Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the national summer 2002 issue of SchoolSports Magazine (which later became ESPN RISE Magazine). We're taking a look back at high school greats as part of ESPN RISE's Best Baller package.
Aside from the fact that he's 6-foot-7, it would be easy to mistake LeBron James for an average 17-year-old. He does a lot of things normal teenagers do. He goes to the mall, plays video games, hangs out with friends, eats Frosted Flakes cereal and, oh yeah, just happens to play a little basketball. He can be silly one minute and moody the next.
But make no mistake: LeBron James is no ordinary teenager. And in all likelihood, his life will never be the same again.
Ordinary teenagers aren't on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Ordinary teenagers aren't on a first-name basis with Michael Jordan. Ordinary teenagers aren't coveted by NBA scouts. And ordinary teenagers aren't hounded for autographs wherever they go in their hometown.
"He can't just sit in the stands with friends before our JV games because there'd be a line of 30 to 40 people waiting to get his autograph," says Dru Joyce, LeBron's head basketball coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High (Akron, Ohio). "So he has to sit in the locker room or on the bench with the JV guys. Some things have been taken away from him, and that's tough. He can't go to the mall and just hang out without getting autograph requests. And as soon as he doesn't do it, then all of a sudden he's a bad guy. And that's tough because he's just a kid. That's not fair to him."
"If you go places like the mall or the movies -- even a place like that that's dark -- people want you to sign autographs," says Latta High (S.C.) point guard Raymond Felton, who knows a thing or two about the glare of the spotlight as the nation's No. 3-rated high school hoop player in the Class of 2002. "It kind of gets to you, but you have to do it. Sometimes you want to spend time just being a teenager, but you can't. And I know it must be even worse for him."
It's hard to feel too bad for LeBron James. He is, after all, most likely headed for a life of fame and fortune. And we're not just talking a little bit of fame and a modest amount of fortune. If LeBron, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound shooting guard who will enter his senior season at St. Vincent-St. Mary as the hands-down top prep player in the nation, is even half as good as some people predict, we're talking worldwide fame and enough fortune to make a serious dent in the national debt. We're talking about a teenager who is likely to be making eight figures in a little more than a year.
But that's all in the future. As for the past and the present, LeBron has basically had much of his childhood stripped away by the expectations and notoriety he has dealt with since he first pulled on that Irish jersey almost three years ago.
Sure, most people would love to switch places with LeBron, but how'd you like to deal with the pressure of being labeled the greatest high school basketball player ever at age 16? It's not that easy. Just ask Felipe Lopez, who once also graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school baller and now warms the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
LeBron has to be extremely careful about who he hangs out with because there are hundreds of slimy agents and hangers-on who would love to hitch their future to the future of basketball. His teammates often resent him because even when they play well, the headlines are always about LeBron. And despite the fact that he's a level-headed 17-year-old who has shown nothing but class in dealing with all the hype, there are still plenty of people who would love to see him fail.
"Life in general, there are people who will wish ill on people. Those people need to get a life," says Jim Fenerty, who has spent the past 13 years as the head basketball coach at national powerhouse Germantown Academy (Pa.), which lost to St. Vincent-St. Mary, 70-64, this past season thanks to a 38-point outing from LeBron. "Why wouldn't you root for him? He's a good kid and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. I really do want to see him succeed."
To prove his point, Fenerty recalls a play that encapsulates everything breathtaking about LeBron James. In the game against St. Vincent-St. Mary, Germantown Academy 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Larry Sharp made his first varsity start ever. As LeBron came down the floor and accelerated toward the basket, Sharp stepped in to take a charge. Instead, LeBron leaped over Sharp and dunked on him.
As amazing as the play was, Fenerty was most impressed by the fact that LeBron took the time to help Sharp up after posterizing him. Simultaneously spectacular and humble. The true mark of a superstar.
For his part, the basketball prodigy dubbed everything from "The Golden Child" to "The Next Michael Jordan" is taking it all in stride.
"[The attention is] pretty easy to deal with," LeBron said in March after St. Vincent-St. Mary lost in the state title game to Roger Bacon High, the Irish's first in-state loss during LeBron's high school career. "I've got my friends, my coaches and my family. You know, they're there for me. And, you know, as long as I'm playing basketball and doing things that normal kids can do, I'm having fun. It's not hard to stay focused. I'm the type of person, I stay focused where I'm at. You know, keep me level-headed by my friends and my family."
Of course, that's easier said than done. It's hard to stay level-headed when you are universally regarded as the best prep player in the country. When you are the first junior to ever be named National Player of the Year by both Gatorade and USA Today. When experts say that if you entered this year's NBA Draft, you'd likely be the top pick. When you're already such a celebrity that people know you by your first name. When you've hung out in Jay-Z's hotel room.
LeBron is such a sought-after commodity that you'd think he was a bobblehead doll. St. Vincent-St. Mary's athletic department gets more calls these days than MTV's "TRL." LeBron's surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, handles all media requests for LeBron these days. That alone is a full-time job. "This phone rings a million times a day," says Jackson, who may or may not be exaggerating.
How big has The LeBron Phenomenon gotten? This year the Irish had to move their home games to the University of Akron's James A. Rhodes Arena to accommodate the crowds. St. Vincent-St. Mary sold more than 1,700 season tickets and drew an average attendance of more than 4,000. The school's web site already boasts a message about season tickets for next year. Shaquille O'Neal even took in one of LeBron's games while in town to play the Cleveland Cavaliers. And the Irish sold out 20,000-plus-seat Gund Arena in Cleveland for a playoff game.
As if that's not enough, it seems every magazine from Sports Illustrated to Car and Driver has done a story on LeBron. He writes a monthly column for Slam magazine, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has an entire section called "The James Journal" devoted to him on its web site.
"He's extremely mature and very down to earth for someone who's been through what he's been through. I don't think I could have handled what he's had to when I was a teenager," says Jay Brophy, the school's interim athletic director and head football coach (LeBron is also an All-State wide receiver on the gridiron). "He's done a good job not letting the attention affect him too much. You can tell there are times when it gets to him and he gets very quiet, but he's handled it as good as any grown-up could handle it, let alone a 17-year-old."
"He's 17, so [the attention has] affected him to some degree," says Joyce, who began coaching LeBron in AAU ball about seven years ago. "But he's handled it well for the most part. He understands that what's gotten him to this point is not just his God-given talent, but his ability to work hard as well."
The comparisons to Michael Jordan are inevitable. For starters, they both wear No. 23. They also both possess inhuman athleticism (well, at least Jordan did before tendinitis got the best of his knee), the ability to make teammates better, a knowledge of the game that can't be taught and an inner competitive fire that motivates them to not just be good or great, but to be the best.
"If I stop working, someone's going to pass me, and I don't want that to happen," LeBron said after the Irish's disappointing state title game loss. "I want to stay number one in the country, and hopefully next year I can help my team be number one in the country."
That desire may be what separates LeBron from so many of the past players hailed as "The Next Michael Jordan." Of course, calling LeBron that is an insult not only to Jordan but to LeBron himself. He's not the "next" anything. He's the first LeBron James. It is perhaps fitting that LeBron's last name is the same as the first name of the man who invented basketball. After all, some people believe LeBron will revolutionize the game James Naismith invented more than 100 years ago.
If you built the prototype basketball player, LeBron just might be the blueprint. The maturity of a 10-year NBA vet. The competitiveness of Jordan. The hops of Kobe Bryant. The floor vision of Magic Johnson. For those player haters hoping he falls flat on his face, don't hold your breath. This kid is the real deal. The two-time Ohio Mr. Basketball Award winner averaged 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.7 blocks per game as a junior. Impressive, yes. But those stats don't even tell half the story.
"Most kids want to play basketball, they don't want to be basketball players," says Joyce. "What I mean by that is that they want to run up and down the court and take shots, but they don't want to take the time to learn the game and the concepts that make this game the poetry that it can be. LeBron isn't like that. He's a basketball player.
"What sets him apart as far as a basketball player is his feel and knowledge of the game," Joyce adds. "He has a feel for the game that most kids his age don't have."
Of course, that doesn't mean LeBron should start working on his Hall of Fame speech just yet. Predicting whether he will in fact revolutionize the game of basketball is as pointless as trying to figure out what Ozzy Osbourne is saying in an episode of "The Osbournes." Only time will tell what is in store for LeBron James.
As for the near future, LeBron will be back at St. Vincent-St. Mary for his senior season despite rumors that he would play professionally in Italy next year, a report Joyce says has "no truth to it at all." After that, the 2003 NBA Draft and a No. 1 overall selection in it will likely await LeBron, though he maintains that he's at least considering college, with Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Florida among the possibilities.
"We talk about always keeping doors open," says Joyce, noting that means making sure LeBron takes care of his academics and test scores as a senior. "It's too early to close doors. We want him to be in a position of strength when the time comes to make a decision. We want all his options open so he can ultimately do what's right for him and his family at that point."
Regardless of when, LeBron will likely end up in the NBA sooner than later. Truth is, he's probably good enough to play in the league today.
"I'm happy for him," says the University of North Carolina-bound Felton, who has hung out with LeBron at various AAU tournaments and summer camps and says LeBron is a generally quiet kid. "The way is already set for him. He's automatically going to the league."
Fenerty, the Germantown Academy coach who is in the unique position of having coached against both Kobe and LeBron in high school, provides perhaps the best insight into LeBron's potential.
"It's probably not fair to compare them, but in terms of ability, LeBron is a little better shooter and he's a little stronger (than Kobe in high school)," says Fenerty. "The question is, does he have that work ethic? If he does, watch out."
Consider yourself warned.