For those familiar with the culture of high-powered high school basketball, every summer all-star camp looks just like the next one. Games go on simultaneously at multiple courts, with college coaches standing as close as possible to where one of their recruits is playing, more to be seen than to actually see. Those who make a living by keeping track of the sport's stars-to-be are always in evidence: shoe company reps and their flacks; NBA and college scouts; the omnipresent street agents and media types; as well as the basketball junkies, fans who think nothing of watching talented teenagers strut their stuff from 10 in the morning until 10 at night in the middle of July.
But this particular day, at a shoe-company-sponsored camp two summers ago in Teaneck, N.J., was different. Almost everyone in the building was clustered around one court. Almost all of them had their eyes on just one kid.
He was matched up against Lenny Cook, another highly touted player. In the game's final seconds, he backed Cook toward the basket, turned, took a step away and drilled an 18-foot jumper for the winning score. The place exploded, not because anyone cared who won, but because of the brilliance of the move. As soon as James began making his way off the court, he was surrounded by at least 50 people, most claiming to be an FOL (Friend of LeBron) and more than a few hoping to make themselves a permanent part of his lucrative future.
James had just finished his sophomore year in high school. Not a soul in the gym expected him to spend a single day in college. Many thought he might turn pro after his junior year. For a sport that not that many years ago was worried about too many college players leaving early, all this fuss over a 16-year-old was unknown territory. As James and company swept through the door, one long-time NBA scout watched with a knowing smile. "That circus," he said, "has only just begun."
Truer words were never spoken.
It is difficult right now to find any good guys in the LeBron James saga. In case you don't read the sports pages, James is now a senior at St. Vincent- St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, and as certain to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft as it is certain that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. He is 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, with a feel for the game that has prompted comparison to Magic Johnson.
Twenty-six years ago, when Magic Johnson was a high school senior, basketball insiders understood that he was special. But they were just about the only ones who knew or cared. Johnson went to college (Michigan State), led his team to a national title in his sophomore year and then left school to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
By contrast, James is already a familiar name to basketball fans. He has been on multiple magazine covers. He is being openly courted by the major shoe companies, whose reps talk about paying him $20 million to sign with them. His high school team has played games all over the country this season. Two of the games have been televised on ESPN, the premier sports cable channel. Several others have appeared on pay-per-view (yes, pay-per-view). His high school moved its home games to a larger arena and tripled ticket prices. And when the team travels, it demands up to $15,000 per game. (Normally, traveling high school teams receive only expenses.)
In short, James has become not just a circus, but an industry. He has made a lot of money for a lot of people while biding his time until he plays his last high school game and the money begins to roll in for him in giant waves.
Except he got tired of waiting. Last month, on his 18th birthday, he showed up driving a Hummer with a base sticker price of $50,000. Loaded with options, as the car apparently was, it was worth closer to $75,000. His mother, who is unemployed, said she secured a bank loan to buy the car based on her son's future NBA earnings. Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) rules say that an athlete may not accept gifts or money based on his future stardom. They say nothing about his family doing so.
But the two custom "throwback" jerseys that a sporting goods store gave to James during a visit two weeks ago -- bearing a retail value of $845 -- did break the rules. (The sky-high cost of the jerseys is scandalous, but that's another story.) After media reports about the freebie, the OHSAA declared James ineligible for the rest of the season, saying he had forfeited his amateur standing by accepting the jerseys.
James appealed, and on Wednesday, an Ohio judge provisionally reduced the penalty to a two-game suspension. Which was the right decision, especially since the jerseys have been returned. But it would be surprising if those around James draw the right lessons from the incident.
James claimed that he thought he was being given the jerseys as a reward for making the honor roll at school. Does he honestly think that if the rest of the honor roll students at St. Vincent-St. Mary had shown up at the same store, they would have been handed $845 in merchandise as their reward? Of course not. At best, he is disingenuous, at worst dishonest, which makes him no different than all those rushing to claim that he was "set up," or that "he's just a kid, he didn't know any better."
Conversely, does the OHSAA honestly think these are the first freebies James has been offered and accepted? To come in screaming, "Aha, we've got you now," is a little bit like Police Captain Renaud closing down Rick's Cafe in the movie "Casablanca" because he is "SHOCKED, shocked, to find that there is gambling going on here."
James stopped being an amateur long ago. He is no more an amateur than the top college players who claim they haven't got enough money to take their girlfriends to the movies while they are leaving the locker room wearing $1,000 suits.
He took those jerseys for one reason and one reason only: The message to him for the past three years has been that the rules don't apply to him. That is often the message sent to star athletes by the sycophants who surround them almost as soon as they show themselves to be gifted.
You can bet that the shoe company reps aren't going to do anything but fill a kid's head with dollar signs and any other come-on they think will bring them his signature. (Nike had Michael Jordan personally recruit James.) The media are no better: ESPN, which is always looking for ways to promote itself, turned James into another of its franchises this winter, not just televising those games but relentlessly promoting them (and him) on TV, radio, on its Web site and in its magazine. You know, the synergy thing, including the fact that James will be playing in the NBA next fall -- a league to which ESPN pays millions a year to televise games. Coincidence? I don't think so.
The only real hope was that a teacher or coach would step in and bring some sanity to the situation. But that didn't happen. The people running St. Vincent-St. Mary have turned James into a human cash register, apparently not caring about how the glamour and out-of-proportion glory is affecting the rest of the team. No doubt the players have enjoyed the ride, but when it ends, where will they be? Caught up with their school work? Wondering where everybody went? Confused about why Dick Vitale isn't their best friend anymore?
In short, just about everyone's guilty. James will get to finish his high school career, assuming he can resist further temptation for another month. He will go off to make millions and, maybe, become a star. Lenny Cook, the player he faced down two summers ago, was supposed to be the best in the high school class of 2002. Cook, too, thought he didn't need college. Today, he is somewhere in the netherworld of minor league basketball, wondering who turned out all those bright lights.
The direct leap from high school to the NBA is not new. But the LeBron James story marks a turning point because of the amount of attention he has received. (ESPN didn't exist when Moses Malone went from high school to the pros in 1974, and the cable network didn't televise the high school games of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett or Kwame Brown, all of whom made the jump to the NBA.) The industry has concluded that the high school game is no longer off limits; high school officials have yet to catch up.
This is not to say that all the innocence is gone from high school basketball. It's just harder and harder to find, now that USA Today is ranking high school teams nationally (an absurd exercise to begin with) and recruiting services are rating sixth-graders.
Yes, that's right. Sixth-graders. (One, a local kid named Kendall Marshall, was just named to the NBA's Junior All-Star team).
Sometime soon, the next LeBron James will come along. This time, he may be even younger. The circus will start again. And, if history is any guide, there won't be many good guys under that big top, either.