Last summer, LeBron James played basketball with Michael Jordan, a man whose prime LeBron is too young to remember. Jordan was coming out of retirement, and the scrimmages he convened at a Chicago gym were his way of measuring his skills -- at age 38 -- against the best players on earth.
LeBron -- at age 16 -- qualified for an invitation, along with NBA All-Stars Jerry Stackhouse, Antoine Walker, and Vince Carter.
"He didn't guard me. I didn't guard him," says LeBron of Jordan. Still, here was a chance to conquer the last century's greatest player. Was he tempted?
"Nah," he says. He was there simply to learn from his elders. Yet this was no mere intersection of two hoops generations. It was, for LeBron, a job shadow.
"Everyone has been looking for 'the next Michael Jordan,'" says Bob Gibbons, who publishes a newsletter that rates the nation's elite high school players. "That might be LeBron James."
Hyperbole, of course, is a prodigy's natural companion. Yet it fits LeBron. He was named Ohio's Mr. Basketball as a sophomore. He's made Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary so good that the Irish schedule reads like a list of top 25 prep programs from St. Louis to New Jersey. Home games were moved to the University of Akron to accommodate the crowds -- and they still sell out. Prior to the season, there was even talk about LeBron turning pro after his junior year. And no one laughed.
But the term "next Jordan" has been pinned on players before, and those who've carried the mantle know its curse. All were, like LeBron, spectacular athletes, yet all succumbed to a mortal flaw: a weak knee or a flat jump shot, shallow ambition or a vulnerability to rogue agents and coaches.
In LeBron, however, basketball aficionados see a player who, even with his virtuoso talents, is driven to improve beyond them. His body's tough enough for football. He accepts praise with a shrug and a smirk. He's expected to be among the first few selections in whatever NBA draft he enters, and 16 months before his high school career will conclude, his legend has already surpassed those of such Ohio greats as John Havlicek, Clark Kellogg, and Jerry Lucas.
At a St. Vincent-St. Mary practice, there's no hint that somewhere on the floor lurks the nation's best high school basketball player.
As the team scrimmages, No. 23 is in a state of torpor. He shuffles up and down the court, then stands under the hoop, orbited by an army of hustling, runtish players still worried about impressing the coach.
It is late November, just five days removed from a football season that carried the Irish all the way to the state semifinals. LeBron, at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, was a wide receiver. But his lack of exertion during this practice isn't from a football hangover; nor is it the pace of a prima donna taking the day off.
LeBron is loafing because playing full-tilt would be a cruel domination of the other boys his age. Besides, his teammates will never have to guard someone as large and agile as he. In practice, he is often reduced to acting big and slow, simulating the opposing team's center.
It's not till the closing shoot-around that LeBron's talents become evident. He is the only one practicing fadeaway three-pointers.
It's a shot so ridiculously hard that any player bold enough to risk it would earn an immediate benching. But LeBron wants to add to his arsenal. He hits five in a row. His expression doesn't change, and no one on the court bothers to notice.
LeBron takes the court for the season opener against Avon Lake. He's fidgety, and his customary dull gaze has been replaced by a baleful glare.
Avon Lake cannot keep him from shooting over the top of its defense. During one 60-second stretch, he hits three 3-pointers. Avon Lake shows its nerves with a rash of turnovers, invariably ending in LeBron dunks or more spectacular alley-oops.
Each trip down the court showcases another dimension of his game. He blows past defenders. Pulls up for jumpers five feet beyond the three-point line. Backs a small, scrawny kid down to the post. Zone defense is as futile as man-to-man.
"I'll bet he sees the game in slow motion," marvels Mark Mayemura, an evaluator for a West Coast Internet site that rates prep players.
As Avon Lake double- and triple-teams, LeBron dishes off. Teammates are open for three-pointers and layups.
"LeBron could score 100 points in a game whenever he wants to, but he'll never do it because he doesn't want to," says Chris Johnson, a Columbus-based analyst for Hoop Scoop magazine. "He likes to make people around him better. He enjoys passing. He's almost unselfish to a fault."
The score is 47-17.
When the second half begins, Avon Lake is fighting for pride. LeBron is fighting to deliver fresh thrills for his fans.
A missed shot bounces to an Avon Lake player. He's under the basket, surrounded. When the player fakes a shot, LeBron leaps into the air, sailing completely over the shooter's head. The boy, six feet tall, is so dumbstruck that another SVSM player simply plucks the ball from his hands.
Near the end of the third quarter, the Irish are just finishing off a highlight reel. On one fast break, LeBron tries to bounce the ball off the backboard for a dunk, but is fouled. On another break, he tries a double-pump reverse dunk. It bounces off the back iron, shocking the crowd.
But when the next SVSM shot rims out, LeBron soars to the hoop, rebounds the ball with one hand, and slams it home, all in the same motion. He is redeemed. The crowd is howling, Avon Lake calls timeout, and LeBron walks to center court, where he extends his arms to one side of the arena, a ringmaster beckoning the audience. They grant him his standing ovation. He turns to the other side, which does the same.
The final score is 81-40. Because the Irish are ranked the sixth-best high school team in America, the massacre was expected.
But the next evening brings Germantown Academy, the suburban Philadelphia team ranked fifth in the nation. Matt Walsh, one of the top guards in the country, matches up with LeBron.
The two know each other from summer basketball camps, and LeBron seems determined to show Walsh up. He begins with drives to the paint. When Walsh backs off, LeBron sticks three-pointers in his face.
Scrappy if lead-footed, Germantown gets by on deft execution and stays within 10 points as the first half winds down. With six-tenths of a second left, it's SVSM's ball, and everyone in the arena is expecting an alley-oop to LeBron. The Germantown coach frantically waves his team under the hoop.
But LeBron catches the ball on the baseline, and as he leaps into the air, his momentum carries him out of bounds. He arcs the ball high over the backboard. It falls at just the right angle to splash through the hoop. The crowd erupts. Even Germantown players are grinning.
The referee rules that LeBron's foot was on the line, but it doesn't matter. He's made his point: I'll get you one way or the other.
He finishes the half with 20 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal. His counterpart Walsh has two points on 1-of-8 shooting and five turnovers.
SVSM is plagued by turnovers and missed free throws during the second half, and Germantown claws closer, but a late flourish by LeBron seals the 76-64 win. He finishes with 38 points -- half his team's total.
Walsh will be playing for the University of Florida next season. Lee Melchionni, another Germantown player, is headed for Duke. Both embrace LeBron after the game. Walsh begs LeBron to become a Gator. Melchionni asks that he join him at Duke. LeBron laughs them off. He's accustomed to being in demand.
"And here comes the media," LeBron announces over the locker-room din as a reporter approaches. He is still floating on the adrenaline and showmanship that carried him through the Germantown game.
As with all of SVSM's home games, this one was played in the University of Akron's James A. Rhodes Arena, capacity 5,440. Fans have gobbled up every $125 season ticket. The overflow fills the rafters above. On the sidewalk outside, grown men beg passersby for spare tickets.
All have come to see the phenom that is Ohio's incarnation of Kobe or Michael or Magic. When he has the ball, they hold their breath. But the pressure seems not to matter.
"First of all, there's no pressure," says LeBron, who already speaks in the robotic tone of a professional athlete. "I love the crowd. I feed off it. And I give them what they paid to see."
Were there college coaches at this game? Or NBA scouts?
"I don't know," he answers casually. "If there were, I gave 'em a show."
LeBron is Gloria James's only child, and she raised him without LeBron's father. He was a mild-mannered, deferential boy, and though the pair drifted through the north Akron projects, LeBron never found trouble.
At nine, he joined a summer league. "Even then, he was the biggest kid on the court, and he would just back the other kids down," says Irish coach Dru Joyce, whose son became a close friend of LeBron's. Joyce realized even then that he was tutoring a basketball genius.
With LeBron's superior height, scoring was easy, but the other parts of his game were blossoming, too. "He was big, but he could handle the ball," says Joyce. "And he had this uncanny ability to pass the ball."
LeBron and friends decided after eighth grade that they would all join the same high school team. Keith Dambrot, then coach at SVSM, was the beneficiary. Joyce was appointed an assistant, only to graduate to head coach this year when Dambrot took an assistant's job at the University of Akron.
Their freshman year marked the beginning of a dynasty. The team went undefeated, winning the state championship. Of the team's eight-player core, four were freshmen, and LeBron was the team's leading scorer.
That summer, he was invited to attend basketball camps with the nation's best preps. At the Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, LeBron was punishing the boys his own age, so the coaches made him play against the seniors -- the first time it happened in the camp's 25 years. The legend of the 14-year-old from Akron spread, and when LeBron's sophomore season started, he arrived as a national prospect.
Suddenly, the country's best basketball programs wanted a piece of SVSM. Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, then the top-ranked team, inserted the Irish into its schedule. A flock of scouts and college coaches were perched in the stands, expecting Oak Hill to devour the precocious sophomore. The menacing figure of DeSagana Diop -- who would become a first-round pick of the Cavaliers -- loomed in the lane.
"They didn't care about a team from Ohio that won a Division III state championship," says Joyce.
The Irish gave Oak Hill its toughest test of the year. LeBron scored 33, and they lost by just one point.
Yet by game's end, all in attendance agreed -- as did the Oak Hill coach -- that LeBron was the best player on the court.
"I think they knew LeBron was good," says Joyce. "I don't think they knew he was that good."
He went on to become Ohio's Mr. Basketball and a USA Today First Team All-American, and win another state championship. If LeBron had already been a college prospect, he was now an NBA prospect.
There is a high school star in every town, and it's up to the recruiting gurus to separate the Larry Birds from the Al Bundys.
The guru doesn't watch the game, doesn't cheer, doesn't notice the scoreboard. He watches a player's wrists, his fingertips, his eyes, and his feet. Every movement contains clues. Of the thousands of attributes to be prized, the lack of a few can ruin a career.
Some players have potential. Others do not. And the guru's challenge is selecting a chosen few who will steer clear of distractions, avoid injuries, and hone their skills enough to be valuable to a college team.
Every basketball guru has his own newsletter or website where, for a fee, one can read appraisals of the top recruits in America. Subscribers are generally college coaches or hopelessly addicted fans. The ratings are, to a great degree, the basis by which some players are offered scholarships and others are not.
With so many players and so much room for interpretation, it is exceedingly rare for gurus to agree on players they label, somewhat possessively, "my number one." Minnesota Timberwolf Kevin Garnett and Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant were consensus choices as the best players in their respective classes, but more often there are several players over whom gurus bicker.
On the subject of LeBron's greatness, there is startling unanimity.
"It's not even an opinion," says Mark Mayemura of the West Coast-based website recruitingusa.com. "It's a fact that he's the number-one player in high school basketball."
Yet the gurus still strive to out-superlative their competition.
"He may possibly be the best player in a decade, along with Kevin Garnett," says Mayemura. "We may be talking about the player of a lifetime."
"We're talking about Magic Johnson with a jump shot," says Clark Francis, editor of Hoop Scoop.
"But Magic Johnson didn't have the athleticism that LeBron has," points out Columbus-based guru Chris Johnson.
Mike DeCourcy, a basketball writer for The Sporting News, trumps them all: "Magic Johnson's head on Michael Jordan's body."
Tragically, to them, the gurus are betrayed by their own exuberance. While they are drawn to the trade by a love for amateur basketball and relish nothing more than a prospect's emergence at a university, it is their ratings, in part, that feed grandiose illusions that make prep players skip college for an early jump to the NBA.
The higher a player is rated, the more he has to lose.
Nobody played above the rim like Chicagoan Ronnie Fields in the mid-'90s, but he was rated a top-10 player on the assumption that, at some point, he would make three-pointers. The gurus say he never took the time to work on it.
"Ronnie Fields was an NBA athlete," says Van Coleman of futurestarsonline.com, "but he never understood that a jump shot was something you have to have in the NBA."
Fields tried skipping college, but the NBA wasn't interested. He was last seen drifting through the Continental Basketball Association.
Five years ago, Schea Cotton attracted a buzz nearly proportional to LeBron's. But Cotton bought into his own hype and seemed to regress during his high school career. He was susceptible to distraction and lack of practice. Cotton ended up bouncing around obscure colleges, none Division I.
Felipe Lopez was New York City's hoop sensation of the mid-'90s, and he stayed home to play for St. John's University. As with Fields, his open-court athleticism was a poor match for the half-court play required against top-flight teams, and he neglected to develop an outside shot. Lopez turned out to be a good college player, but he has struggled in the NBA, where he now rides the bench for Minnesota.
All of these players, the gurus say, tried to accelerate their careers and ended up ruining them. For every Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady, there's a Jonathan Bender, Leon Smith, Ousmane Cisse.
"It's a case of 'Do you want to be picked in the NBA draft, or do you want to be the best player you can be?'" says Clark Francis. "When he gets to be a pro player, will he keep working on his skills?"
So the basketball world was rocked by the suggestion, first mentioned last July, that LeBron James might consider entering the NBA draft after his junior year of high school.
It surfaced in the aftermath of what some gurus say was the most impressive individual performance of the year: LeBron's whipping of New Yorker Lenny Cooke, one of the top players in this year's senior class and a likely NBA draft pick this summer. In a matchup that was the most anticipated of the Adidas ABCD Camp, LeBron put up 24 points to Cooke's 9 and hit a 35-foot three-pointer to win the game.
"I know my son really wants to be the first junior to go [in the NBA draft]," Gloria James was quoted after the game. Sports columnists responded by crying that amateur athletes were an endangered species. NBA commentators spoke of enforcing a minimum age limit. But the people who have seen LeBron play think the NBA talent is already there. "If anybody can do it," says Francis, "it's LeBron."
"Some players just mature faster than other players," says Chris Johnson. "I wouldn't see anything wrong with LeBron coming out after 11th grade. I mean, he's that one in 50 million."
St. Vincent-St.Mary Athletic Director Frank Jessie has the onerous task of trying to accommodate a seemingly infinite number of media requests for time with LeBron.
He has clipped articles from Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. There's a sportswriter from Spain, a photographer from Spokane, who are coming to Akron. ESPN has been to the school, while The Today Show and Teen People are planning trips.
"It's hectic," smiles a frazzled Jessie, "but it's exciting."
He also fields calls from Duke, Florida, Ohio State, North Carolina, and others, requesting LeBron's transcripts. Though LeBron is a B student and needs only to take standardized tests to qualify for college, few expect him to enroll.
About a dozen NBA teams, including the Cavs, have contacted Jessie about tickets for SVSM games.
"They love him," says guru Bob Gibbons of the NBA scouts. "They see him as a Kobe Bryant type."
That means that LeBron could make millions on the court -- and even more in endorsements off the court.
SVSM has a shoe contract with Adidas. LeBron wears Adidas shoes, warm-up gear, and uniforms, as do the rest of the players. "By getting shoes on his feet in high school, they win loyalty," explains Dan Wetzel, author of Sole Influence, a book about the sneaker wars. "So down the road, when Nike offers [LeBron] more money, he'll stay with Adidas. He'll do business with the people he's known the longest."
Wetzel says Adidas won over Kobe Bryant in this very fashion: outfitting him in high school. By the time Bryant turned pro, he was so used to wearing Adidas, he rejected Nike's more lucrative offers. It was a giant setback for Nike, which feared Adidas was gaining a foothold in a market Nike had cornered.
Nike Chairman Phil Knight convened all Nike-contracted AAU coaches and, according to Wetzel, ordered them to redouble their efforts on the summer court circuit so the next Kobe didn't get away.
LeBron, Wetzel believes, is Nike's chance for redemption.
"This is the one," he says. "Kobe was pretty damn big, but LeBron is like Microsoft before it hit."
Shoe companies and others trolling for endorsements need a great player, but they also need a guy who, in the mold of Jordan and Bryant, has the magnetism and genteel manner to appeal to consumers.
"This kid has incredible potential to move millions and millions of shoes," says Wetzel. "He's a nice guy. He's handsome. He has the smile. He can play. He has the family. Plus, he's not a punk."
The shoe companies are forbidden from talking to LeBron about future endorsements, and they certainly cannot offer money or gifts now, lest LeBron lose his high school eligibility.
But they can get to know him. The summer camps, for instance, are nearly all sponsored by either Nike or Adidas. If the company is courting a player, representatives will attend his games, hoping the player sees them and is impressed by their persistence.
"These huge multinationals with billions of dollars at stake are stuck in this sort of junior-high flirting game," says Wetzel. "LeBron would sell shoes right now if you could put him in a TV commercial, but you can't because it's unethical. You're supposed to let kids be kids. And so, in the end, it's this silent dance. It's bizarre."
Jessie says Nike has sought to persuade the school to drop Adidas. George Raveling, the former Iowa and USC coach who is now a Nike consultant, was on hand for a SVSM game in December. "George Raveling doesn't show up in Akron by accident," says Wetzel. "He lives in Los Angeles."
Dru Joyce isn't counting this as coincidence either. Broaching the topic of Raveling elicits a long sigh from the coach.
"They made a pitch that we would be a Nike school, and they didn't win out," Joyce explains wearily. "But that doesn't mean that, by the time LeBron's a pro, they won't still be trying to turn him to Nike."
The hottest players earn the most aggressive overtures. Amare Stoudemire, considered by most to be the best player in this year's senior high school class, probably lost his college eligibility after his mother said, in an interview with HBO Real Sports, that she accepted cash and gifts from Raveling.
Raveling did not return calls for this story. "In terms of our company's stance on signing players to contracts, George almost never talks about that," says a Nike spokesman. He maintains that Nike has "never, ever in our history signed a basketball player before he was a professional."
For athletes who must preserve their eligibility for high school and college basketball, agents are an even greater hazard. There are more of them, and their tactics are difficult to monitor. They have been known to form friendships with children even before they go to high school. They offer gifts or loans with the understanding that all will be paid back after the player turns pro. By accepting gifts, however, the player is barred from playing college basketball, his springboard to the NBA.
"In my eyes, agents are the lowest forms of life," says Clark Francis. "They're hustlers, they're pimps. They're in the business because they want to make money, not because they love the game or the player."
In 1998, 60 Minutes ran a story on Tyson Chandler. Then a California high school freshman, Chandler admitted to speaking with agents as an eighth-grader.
Guru Bob Gibbons was interviewed to speak on the long-term impact for Chandler. "I told [60 Minutes correspondent] Lesley Stahl, this young man will never have a normal life. He's already a pro."
Throughout Chandler's prep career, he was roundly criticized for coasting through high school and giving up on college long before his high school graduation. Chandler was also the second pick in the 2001 draft.
Gloria James sits a few rows behind the Irish bench, and by game's end, everyone in her section knows her name. She wears a giant No. 23 jersey that says "LeBron's Mom" across the back. She springs out of her seat every two minutes. She hollers at the refs, exhorts the crowd to give her son a standing ovation when she decides he deserves one.
At the end of the game, she's hoarse, tired, and euphoric, basking in the team's victory and in her own celebrity. Gloria dispenses hugs to dozens of fellow parents and players. She politely, if warily, fields the compliments of strangers.
Retired NBA vet Ron Harper, a former Jordan teammate, approaches her after a game to tell her how impressed he is with her son. Raveling is another familiar face. Asked to explain his presence, Gloria gives a puzzled look.
"Coach Rav? He came here to see LeBron," she says, chuckling. "Why are you here? Everybody's here for the same reason: to see LeBron."
It is her habit to play coy with reporters. The flap over LeBron taking the NBA leap after 11th grade happened through a misunderstanding between Gloria and a reporter.
"He stated that [LeBron] could possibly be the first basketball player to come out as a junior, and asked me how I felt about that," says Gloria. "I said, 'Well, if that's the case, that would be an honor, because that's a hell of a thing.' But I never said we were going to do that."
Gloria says LeBron will remain at SVSM through his senior season and that the family will make a decision after the last game.
In the meantime, there is a support structure for LeBron. She guards him at home, and SVSM guards him during the day.
"The important thing is to allow him to remain a high school student and to protect LeBron," says Merry Lou Windhorst, his religion teacher. "You can't walk in here during school and say, 'I'd like to interview LeBron.' I'm sorry, you can't see him till after school or before practice. That's his number-one job right now. I don't care if he goes to the NBA or not. He's got to get finished with high school first."
Joyce keeps an eye out for the people who emerge from the shadows of the gym.
"They come in a suit and tie," he says. "They come dressed like the kids in the street. They're street runners. They're businessmen. It's something you have to be aware of."
Ultimately, though, it will come down to the choices Gloria and LeBron make. Wisely, they regard solicitous newcomers with heavy skepticism. Coach Rav notwithstanding, "If you weren't friend or family back then," says Gloria, "you're not friend or family right now."
"I don't have to deal with anything," adds LeBron. "I just don't talk to a lot of people outside my core of people. I know who's in it, who's been there since day one, and I'm going to keep them there."
The pair refuse to speak with agents or accept any gifts that might close the door to college basketball.
For the next year and a half, LeBron will do homework, go to the prom, and hang with friends -- the things normal high schoolers do. At practice, he scuffles playfully with teammates. At home, he's glued to PlayStation 2. He gets love notes from girls, just as he gets letters from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"He hasn't missed his childhood," says Gloria, who, along with a few other adults LeBron has grown up with, handles business matters. "We don't bother LeBron with those problems. All LeBron has to do is what he loves to do: Play basketball."
LeBron inspires neither amazement nor jealousy in his teammates.
"I've known him since fourth grade," says Chad Mraz, an Irish guard. "I sleep over at his house. He sleeps over at my house. I don't look at it like he's an NBA player and I want to be around him. I look at it as he's my good friend, and I enjoy hanging out with him."
Realistically, though, there is no way LeBron's childhood could be typical. He's big like an adult, and he plays hoops like an adult. So he is, in the world's eyes, an adult. If he makes millions, he may never be able to buy anonymity. He will be expected to win scoring titles and championships, then persuade the country to buy shoes or batteries or hot dogs.
Doesn't the next Michael Jordan ever wish he could be a normal kid?
LeBron shakes his head. "I didn't work this hard to be just a normal kid."