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James Has His Followers

By Mike Wise
Monday, April 24, 2006

CLEVELAND

At the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue, on the fringes of East Cleveland, the guest minister's voice rose with fervor on Sunday morning.

"We worship at the cathedral of entertainment," warned Peter Matthews, "where athletes and rock stars are high priests and high priestesses."

The pastor looked prescient if you drove 15 minutes toward downtown. An entire building's facade is dedicated to a black-and-white mural of LeBron James. The basketball is held aloft like a torch pointed toward the heavens.

"We Are All Witnesses," reads the most visible symbol of Nike's ad campaign for James, Cleveland's 21-year-old wunderkind, the NBA's best young player since Magic Johnson.

"I am a witness!" boomed the public-address announcer at the Quicken Loans Arena. It was Saturday, Game 1 of the Cavaliers-Wizards first-round series, the day James became only the second player in five decades to record double-figures in points (32), rebounds (11) and assists (11) in his first postseason game.

The announcer hollered in the manner of a baritone Baptist preacher, and much of the Cavaliers' congregation hollered back. They wore black T-shirts with little white swooshes under the word "Witness."

In Cleveland, you don't merely talk about James's talent and promise; you give testimonials. You witness.

It's enough to make a man of the cloth exclaim, "Can't the kid just be a great ballplayer!"

"Yeah, it crosses the line, mixing the two," said Douglas Brister, 60, a 50-year parishioner at Olivet. "One's Biblical, the other plays basketball. What kind of message are we sending to kids when we say, 'You ain't gotta go to college, you can be rich and famous anyway?' But that's just me. Younger folks might feel different."

Matthews, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, threw his arms up in resignation. "What do you do about that?" he said. "It's not LeBron's fault. But as much as we're having fun with the Biblical references, no one is having any constructive engagement about where the lines should be drawn."

Religious connotation and meaning in relation to sports has a long and storied history, dating from the old Colosseum, where the final was Lions 101, Christians 0.

Knute Rockne invoked God at Notre Dame long before Joe Gibbs in Washington.

Many modern-day players who consider themselves evangelical Christians point to the heavens after, what, each three-yard gain?

Well-meaning athletes doubling as zealots have been known to place John 3:16 verses in lockers of their hellion teammates, with the idea of saving their brethren from eternal damnation. Most teams consider this prosthelytizing and, thus, crossing the line.

Here in Jamestown, the line is obliterated.

Sports Illustrated christened James "the Chosen One" when he was 16 years old, which explains the large tattoo on his back. He also goes by "the Golden Child," and "King James."

The unabridged version, of course.

LeBron is not coached as much he is "shepherded" by Mike Brown. LeBron also did not lead the Cavs to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. No, he took them to the promised land.

The Cavs team store is not yet selling nativity scenes with Bron-Bron in a manger, but it's only April.

"Have any of the ministers in town given you a hard time about taking away some of their congregations?" James was asked facetiously on Sunday after practice.

"Nah," he said, half-smiling, "I don't think so."

It is one thing to be considered the savior of a franchise, who can dunk and distribute dimes. It is quite another, through mainstream marketing, to take ink away from the Christian faith's main man.

"I just think it's part of the hype, nothing more," said Kyle Cheeks, 18, as he stood in the back of the church's vestibule Sunday with friends Joe Tripp, 15, and Kadeem Brewer, 13.

Even before Sunday services ended, the three engaged in a strong debate about whether James deserved the league's most valuable player award over Kobe Bryant. Kyle is a Kobe man. Joe and Kadeem got LeBron in a landslide.

"I used to go to the games before he got here," Joe said. "Nobody in the building. We never won. No excitement. LeBron James lifted up a whole team and a community."

Maybe it's not a crime to deify a young man who has brought hope to a team as much as he has a town. Maybe when a gifted, grounded kid from a dilapidated neighborhood in nearby Akron sells hope in a manufacturing-depressed city -- the same city that lost the original Browns and hasn't won a major sports title since 1964 -- well, maybe, LeBron James does deserve a little exaltation.

Michael Jordan made Chicago feel better about itself each time he dunked on Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks. Just ask Los Angelenos. Post-O.J. and post-earthquake, L.A. was a much happier place to live when a smiling Shaquille O'Neal came to town. If Clevelanders indeed feel better about themselves with James leading their pro basketball team, how much is too much?

"I don't see myself as the king of anything," LeBron said.

Jordan's comeback from self-imposed retirement was often called "the Second Coming." He invoked the same religious cliches, and he and Nike merely reaped what the media and fans sowed.

But on the other side of the pew, there are those who see something lost in the supernova-making machine, especially when kids become iconic, even worshipped, so young.

Matthews preached in the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr.'s church on Sunday. Otis Moss Jr., was Martin Luther King Jr.'s good friend and was by his side the day he was gunned down in Memphis. The man is living history, which is why Matthews wept when he met Moss on Sunday morning.

When Matthews asked loudly, several times on Sunday, "Can I get a witness in this house, today?" he was not talking about the kid on the mural.

"I'm from Cincinnati, the same city as O.J. Mayo," Matthews said of the next great young high school phenom."What do you do when you're a product in seventh grade? I feel like much of the marketing and hype surrounding these youngsters prohibits individualism and blocks authenticity.

"They set you up, put you on a pedestal, until you have a Kobe experience," he said, referring to Bryant's arrest on charges of rape in Colorado that never came to trial.

"It's like when Michael Jordan was asked to campaign against Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina. What did he say? 'Republicans buy sneakers, too.' That's what I'm talking about, what this kind of adulation does to you."

Outside the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Mary Smith smiled after a particularly riveting and emotional sermon delivered by Matthews. She was not prepared to weigh in on any LeBron-religion debate, preferring instead to keep the two separate.

"I will say he seems to be very real and grounded," Smith, 60, said of James. "What's a miracle is, LeBron now has me reading the sports pages."

Glory be. Another convert in East Cleveland.

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