-- They paid to see LeBron James, the most hyped high school basketball player ever, and the 11,523 in attendance did not leave disappointed.
With 95 representatives of the media and front office personnel from 10 NBA teams also on hand, everyone watched carefully as James made his national debut on ESPN2 at the Convocation Center at Cleveland State University and showed what the hype was all about. No-look passes and highlight-style slam dunks led to a 31-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist performance and a 65-45 win for St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio, over Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Va.
"I'm leaving here more impressed than when I came in," said Bill Walton, the NBA Hall of Famer who called the game for ESPN2 along with Dick Vitale. "Two things you don't know is whether he'll stay healthy and how hard he'll work, but he has a magnificent body and plays smart. He doesn't have to overwhelm opponents with his physical gifts to win."
After leading his team to victory over what is considered the No. 1 high school squad in the country -- and one that has lost six times in 51/2 years -- James had to weave his way through autograph seekers, answer questions for reporters, duck low-hanging boom microphones and cross a picket of television cameras before he could greet friends at courtside.
"King James," as fans and breathless pundits call the 17-year-old, is the first high school player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated since Tracy McGrady in 1995. In bold type the magazine cover headline anointed him "The Chosen One."
This month, ESPN The Magazine featured him in an issue dedicated to athletes who could become superstars. The New York Times and USA Today have chronicled his rise.
"He's amazing people at the age of 17 and the hype's begun," Michael Jordan said of James after the Washington Wizards' practice today. "I've seen him play numerous times and for a 17-year-old he's probably one of the best. He has the potential to be a very good basketball player. The key word is potential. He's got a lot of things in front of him. A lot of things are coming at him and his mental capacity is going to be the biggest thing that will decide if he's going to be a great basketball player or not. From everything I've seen thus far, he's on the right track."
In perhaps the biggest testament to how special James is, people are willing to pay big money for the right to showcase his talents. The northeast Ohio division of Time Warner Cable is televising 11 St. Vincent-St. Mary games on pay-per-view at $7.95 a contest.
Tonight ESPN2 did not pay for the rights to broadcast this game, but it is the first high school game the network has aired in 13 years. ESPN would not reveal what kind of ratings the broadcast would need for the network to consider doing more high school games.
And ESPN is quick to dismiss the idea that James's biggest impact may be to usher in a new age when high school sports are marketed like the college and pro ranks.
"It's a one-time deal," said Josh Krulewitz, director of media relations for ESPN. "This is a stand-alone event and anyone interpreting this as some kind of watershed moment or turning point in our commitment to high school sports is way ahead of themselves."
Before the game, scalpers were asking $50 for courtside seats to get in and catch a glimpse of James, whose arrival into the NBA is already anticipated. James, who wore a green headband adorned with an NBA logo, opened the game jittery, turning over the ball twice and missing his first two shots.
Just before the end of the quarter, James got free on a breakaway. It was the moment the impatient crowd had been waiting for after a tense start in which the players on the court played like, well, high school players. James rose high enough on his approach to the basket that he appeared to be looking down at the rim as he dunked. The cost of the tickets, between $15 and $35 at the box office, proved worthy.
"I always get nervous before games," James said. "I get little butterflies in my stomach."
In attendance were such recognizable faces as Ohio State Coach Jim O'Brien, former NBA star Ron Harper, members of the Cleveland Indians and local politicians.
"He's hugely gifted, he's smart and he's a competitor, but is he Michael [Jordan]?" Harper asked. "No."
Chris Hooper, 40, flew in from Carmel, Calif., to watch James, again. Hooper and his son, Max, 10, were dazzled by James when they saw him at Jordan's basketball camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., this year.
"He's worth traveling across the country for," Hooper said.
Against Oak Hill Academy, James settled down in the second quarter. Hailed as a passer that could rival Magic Johnson, James found teammates in traffic with crisp no-look passes. He also received several lob passes that he turned into dunks.
However, he left room for improvement -- in the first half he missed all three three-point attempts and shot 6 for 16 from the field, scoring 13 points.
At the news conference following the game, James addressed the controversy that has accompanied the intense media attention he has received. Some columnists have said that shining such a bright spotlight on someone so young is harmful. Some argued that James doesn't need to be hounded by fans or an entourage; instead he needs free time.
Laughing, James said, "If I want free time, I'll just quit basketball."
Staff writer Steve Wyche contributed to this report from Washington.