Thursday, December 19, 2002 Updated: December 20, 12:50 PM ET
Lining up for LeBron
By By Tom Friend
LeBron James' dad du jour will be placed under house arrest Friday, and replacements are already lining up.
The kid is being courted from here to Beaverton, Ore., and if he ever needed a strong father figure, it's right now. But Eddie Jackson -- LeBron's so-called dad/advisor/moneybags -- just got three years for mortgage and mail fraud, leaving a 17-year-old and his mom twisting in the wind.
Eddie Jackson has been kicked off the LeBron gravy train.
LeBron and Gloria James will now have to pick a shoe company, an agent, an investment firm and a lawyer all by themselves (unless they secretly already have), and a lot of shady people are going to offer their help. This is when going off for 31 points on ESPN2 is a detriment. Every Tom, Dick and Tank Black saw for themselves that the kid's a sure thing, and, with Jackson out of the picture, new prospective "dads" will be introducing themselves, pronto.
So this is the other side of the LeBron James story: choices. People in Akron already think that Jackson bought his way into LeBron's life four years ago, and now the kid's a free agent again. His hype is at its pinnacle, and in the aftermath of television's highest-rated high school game ever, LeBron James needs to be able to weed out the leeches. Now more than ever.
It is not clear if he can do it. Out of the blue last year, he began calling Jackson "dad", but only after he was driving Jackson's platinum Navigator to school. Jackson subsequently bought LeBron a '95 Ford Explorer, and it simply reeked of good old-fashioned pay-off. It reeked of I'll get you this car now, you include me in your NBA posse later.
"That's B.S.," Jackson says. "I don't need his money. I was successful without it. I don't want his money. I am a God-fearing person who goes to church, and I tithe. You can visit with my pastor and ask him. Take the kid's money? I'd never do that. LeBron is not just a fly-by-night situation with me. Our situation is very deep, deeper than anyone knows. Everyone's passing judgement since the spotlight hit. But when he was little and LeBron needed this and that, I was there. When he needed company, I was there to check him out, to wrestle with him, play with him. Besides, Gloria is a strong woman, and if he or she felt I had an ulterior motive, I wouldn't be there. They are strong individuals. Both of them."
In deference to Jackson, he has tried to do some productive things, has tried to make sure LeBron would be taken care of in case of injury. He contacted an insurance broker, David Ferraro of International Specialty Insurance in North Carolina, the same broker who took care of Jay Williams going into his junior year at Duke. Ferraro helped LeBron get insured for what's believed to be $5 million.
"It was the first time we'd done that with a junior in high school," Ferraro says.
But since that 31-point night on ESPN2, the insurance underwriters have actually called Ferraro back. They want to offer an even larger insurance policy now. And that's why LeBron James needs a stable advisor he can trust, someone who's not laundering money behind everyone's back. Like Jackson did.
"LeBron will be fine while I'm gone," says Jackson, who was convicted for issuing phony home loans and for a $197,000 check scam. "If people think, 'Oh, Eddie's out of the picture, we can take advantage of the situation' they'll be in for a rude awakening. Let's be for real. I know there are sharks out there. But Gloria can handle this."
She had better be able to -- because the money-grubbers are calling. Even Frankie Walker Sr., LeBron's youth football coach, has gotten seedy offers from would-be agents. "I get calls all the time, people saying, 'Get me close to LeBron, and I can do this for you,' " Walker says. "But I wouldn't do that to LeBron. I'm not saying these are agents calling me, but they might be runners for agents. I won't say agents because they know better. They send somebody else."
Gloria claims she knows what she's doing. She has been to Beaverton, along with Jackson, to meet with Phil Knight and Nike, and she has sat in on meetings with Merrill Lynch and so forth. She says it's all so much, she doesn't have time for a job.
"My job is handling 'Bron's business," she says. "His affairs. That don't leave time to clock in a 9-to-5 or an 8-to-4. I almost wish some days I was working 9-to-5. This is a 24-hour job. And still being a mother."
This is a woman who still drops off LeBron's bag lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when he forgets to take it with him. This is a mother who went out to J.C. Penny's late one night, to buy LeBron pajamas to wear at his school's pajama day the next day. "Because of his height, I had to buy XXXXL," she says. "To get the length. So I was up till 3 in the morning, sewing them smaller at the waist. They looked good when I got done."
And now this is a woman who has to help her son pick an agent. What does she know about picking an NBA agent? The word from several sources is that Sonny Vaccaro of adidas wants to make it easy on her. They say Vaccaro wants to steer LeBron to Arn Tellem, who is based in L.A. But that remains to be seen.
Either way, LeBron is staying calm. He is completely up front when he says he will have a posse. "And my boys can have whatever they want," he says. "Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, Willie McGee, Brandon Weems, Frankie Walker Jr.Maverick Carter is my cousin, but he's my boy, too. The list goes on. I'm gonna make sure they look good, too. What if you've got all your earrings, chains, flash, nice jewels and your friends look like nothing? How does that look? Whatever I've got, they've got it, too. When I finally get there, whatever they want, they can have."
On the bright side, every member of that posse appears to be a good kid. Sian plans to play major-college football next year; Dru and Romeo have hoop scholarships at the University of Akron; Frankie and Brandon are from terrific families. And so on.
But what about all the people who will want to be LeBron's new friends?
"Oh yeah, I feel that a lot," LeBron says. "But as soon as I feel it, I have to tell 'em like ... A couple of people at games have said like, 'How you doing, LeBron, is it cool for an autograph?' And I'll be like, 'yeah.' And then they'll ask me if I need anything, and I'll be like, 'Nah, I don't need anything.' I mean, what do I need from you? I've got everything in line. I don't need anything from a person who's just asked me for an autograph."
But next time it isn't going to be an autograph, it's going to be someone offering him 75 large. With strings attached. Next time, it's going to be people slipping car keys in his hand or room keys in his hand and making slick promises. After 31 points on ESPN2, you can guarantee it. So he's got to weed them all out, even though it's not clear that he can. For goodness sake, he couldn't even weed out Jackson.
Speaking of which, Jackson insists he's not out of the picture & even though he won't be in the NBA draft green room come June.
"I can still call him from prison, I can write," Jackson says. "And can't he visit?"