an Oscar-winning hunk?

"Russell Crowe, man -- can you believe it?" lamented Aaron Goodwin, from Oakland, Calif. "I mean, Russell Crowe is big. I respect the man and his talents. But he's no LeBron."

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To promote its 54th NBA All-Star Game, the league has pitted a youngster from the Eastern Conference against Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the West's established supernovas.

"Believe the hype," James says in the NBA commercial, and as you review the numbers, the dollars and the sense of most keen basketball observers, there is no reason not to.

"They won't be asking in the future who the next Michael [Jordan] is," said Sonny Vaccaro, an Adidas representative and perhaps the first national talent evaluator to see James play as a teenager. "They'll be asking who the next LeBron is."

James's backers are hoping he can connect with a skeptical American public in his own way. Although he doesn't have Jordan's polish, James's quick and pithy responses to questions are as full of certainty as they are charisma. As Goodwin said, "People want edge nowadays, but they also want to see the wholesomeness -- a guy you might grow up to be like."

'I Did It Myself'

James left high school less than two years ago and today arrives in Denver as the NBA's next icon-in-training. He is a 6-foot-8, thickly muscled man-child of just 20. He is a bona fide MVP candidate, among the league leaders in three separate categories -- averaging 25.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists.

If he continues to average more than 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, James will enter some hefty historical company, with players such as Jordan, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek as the only players to average a comparable statistical line over a career.

Ambidextrous and affable, he earns $5 million from the Cleveland Cavaliers and roughly $34 million annually from corporate America.

Bubblicious named a gum flavor for him and gave him his own ad on Super Bowl Sunday. Nike has devoted a sneaker campaign to James. Indicative of how quickly marketing tastes change, James is close to signing a multiyear endorsement deal with McDonald's -- which used to employ Bryant to move its products.

On Madison Avenue and most everywhere, it's a LeBron-in, Kobe-out world.

Unlike Bryant -- and in an era of routinely tarnished athletic heroes ranging from juiced sluggers to violent, suspended NBA players -- James remains unblemished by real controversy. In the NBA's forever-long quest to recapture the halcyon days of Michael Jordan, James may be as close as the league can come at this moment.

"What I've always liked about the kid is his willingness to listen to his elders," said Shaquille O'Neal, now in his 13th season. "He never had any of this, 'I'm going to do it my way.' Even when he was in high school, I remember him taking the time to find out what this world would be like for him. He was preparing himself."

"On the court, it was just being a student of the game, it was knowing the history of the game," James said of his lightning prep-to-pro adjustment. "Off the court, I just wanted to be myself. I didn't change who I was when I came to the NBA."

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