Only Ws will keep spotlight on LeBron

Fans relate to winners. That's why the interest in LeBron James will wane if the Cavaliers keep losing.

Updated: November 11, 2003, 12:49 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

A couple hours before LeBron James made his stunning NBA debut in Sacramento, the bearded center of the Kings stood in front of his Arco Arena locker and reflected on the challenges ahead for the teen phenom.

LeBron James
Making the Cavaliers better may be too tough of a task, even for LeBron James.
"It was easy for me when I came into the league," recalled Vlade Divac, who joined the Lakers in 1989 as a raw, 19-year-old from what was then known as Yugoslavia. "But it is very different for him. I wish him a lot of luck because he's going to need it."

James has played two games. He played well in both of them. But his team also lost both of them. LeBronapalooza will remain in effect for an unknown period of time, but the novelty is going to wear thin if the Cavaliers don't start winning a few games.

"I don't think anything is going to change for them," Divac said of the Cavs. "They won't make the playoffs."

No, they probably won't. Therein lies the hard-to-define rub because how much longer will the Cavs be deemed network-ready if they drop to the bottom of the standings? There's going to be interest in James, for sure. That has been a guarantee for a couple of years and there's no reason to think it will end anytime soon.

Coach Paul Silas called all the media attention from this past week "overwhelming" and then was asked if he was hoping it would subside. "No," he said, "because that would mean we would be losing games. I'd rather win games and have all of it."

James still has 26 other buildings in which to debut -- including his own -- and he will be viewed as must-see in all of them. He certainly didn't hurt his cause with his 25-point submission in the loss to the Kings. He followed that with a near triple-double in a loss to the Suns.

James will get the VIP treatment everywhere he goes for the first time, despite Silas' earnest and well-intentioned efforts to make his prized rook "one of the guys." It's unavoidable. Yao Ming had separate interview sessions last year when he visited an arena for the first time.

But there is danger of a disconnect because while James might well be worth the fuss, can he deal with his own persona overshadowing and dominating that of his team and his teammates all season? He might have no choice if the Cavs don't win. One reason Amare Stoudemire beat out Yao for Rookie of the Year honors last year was because the Suns got into the playoffs and the Rockets did not.

Good players on bad teams might make for some initial curiosity, but, eventually, they usually lose their individual appeal because fans relate to winners. When did Michael Jordan become Michael Jordan? After the Bulls first title in 1991. Before then, he was seen as a really good player who wasn't good enough to do what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had done -- take his team to a title.

Good players on bad teams might make for some initial curiosity, but, eventually, they usually lose their individual appeal because fans relate to winners. When did Michael Jordan become Michael Jordan? After the Bulls first title in 1991.
James can't be expected to do any such thing in Cleveland; he joined a 17-win train wreck for goodness sakes. But it's also hard to see how it will be All LeBron All The Time in February if the Cavaliers are moving along at a 30-win clip with another date in Secaucus on the horizon.

The format will go something like this when the Cavs go on the road: Home team prays for a win and for a LeBron Show. That way, everyone goes home happy.

Everyone, that is, except the Cavaliers. It is going to be one tired story to keep reading that LeBron did this and that -- and the Cavs still lost. James comes across as the consummate teammate. But how much longer will he be comfortable with all the individual attention and slobbering if the team hasn't improved?

The one thing that stood out in his first two games was not his scoring, but his passing. He had nine assists in Sacramento, eight more in Phoenix.

There were no-look passes, shovel passes, and, in Phoenix, a one-bounce lightning bolt from the top of the key to Carlos Boozer, who cashed in a layup. That's the same thing that stood out in Bird's game -- his passing, his unselfishness and his ability to make his teammates better players.

That's why you can live with the seven turnovers that James had in Phoenix because of all the other things he does. But he can't be doing them in a vacuum.

The challenge facing Silas isn't so much dealing with all the distractions that James' celebrity might present, but in getting the rest of the players to come along for the ride. Silas said he already has gone to team officials to remind them that there are other players on the team and that it might be a good idea to have some of their jerseys on display and for sale in the team's pro shop.

"You do have to manage it, and the one thing I try not to do is to have it that much different between him and everyone else," Silas said. "I'm not going to have enormous differences between him and everyone else. The players know. It kind of amazes me we haven't had any problems. This thing could have been more difficult if I didn't have good guys."

Right now, it's still fun and still new. But will it still be fun, or new, if we're into January and the Cavs are struggling and James has hit a wall? You know there are going to be some 5-for-17 nights. It's inevitable.

The Cavs won 17 games last year for a reason. The prize was James, who, two games into the season, looks like he was worth all the fuss. He might continue to put up impressive numbers until April. He might well be the Rookie of the Year. He clearly will be in the All-Star Game because the fans want to see him. He might even be awarded a spot on the Olympic team.

But how much fun will it be if he's sitting in front of a television set in late April? Not much. You can't expect the moon from the Cavaliers. But even with James as their undisputed marquee, the team has got to win some games and make some noise in the East to make this anything more than a shotgun marriage in Year 1.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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