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Friday, March 8, 2002
Updated: July 22, 6:04 PM ET
LeBron James is an 'unprecedented phenomenon'

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

The NCAA manual is 466 pages long and has the heft of a big-city phonebook. It is dense, convoluted and chock full with hundreds of infractions -- many of which seem irrelevant -- that will compromise a college athlete's eligibility.

There are few rules, however, for high school athletes like LeBron James, who by most accounts will have no need for the NCAA or its rules.

Lebron James
LeBron James is just a junior in high school, but he's forcing people to re-examine the rules.
The 6-foot-7 junior, a dazzling guard for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, is expected to jump to the NBA after next year, following the direct path of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and, most recently, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler, the first two picks in last year's NBA draft.

The 17-year-old's skills -- he averages nearly 30 points a game and sees the court reminiscent of Magic Johnson -- already have inspired a serious scramble by Adidas and Nike, among others, to ultimately get his name on sneaker and apparel contracts. Industry experts estimate James could sign a shoe deal worth $20 million, a record for an NBA rookie.

The funny thing? According to the strictest letter of Ohio State High School Athletic Association by-laws, James seemingly could sign the contract right now and still play his senior season next year. Or maybe not.

On Monday, OSHSAA commissioner Clair Muscaro told ESPN.com that his organization had little jurisdiction in the case of James. As long as James satisfied the school's residency requirements, didn't turn 19 or attend more than eight semesters of school (he's currently in his sixth), and kept up non-failing grades (he surpassed a 3.0 grade-point average this term and made the merit roll), James could accept perks that weren't tied to a specific game or tournament and still maintain his athletic eligibility, Muscaro said.

"The only basic rule we have is that when the athlete plays in any contest or tournament, they cannot receive more than $100 worth of merchandise," Muscaro said. "Now, we're reading that Kobe Bryant gave him a pair of shoes. Well, that's not covered by our guidelines.

"The shoes weren't given based on performance, he didn't play in any game, so whether it's Kobe or a friend at the end of the block, we have no control over that."

On Wednesday morning, when asked in a second conversation if a sneaker contract was considered a perk along the lines of Bryant's gift and, therefore, wouldn't threaten James' high school eligibility, Muscaro took a long pause. "That's a good hypothetical question. I would have to research that," he said. "This is all such an unprecedented phenomenon. I'll take a look at that and call you back."

True to his word, Muscaro called back a few hours later.

"On the scenario you gave me, if LeBron James signed a $20 million Adidas contract, it would be our interpretation that he would automatically lose his right to participate," Muscaro said. "When we're talking money, we're talking a whole new ballgame."

And what is the specific statute that forbids it?

"Well, we'd have to make an interpretation," Muscaro said. "As far as we'd be concerned, he'd be getting money because of his basketball skills, and that would jeopardize his eligibility."

Jeopardize or, actually, void it?

"We would say void," Muscaro said. "We would have a problem with that."

The education of LeBron James, it turns out, is really more about the re-education of the entire athletic system. All the rules that used to apply to college athletes now are being applied to high school athletes. In the absence of a set of national standards or a national governing body, there are more questions than answers.

A whole new ballgame
The murky interpretations of the OSHSAA and the startling prospect of a high school athlete worth millions underline the difficulty the St. Vincent-St. Mary braintrust and James' family and friends have had in keeping it real for the 17-year-old. Surreal might be a better word.

Witness the astonishing things that have happened to James:

  • He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated last month, underscored with the headline "The Chosen One." Autographed copies have sold for more than $200 on eBay. As of Friday afternoon there were 52 items related to James on the auction site. There have been as many as 90 at one time.

  • NBA personnel men say James could well be the top pick in the 2003 draft, a slot worth almost $19 million including a fourth-year option. Were he eligible to enter the draft this year, he'd be a lottery pick.

  • The home games for the nationally ranked St. Vincent-St. Mary Irish have been moved to the 5,900-seat Rhodes Arena at the University of Akron, where attendance averaged about 4,500 this season -- twice as much as the college team. In anticipation of James' presence, the Ohio regional semifinals have been moved to 19,000-seat Gund Arena in Cleveland.

  • Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and even Michael Jordan have paid visits to James, who counts Boston Celtics star Antoine Walker as a good friend.

    Brian Windhorst, a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, has been watching the circus unfold from the very beginning. He was the only reporter present at James' first high school game.

    "They're basically playing a college schedule, traveling across the country," Windhorst said. "When you're doing that, well, he's not playing high school anymore."

    Just don't tell that to James.

    Circling the wagons
    Last summer, when James was asked -- one time too many -- how he measured up to Kobe Bryant, he responded, "I don't want to think about that. I'm 16. I just want to be a high school student."

    Dave Rathz, the headmaster at St. Vincent-St. Mary, read the quote in a local newspaper and was moved to call a meeting of his administrative team.

    "I knew what he was saying," Rathz said. "He was getting past the point of positive returns on the media attention. I think he was growing weary of it. I said at the meeting, 'This year is going to be different for us, and it's going to be different for LeBron James. Our job from between 8 and 3 is to keep everyone away and let him be a high school student, uninterrupted.'

    "It sounded like a hard line then, but now we're happy we did it."

    While television camera crews occasionally roamed the hallways at St. Vincent-St. Mary during classes a year ago -- it was a novelty and, for awhile, exciting, Rathz said -- the media is now asked to conduct its interviews before or after practice.

    Head coach Dru Joyce II did his part, closing practice to the media.

    We've been trying to handle this as best we can, not totally understanding how wild and crazy this thing could be. The most difficult thing in this process is not knowing what the process is.
    Dru Joyce II, St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball coach
    "That was to get people to understand that there was a time when we needed to think about basketball and basketball only," Joyce said. "It's helped create a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation. We've been trying to handle this as best we can, not totally understanding how wild and crazy this thing could be. The most difficult thing in this process is not knowing what the process is."

    There is a security guard posted at the locker room door, even for road games, and Chris Harrison, a 6-foot-9 volunteer coach, is James' Siamese twin, according to athletics director Frank Jessie. In his first year at St. Vincent-St. Mary, Jessie has spent 33 years in education and knows a little something about big-time situations. He was part of coach Bob Huggins' staff at the University of Akron and, later, the University of Cincinnati, when the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 in the country a few years ago. And while Jessie oversees 17 interscholastic sports, including a nationally ranked wrestling team, he estimates that about half of the phone calls he gets are related to LeBron James or basketball.

    "You cannot believe the action we are getting," Jessie said. "It's pretty tough. I wish I had a written statement for you on Security 101. Being in college coaching, I had seen some pretty crazy stuff, but this ... you do get a lot of scam artists.

    "I guess I'm the first line of defense, but Dru Joyce has been super, and his mom, Gloria, and Eddie have been very good."

    Gloria James, who was only 17 when LeBron was born, and Eddie Jackson, who dated Gloria for about three years after the birth but is no longer romantically involved, essentially function as LeBron's parents.

    "Myself and Eddie Jackson, we take care of the parental things," Gloria said. "I've never had any problems with LeBron. There was never anything we had to work on. Nothing.

    "What's the word I want to use? Confidence -- that's not quite it. It's really that LeBron has a strong will."

    James is close to his mother; he has her name tattooed on his biceps. She, in turn, wears a school basketball jersey to games bearing the words "LeBron's Mom."

    While his biological father has never been involved, James has found a number of strong male influences beyond Jackson. His three best friends -- teammates Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru Joyce III -- go all the way back to fourth grade. Three local families -- the Joyces, Cottons and Walkers -- have been there for him when times were tough and his mother was forced to move from apartment to apartment.

    Jackson, who re-entered the picture before James reached ninth grade, is a real estate investor and concert promoter who has helped provide emotional and financial support for Gloria and her son. He drives a Jaguar, and LeBron drives a Gold Navigator registered in Jackson's name. Jackson also has helped arrange many of the logistical details regarding LeBron's career. Jackson and Gloria already have interviewed potential agents and visited with representatives from several shoe companies.

    Their efforts are needed to keep some of the perks of professionalism at least arm's length from James in order to maintain his amateur status. Jackson insists James still has not ruled out college.

    It is not etched in stone that he's going to The League.
    Eddie Jackson
    "It is not etched in stone," Jackson said, "that he's going to The League."

    But with all the discussions with agents, sneaker merchants and dubious hangers-on, does Jackson worry about LeBron running afoul of the NCAA, or even the OSHSAA?

    "No," he said. "Not at all. LeBron doesn't talk to those people. Myself and Gloria shield him from all that. The key thing is to keep our integrity. We're not worried about someone saying -- and this doesn't happen now -- 'Here's some money, here's this, here's that.'

    "We're fine. We don't need it. We're fine."

    That said, LeBron himself will make the decisions that define his career: whether or not to jump directly to the NBA and which endorsement contracts to sign.

    "LeBron has always been his own man," Gloria said. "I can tell him what I think, but he's the one who has to decide in the end."

    The rush is on
    Everybody, everywhere wants a piece of the action as St. Vincent-St. Mary pursues its third straight state championship and, perhaps, an unprecedented fourth that the players secretly dream about.

    The 20-3 Irish easily won their district semifinal Wednesday night, defeating rival Hoban, 72-33, to advance to Saturday night's final against Central-Hower. James scored 22 points and was greeted before the game by Hoban players wearing T-shirts with the words "The Chosen Ones," a play on his SI cover. The regionals are scheduled for March 13 and 16, and the state semis and finals are March 21 and 23.

    There are at least 15 tournament offers on the table for next season for St. Vincent-St. Mary, including one at the Dean Dome in North Carolina and another at Madison Square Garden. In addition to the Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are two radio stations that broadcast each game, plus regular reports by the local television stations. The national basketball-centric publications came first, followed by the more mainstream New York Times, USA Today and ESPN's various enterprises. Recently, there was even a feature on SportsCenter. Jessie has fielded media requests from such diverse venues as Paris, Madrid and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

    James averages about 100 pieces of mail a week, most of them requests for autographs. Soon after the Sports Illustrated cover story came out, James stopped signing copies of the magazine when he started recognizing the same faces in line over and over again. One man asked him to sign two stacks of the magazine.

    The local newspapers estimate that St. Vincent-St. Mary will gross close to $1 million in ticket sales to boys basketball games. It's a tough ticket. According to Jessie, one fan looking for a credentialed seat posed as a scout for the Grizzlies -- the Vancouver Grizzlies.

    "That's great," Jessie told him, "but they moved to Memphis last year. You're going to have to do better than that. Tickets are 10 bucks."

    The looming battle over whose sneakers James will wear in the pros promises to be "a Shakespearean drama," according to Adidas representative Sonny Vaccaro.

    "Me and Michael, it's gotten down to that," Vaccaro said. "There will be other companies interested, but in the end it will be the two of us. The negotiations will be very interesting, because LeBron is light-years ahead of everyone that's come before him in terms of publicity."

    The "Michael" to whom Vaccaro refers is, of course, Jordan, the man who made Nike famously profitable. Vaccaro, of course, was the man who, then at Nike, took a chance on the not-so-well-known Jordan. Since switching to Adidas, Vaccaro has signed Bryant and McGrady to huge contracts right out of high school. And though the industry has tightened its belt since McGrady scored a six-year, $12 million deal in 1997, with a Nike-Adidas bidding war, James is likely to land a huge deal.

    Based on early returns, Vaccaro has an advantage over Nike and Jordan, who are seeking fresh talent after missing out on Bryant, McGrady and Allen Iverson, who went with Reebok. The Irish's gaudy canary yellow Pro Model shoes are supplied by Adidas, and James, who played the last two summers for an Adidas traveling team based in Oakland, has his pair customized with his initials and number. The Celtics' Walker, who is a paid endorser of Adidas, passed along a pair of shoes to James, as did Bryant, who gave up a pair from a limited batch of personal shoes that were screened with a print of the American flag.

    Whether or not James actually is entitled, legally speaking, to sign an endorsement contract and still play high school basketball, Nike said it wouldn't force the issue.

    "We would not enter into any agreement with any athlete that had any amateur status remaining," said Eric Oberman, communications manager for Nike basketball. "Even if it was legal in Ohio and everyone gave him the green light for perks, what if at the end of the year he says, 'Wait a minute, I want to go to college.' The kid has such a bright future, it's not worth it as a company, and it's not worth it to him to be put in that difficult and awkward position.

    "Obviously, we're still interested in forging a relationship, getting to know his family better, but we wouldn't move forward until he announced he was going to the NBA and forgoing his amateur status. At that point we could go forward and talk about negotiations."

    What if he could, in fact, sign a $20 million deal -- right now?

    "Hmm," said Gloria, thoughtfully. "Well, it's something we don't want to rush into. There's not a big hurry. We just want him to enjoy being a kid. There's no big rush for the money."

    James' brushes with greatness, his regular encounters with NBA royalty, have drawn the interest of Ohio's sports fans -- and not all of the reviews are raves. Sitting in his OSHSAA office in Columbus, Muscaro reviews a steady stream of e-mails, phone calls and letters.

    "There is a perception that there's a lot going on," Muscaro said. "We get e-mails and anonymous letters. You know, 'Hey, he did this, he did that. How can he do this? If he were in college he'd be ineligible.'

    "This is a phenomenon that we've never confronted. It's creating a lot of different problems."

    The situation could prompt the association's 820 member high schools to modify their by-laws next October at the annual meeting.

    But that is seven months away, an eternity in a 17-year-old's life. If the luck of the Irish holds, there are still a few basketball games left, a summer of camps and the prospect of another football season. Last year, James risked his basketball career on a whim. He suffered a broken finger, but when the season was over he was honored as an All-State wide receiver.

    Beyond that is his senior season in basketball and the NBA's deadline for early entry to its 2003 draft.

    For everyone involved -- the school, the OSHSAA, the family and, of course, James himself -- it will be a 14-month journey through uncharted territory. There is no compass, no map, no frame of reference. There are new precedents every day.

    "Absolutely," Jackson said. "It's a definitely a most different level, but it's a beautiful level. We like it ... everything is good.

    "But there's still another level you have to get to."

    And which level is that?

    "Don't know," Jackson said. "We haven't gotten there. LeBron hasn't gotten there. But I think we'll all know it when we do."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.