Thursday, May 29, 2003 Updated: May 31, 2:17 PM ET
Beware the 'sure thing'
By Bill Simmons Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This column appears in the June 9 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
The 2003 NBA Lottery had the most memorable "all or nothing" moment in sports history: Grizz boss Jerry West was either about to get the most ballyhooed rookie in years, or he was getting ... zilch. Three seconds later, Jerry looked like he'd just been sentenced to watching Mr. Personality reruns until 2020. LeBron was going to Cleveland. The Grizzlies' No.2 pick was going to Detroit. Memphis was getting the shaft. I wouldn't be surprised if West has nightmares all summer long.
Don't order those championship rings just yet.
So I write this for him: Everyone says James "can't miss," but real life says differently. There are no sure things. Ask Kenny Anderson, the most gifted New York high schooler since Kareem. Ask Jennifer Capriati, anointed the next Chris Evert before she won a pro match. Ask Lindros, Griffey, Marinovich or Penny. When some young athletes are built up before they've delivered the goods, they end up not being able to handle the pressure. Others tail off in what should be their prime, their quest for greatness suffocated by too much money and attention.
The hype around LeBron overshadows anything those others ever saw. Let's face it -- there haven't been this many red flags since the Coreys partied through The Lost Boys shoot. For starters, LeBron has endorsements worth $100 million and he hasn't played an NBA game. As other pre-rookie cap "stars" before him have shown, a little healthy hunger is a good thing. Anderson, Hardaway, CWebb, Derrick Coleman, Donyell Marshall & they all should have had better careers. Did the guaranteed money soften them just a little? Likely. LeBron has the skills, but what if he isn't mature like Kobe? Or obsessed with history like Tiger? Or pathologically competitive like MJ? It's a lot to ask, but he needs all of it to hit that outsize potential.
LeBron is dealing with the transition from "poor" to "impossibly rich," which has to be surreal in the best of circumstances. But unlike Kobe and Tiger and MJ , he isn't bolstered by a strong family structure. LeBron only has his mom watching his back, and from early appearances she makes Mrs. Iverson look like Mrs. Cleaver. Plus, he's playing in his home state, the worst possible place for him, with all those pseudo-friends, losers and hangers-on attaching to him like leeches. On the road, groupies will circle him in every city, hoping to cash in on a different version of the LeBron Sweepstakes. Jeez, remember when you were 18? It wasn't like you always made the right decision or liked working much, for that matter. Could you have handled all this?
Wait, it gets worse. LeBron is now stuck on a miserable Cavs team that battled more than the Osbournes last season. It won't be easy worming his way into the hearts of gunners Ricky Davis and Dajuan Wagner. And pity him on that eight-game January road trip, legs deader than Mariah Carey's career, losses piling up and the Cavs faithful wondering, "He's our savior?"
What would you do with LeBron's cash at 18? Actually, don't answer that.
Unlike Amare Stoudemire and KG in their rookie seasons, he won't be able to hide down low, crash the boards and coast on natural ability. He'll be expected to handle the ball, make his teammates better, take over at the end of games and -- oh, yeah -- hold his own against the league's elite. Nobody is going to accept the NBA's version of Richie Rich as an underdog, even as we watch the Bryants, McGradys and Pierces try to break his teenage spirit. If he stumbles out of the gate & let the whispers begin.
Hey, I hope he takes the league by storm. But I remember breaking dates to watch Kenny Anderson play for Georgia Tech, when the ball was a yo-yo on his hand, when he could beat Freddy Krueger off the dribble, when he hit teammates who didn't even realize they were open. Kenny was the perfect point guard, my favorite college player of the past 20 years. Back in '91, I would have bet anything he was headed for the Hall of Fame. Somewhere along the way, he was submarined. It's easier to strive for success than to handle success.
Could that be LeBron? Yeah, maybe. Remember, there are no sure things. Jerry West should keep that in mind as he's lying awake this summer.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.