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The Amazing Case of LeBron James
(Posted May 4, 2002)

How would it feel to be 17 years old and have the world hanging on your every move?

Incredibly, that is the situation that LeBron James, a high school junior from Akron, Ohio, finds himself in. The teenager has electrified the basketball community with skills that have been described as a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Most basketball experts believe that he would be the first player selected in the upcoming NBA draft - if not for a rule that players must have graduated high school before turning pro.

The hype on James has been steadily building for years, but his profile has exploded in the last few months with an unprecedented amount of exposure. Recently named the Gatorade national player of the year, James has already been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in the New York Times, and demand to see him play is so strong that his team's games have been moved to a college arena - attracting visits by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan. There is already a flourishing market for memorabilia signed by James. A team in Italy has allegedly offered James $9 million to forego his senior year and play overseas, forcing his family to issue a statement that he plans to return to school.

His case is fascinating, not only for the amount of attention received, but also for the questions it raises about the relationship between athletics, big business, and society. For while few want to admit it, the major collegiate sports (basketball and football) are multi-billion dollar enterprises in which everyone gets paid except the athletes.

In James' case, the money has flowed down to the high school level. The St. Vincent-St. Mary team for which he plays is estimated to bring in nearly $300,000 in revenue - almost solely because of his presence in the lineup. The school has already had to hire a bodyguard and develop new rules to accommodate international press interest in James, who has hung out with Jay-Z, NBA star Antoine Walker and Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis when not attending class. He drives a gold Navigator.

Given these conditions, it can be argued that James is already living the professional lifestyle. So why not let him formalize it by entering the NBA? Should he suffer an injury during his senior season, it's not likely that Nike will be willing to offer a $20 million contract, as currently believed.

The normal argument that kids are unprepared to handle the rigors of pro sports clearly does not apply in this case. In fact, LeBron James is already impacting the NBA, as teams are sure to spend the next year maneuvering to place themselves in position to draft him.

As the sports establishment struggles to restructure its rules towards young athletes, the rest of the world eagerly awaits the formal arrival of the Next Big Thing, likely making next year an unprecedented event in modern sports history, where school is considered a hindrance to James' best interest.

Copyright 2002  All rights reserved.

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