I watched LeBron James the other night. I listened to everybody gush over the kid. I know all the NBA scouts were at courtside, in full drool. I was at a restaurant where the waiters stopped waiting tables to watch the phenom on television. I thought he looked really, really good. Big, strong kid who can explode off the floor and pass the ball with precision. How could you not like the way he played?
He was playing against high school kids.
Four or five of the kids he played against are going to play big-time college basketball, and a couple of his teammates are going to play at Division I Akron. I love Dick Vitale, but at one point, after James made a behind-the-back pass into the lane to a cutting teammate, Vitale screamed, "How many guys in college or even in the NBA can throw that pass?"
Oh, 50. At the very least. Every point guard, almost every two-guard, 7-foot Kevin Garnett, 7-6 Yao Ming. That's for starters.
I don't want to sound like The Cynic today because there are too many basketball people I trust, like ESPN's Jay Bilas who never overstates anything, who say James is the best high school player they've ever seen, even better than Garnett and Kobe Bryant when they were in high school. I'm not going to sermonize on why this kid should go to college, even though I'm skeptical of anybody who tries to make going to college sound like an impediment to achievement -- in anything. But the kid's an industry to himself, and everybody is already making money off him so he might as well cut himself in as soon as possible.
I guess I'm just tired of the hype, even though I help manufacture the hype. But if you live here, you know how little the hype can mean once an actual career in the pros begins. Every time we watch the Washington Wizards play, we see the last can't-miss high school phenom, Kwame Brown. And every time he goes 0 for 5 with one rebound in 20 minutes, or doesn't play at all, we groan. We, and he, are reminded of the difference between high school and the pros.
And it's not just the opponents, or the travel, or the groupies, or the homeys, or the physical demands, although it's all that stuff. It's knowing when to take a nap, or how to pack a suitcase, or missing home, or being screamed at by a coach for the first time, or disappointing a teammate with Hall of Fame credentials. I read the stories coming out of Cleveland that talk about how mature James is, how well he's likely to handle certain situations. And I'm wondering how the hell they know. Brown is a prince of a kid, expressive and introspective, and he didn't know to send his $1,500 custom-made suits to the cleaners.
For every Kobe there's a Leon Smith, for every Garnett there's a Dontonio Wingfield. More than a few of these kids not only don't know how to practice, they can't be coaxed into practicing. They resist veteran teammates instructing them on how to do a drill properly. They think the least bit of instruction, which most of us think of as "coaching," is personal criticism. "Son, here's how you have to block out," is met with a scowl and two days of pouting.
Just two years ago, everybody who put Brown through a workout said he had the perfect body for a power forward in the NBA, that he had all the tools a player needs to be an all-star in time. Maybe he does, but there's other stuff that has to fit into the equation that can't be scouted in high school. Somebody who scouted Brown and worked him out just before the draft, told me, "We looked at that body and at his athleticism, and presumed he was a man, when he was just a kid."
Charlie Rosen, a man who once coached in the CBA and has scouted professional basketball for years, went to scout James for ESPN on Thursday when St. Vincent-St. Mary played Oak Hill in a game televised on ESPN2 (and garnered triple the rating of the Pistons-Bulls NBA game on TNT at the same time). Rosen observed that James refers to himself as a "superhero" at times, "King James" at others, and often in the third person.
If you watched the game closely you could see James wearing a wrap around his shin that said, "Chosen One," which was also the headline when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 months ago. All this and he has yet to play in a game with ruthless men twice his age.
Ultimately, though, I'm hardly concerned with James. He's going to receive a minimum of $12 million, and in all probability more than $150 million in his career and that's just the on-court earnings. James, either way, ought to be just fine. But while watching that game, I couldn't help wondering about the other kids on the court and how they felt about being props for James's national TV debut, about all this money changing hands but them not getting any of it, about Nike and Adidas who are waging what amounts to a war for the kid's signature.
I wondered about the sports book in Costa Rica offering odds on how many points James was going to score, and about the pay-per-view deal set up in the Cleveland area so that Ohioans can watch selected James games.
Phenoms are hardly new. James didn't appear on "The Mike Douglas Show," when he was 2, like Tiger Woods did. James isn't the player now that Lew Alcindor was at Power Memorial High in New York in 1964-65. He isn't going to become heavyweight champ at 20 like Mike Tyson did, or win Wimbledon at 17 like Boris Becker did or win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics at 16 like Sarah Hughes did in February. It's just that every year the stage grows larger, the hype louder, and the hangers-on increase. Me, I'm going to watch the big boys play and in three or four years, if James has survived the hysteria and the potholes that swallow up young phenoms all the time, I'll be glad to re-join the King James show in progress.