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Wednesday, April 2, 2003
Updated: May 20, 8:34 AM ET
MJ treats LeBron to first NBA facial

By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

It sure is nice to know, in these uncertain times, that someone is looking after LeBron James. If the kid needs a little advice on how to be a star in the NBA, all he has to do is whip out his cellphone and go to "MJ" on his speed dial. A few seconds later, The Man himself will be on the line.

Mark Jackson, that is.

Well, maybe not Mark Jackson, but certainly not Michael Jordan. Contrary to all those reports, Michael doesn't have LeBron's cell number, and LeBron doesn't have his.

"I know he doesn't because I just changed it," Jordan said Sunday when the Wizards were in Denver.

LeBron James
We know LeBron can dunk with authority and pass with originality, but Jordan isn't so sure about his D.

So there you have it. If LeBron wants to rap with MJ, he can buy a ticket and yell from the cheap seats, just like all those other teenagers on the verge of signing a $25-million shoe contract. If he wants to see Michael, he can flip on those three TVs in the back seat of his Hummer. Assuming, of course, LeBron does that kind of thing. Surely, he has a posse member in charge of the remote.

I know what you're wondering: What happened to all that stuff about MJ being so tight with LJ? Seems Michael hasn't had time to talk to the kid. Or, for that matter, the inclination.

"I haven't talked to him in some time, since the summer, so don't include me in that whole thing," said Jordan. "It would be against the rules."

Right. Like Jordan might try to recruit LeBron to North Carolina. Either that, or he's been too busy with more trivial matters such as trying to make the playoffs with a team that would just as soon not.

The Wizards aren't going anywhere and, to hear Michael tell it, LeBron isn't, either. Not as a rookie, anyway. Jordan's scouting report on James reads something like this: He's not a man, he may be a myth, and only time will tell if he's ever a legend. It's not that LeBron doesn't have game, says Jordan. It's that some of the competition he's faced doesn't have a driver's license.

"He may think he's great enough to be on this level now," Jordan said. "But when he gets on this level and plays against guys who've been competitive and very good on this level, he's going to find it's a big difference from that 5-10 high school kid."

Whoa. He hasn't even arrived, and already LeBron has received his first NBA facial. Give Jordan this: If anyone should know about the risks of selecting a high school kid with the first pick in the draft, it's him. Back when he was calling the Wizards' personnel shots, MJ used the first pick on Kwame Brown, who spends most of his working day on the bench scoping out the courtside hotties.

Kwame Brown & Michael Jordan
Maybe MJ just has visions of Kwame Brown in his head when thinking of LeBron.

Can James make a quicker impact in the NBA than Brown? Can he be a franchise player as a rookie? Not a chance, says Jordan.

"That's a tough label to give a kid at 18," he said. "It depends on how well he adapts. And don't just think of the offensive end. Defensively, I wouldn't say that's his strong area right now."

A quick review of the math shows that LeBron figures to land in Cleveland or Denver. Between the two, the Cavs and Nuggets have a 45 percent chance of landing him. The Nuggets project him as a new-millennium Magic Johnson, a 6-8 point guard who can penetrate and push the pace in the mile-high altitude.

Jordan? He doesn't know what position best suits James' considerable skills, much less how he'll play once he finds his niche. Jordan projects him as a two guard or small forward. In either scenario, MJ doesn't believe LeBron will be anything special in the early going.

"I think he's talented for 18 years old," said Jordan. "Once he gets to this level, I don't think he's in the upper echelon of two guards or small forwards. I think he's toward the bottom -- respectively so, because there's so much about his game that he's going to have to adapt to. He has unbelievable potential. I think that's what everybody is looking at, everybody is raving about. But he hasn't played against competition consistently, college or pros. He's played against high school kids ... You have to give that some credence.

"When you look at the skill level and his maturity at his age, he's definitely talented enough. Five years from now? If he takes on the dedication of being the best basketball player he can be, and continues to improve and accept challenges and not get comfortable with what's been given to him or what the expectations may be, he could definitely be a good pro."

LeBron James
Hey, MJ: Guess who LeBron's idol is?

Say what? He could be a good pro? You don't suppose it's possible that the national media has created expectations that the kid couldn't possibly meet, do you? Nah, didn't think so. The media would never do a thing like that.

After listening to Jordan, you've got to wonder about the prospect of James being the first pick in the draft. Oh, it's going to happen, all right, no doubt about it. But you wonder if NBA teams would have been so eager to walk out on the ledge if LeBron had arrived 10 years ago, before Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal made the quantum leap from prom to prominence.

Fact is, despite all the success Kobe & Co. have had, selecting James with the first pick is as rife with risks as it is with rewards. He'll be the most scrutinized rookie in the history of sports. You wonder how a teenager is going to handle it on the court, where he'll be expected to save a have-not franchise, and off, where the cameras will watch his every move.

This much we already know: LeBron has countless more distractions than a young MJ ever had. Jordan had a chance to hide for a while. He was the third pick in the draft -- good morning, Sam Bowie -- after three years at North Carolina. Sure, he was considered a rising star, but no one envisioned the extraterrestrial he ultimately became.

LeBron? He'll enter the league as a teenager, a $25-million shoe contract in one hand, a posse never far from his reach. What, you think Jordan has done a few commercials through the years? They're thinking about turning the Golf Channel into the All LeBron, All the Time Channel. He'll be everywhere -- 24-7-365. Everything but his postgame shower will be televised.

Oh, and, presumably, he'll fit a little basketball into his schedule, too. That's the thing about Jordan. For all we saw of him during TV timeouts -- for the record, I'm wearing Hanes and scarfing down a Big Mac as I write this -- it was always about basketball to him. He had a determination some people don't see in a lifetime. It's easy to forget after all these years, but MJ was a self-made player.

Here's hoping James wants it as badly as Jordan did. In the end, that will determine whether, 10 years from now, we're stilling writing about them in the same column.

"It can help him and it can hurt him," said Jordan, when asked about the hype that follows James' every step. "It depends on his supporting cast, his parents or his friends of whoever, to keep him motivated, keep him focused. It's easy to get caught up in the hype and not really continue on improving as a basketball player."

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.