An Ohio judge temporarily restored LeBron James's high school eligibility yesterday, saying the basketball phenom must sit out just one more game as punishment for improperly accepting two free vintage jerseys from a sporting goods store last month.
The decision is provisional -- it will only stand until Feb. 19, when the same judge will decide whether to make it permanent or hold a trial -- but it certainly felt like a significant triumph to the 18-year-old James, who previously had been banned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association from playing a high school game again.
"LeBron is happy to be able to practice with his team again and concentrate on basketball and his grades for a while," said James's lawyer, Fred Nance, who argued in a Summit County court yesterday morning that taking away his client's eligibility while officials looked into the jersey matter more thoroughly "would cause irreparable harm, because you can't ever give him a chance to earn a state title back."
Judge James Williams seemed to agree, ruling that at the moment he would assess James with a two-game suspension, which will include the game James already sat out this past Sunday. He gave James's school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, latitude to choose which other game James will miss; later in the day, school officials announced James will sit out the team's Feb. 23 game, enabling him to play this weekend at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, N.J., a game that will be broadcast on the YES cable network.
Williams did not, however, completely dismiss the chance that the entire arrangement could change with his Feb. 19 decision. "Neither side is going to be happy," Williams told a packed courtroom when announcing his plans. "There are a number of issues the court wants to hear."
At issue are two vintage jerseys valued at $845 that the 6-foot-8 James, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, accepted for free on Jan. 25. OHSAA rules forbid any student from "capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value." Nance has argued that the jerseys were given to James as a reward for making his high school honor roll, not for his on-court accomplishments.
The OHSAA does not seem convinced. "There are some facts that are in dispute and we will put forth some evidence so the court can know wherein the truth lies," OHSAA attorney Steven Craig told a throng of camera crews after the ruling.
Yet back at his offices later in the day, Nance seemed secure that yesterday's decision eventually will be made permanent, saying, "I'm confident that the reinstatement is going to continue as this unfolds."
He also said he was not worried about additional speculation about other potentially inappropriate gifts; a recent ESPN report raised questions about plane tickets to Chicago James used last summer, as well as several pairs of expensive shoes and nearly a dozen other vintage jerseys he owns.
"Any time he has a profile like he has, there's going to be lots of talk, and as far as I know, that's what it is, talk," Nance said. "He's a very unusual 18-year-old, and he's in a very unusual situation. But he's very resilient, very focused, and I think he has learned from these experiences."