Should hoops historians wish to pinpoint the moment LeBron James
became an A-list Hollywood celebrity, let us ease their burden:
It was at 2:27 p.m. last Thursday, when he was met at Los Angeles
International Airport by a 30-foot-long white Cadillac Escalade
complete with satellite TV, two wet bars, frosted windows, an
eight-speaker stereo and room for 16 passengers. Wearing an And1
flannel jacket, vintage lo-top Nikes and an Adidas backpack--a
tease for the shoe companies vying to drop $25 million in his
lap--the most hyped high schooler ever piled into the land yacht
with his personal security guard, his mother and his wide-eyed
teammates from Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High. Within seconds
the thump of Jay-Z was rattling the windows like an earthquake. Assistant coach Steve Culp smiled and shook his head. "Just another
day at the circus," he said.
Ever since SI put the wunderkind forward--a.k.a. King James, LBJ
and Bron Bron--on its Feb. 18, 2002, cover, LeBronling Bros. has
gone national. On Dec. 12 James's ESPN2 debut (in Cleveland, in
his school's 65-45 blowout of then top-ranked Oak Hill Academy
of Mouth of Wilson, Va.) became that network's most-watched
telecast in nearly two years. On Dec. 15, in Pittsburgh, Jerome
Bettis, a man making $4.3 million a year, actually asked James
for his autograph before James's game against New Castle (Pa.).
And on Dec. 22, in Philadelphia, Allen Iverson paid his respects
during St. V-M's game against Strawberry Mansion (Pa.). Yet the
buzz reached new levels last week when the Antics Roadshow headed
to California for St. V-M's clash against Santa Ana powerhouse
and No. 4-ranked Mater Dei High, or as ESPN2 billed its national
telecast, Don King-style, "LeBron James versus D.J. Strawberry"
(yep, Darryl's son, a 6'5" Mater Dei forward bound for Maryland).
The week provided a window into the present--and perhaps the
future--of elite high school basketball, a demimonde in which an
18-year-old from Ohio can bring more electricity to Pauley
Pavilion than most UCLA games do, all the while serving as a
human cash machine for his school and all manner of
wheeler-dealers, sponsors and media conglomerates. SI was there
for LeBron Goes to Hollywood, a one-man star vehicle that
straddled the line between action flick and morality play.
60 HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
His headphones blasting Lil' Wayne's rap CD 500 Degreez, James
saunters into Gate B14 at Cleveland's Hopkins International
Airport. It has been a busy week. Five days ago the 8-0 Fighting
Irish, ranked No. 9 nationally, beat No. 6 Columbus Brookhaven
67-62 in overtime before 18,000 fans in Ohio State's
Schottenstein Center (and thousands more watching on regional
pay-per-view). Two days later James celebrated his 18th birthday
with 30 friends at a private party at Cleveland's Dave & Buster's
arcade, and the next night he made the rounds of New Year's Eve
hotel fests with his pals in Akron. After a photo shoot and
practice yesterday James just wants to board the plane, cram his
6'8", 240-pound frame into a coach-class seat and pull on his
eyeshade for some sleep.
Good luck. An elderly man approaches Irish coach Dru Joyce II.
"Would it be O.K. to ask LeBron for an autograph?" he asks.
"I don't know, he's a moody kid," replies Joyce, who has tried
valiantly to maintain a shred of sanity around his team. "Bron.
Bron! I know you can hear me. This man would like to have your
autograph." James complies. He rarely signs for adults since he
learned that autographed copies of his SI cover have appeared on
eBay for $200.
50 HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
They're still kids, after all. Following dinner at P.F. Chang's
in Santa Monica, the mammoth Escalade stops at the nearby pier,
where James sticks his head through the sunroof, like a periscope
from a nuclear sub, and videotapes the sunset over the Pacific.
With Jay-Z booming, he hands the camera to a teammate, rips off
his shirt and starts rapping to howls from his friends, who are
literally rocking the Escalade back and forth like a souped-up
30 HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
Dinos Trigonis can't contain himself. For nine years Trigonis has
put on the Dream Classic, a daylong high school tournament that
has bounced around SoCal venues with mixed results. (Crowds have
often numbered fewer than 5,000.) But when he persuaded James's
school to pick his tournament (and a $15,000 appearance fee, part
of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket, tournament and
TV money that St. Vincent-St. Mary will collect this season,
thanks to James) ahead of two dozen others, he hit the mother
lode. "This is like the perfect storm for basketball," Trigonis
says, tripping over his words with excitement. His partner, Mike
Rangel, estimates that Trigonis will clear $100,000 from the
LeBron-fueled Dream Classic--10 times his previous high.
28 HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
Lawry's, the storied prime rib house in Beverly Hills, is hosting
the Dream Classic's official press conference. In a hall
festooned with ornate tapestries and classical paintings, James
holds court for three dozen members of the local and national
press. It's the only time he's scheduled to speak, since Team
LeBron isn't granting interviews these days. For 10 minutes LBJ
discusses his priorities ("I'm team first, me second"), his
diamond earrings ("These fake. They only cost 25 cents--gumball
machine") and his take on the media circus ("It's real fun for
me. When it stops being fun, I won't play no more. Then all y'all
won't be here"). Scary but true: James could quit high school
ball right now and still be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this
Then it's over. Word has it that Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson and
Denzel Washington have requested seats at Pauley tomorrow, but
for glitz today we'll have to settle for Jaleel White, better
known as TV's Urkel. "I've been coming to this tournament since
Tyson Chandler was a freshman," he says while fist-bumping the
Mater Dei and St. V-M players. "It's always fun to watch high
school sports because the kids are just so innocent, man."
20 HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
It's 10 p.m., James's beloved Ohio State Buckeyes have just
dispatched Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title, and
the seventh floor of the Sheraton Gateway Hotel is off the hook.
"We did it! We did it! We did it! Nobody thought we could do it!"
James yells, running at full speed toward his teammates' mosh pit
in the hallway. "We gotta get downstairs! Let's go!" James says.
For 10 minutes James and his mates career through the lobby,
happily oblivious to the stares of their fellow guests.
EIGHT HOURS BEFORE THE GAME
Technicians in the ESPN truck are setting up outside Pauley
Pavilion. Now that James has shown he can pull down big ratings,
could it be long before we see a High School Game of the Week?
While ESPN executive vice president of programming Mark Shapiro
maintains that his network's two LeBron telecasts shouldn't be
seen as the first step in a larger commitment to scholastic
hoops, he adds that "we are open to all programming opportunities
if there is consumer demand and schedule availability."
In other words, it could happen, which would be just fine with
Sebastian (Bassie) Telfair, the flashy guard from Lincoln High in
Brooklyn who is regarded as one of the nation's top juniors.
"LeBron's changing the game for all the players who come after
him," says Telfair, who also flew cross-country for the Dream
Classic, in which his school, behind Telfair's 30 points, would
beat Vallejo (Calif.) 91-63. "That's what I want too--to be
doing the same things next year."
15 MINUTES BEFORE THE GAME
Fighting Irish coach Joyce is concluding his pregame speech in
the locker room. "Guys, there won't be any magic out there
tonight," he intones.
James looks up. "But he may be at the game," he says.
Alas, neither Magic nor any other top-level celeb materializes.
Nike CEO Phil Knight is sitting courtside, however, and Pauley is
nearly filled to its capacity of 12,819. Someone has handed out
hundreds of grinning LeBron faces-on-a-stick. Yet from his first
shot--an air ball from the right corner--it's clear that James is
off his A game. He clangs five more before connecting, and though
he finishes with 21 points, he shoots 8 for 24 (and 0 for 9 from
Still, St. V-M wins 64-58, its third victory over a national Top
10 team this season, and James produces some highlight-reel
assists, none more breathtaking than a blind bounce pass back
through his legs on the fast break to forward Romeo Travis for a
dunk. "Tonight he did not play well," says Bill Walton, who
broadcast the game, "but you're not always going to have a
perfect performance. I still believe LeBron James would start on
any NBA team today."
THREE HOURS AFTER THE GAME
Back at the hotel Adidas has spared no expense on its Superstars
Lounge, outfitting a ballroom in homage to James and Telfair,
whose teams are sponsored by the three stripes. Magazine covers
and photos of the pair are hung on chain-link fences that
surround leather couches, chairs and beanbags. Three plasma TVs
play a loop of the two players' highlights from past ABCD camps,
and there are two toothsome young women for every guy. Teenage
girls pull James from the dance floor for pictures, whereupon he
wipes his brow with a green hand towel and playfully uses it to
flirt with them.
Just after 1 a.m. Bassie picks the night's last song, Jay-Z's The
Bounce, and the throng goes wild. As James starts grinding with a
special friend, he's surrounded by peers wearing jerseys of NBA
stars past and present, from Chris Webber and Tracy McGrady to
Jerry West and Pete Maravich. But James is sporting something
unique: his own custom-made No. 23 jersey, with KING JAMES sewn
across the back.
Life is good for the king these days. Yet you wonder, gazing at
the scene, what it says about the state of the kingdom.
Read Grant Wahl's college basketball mailbag every week at
The Road to Graduation
This season LeBron James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary's
teammates have already visited six cities and have played in as
many large arenas as have any of the perhaps three dozen
well-traveled scholastic teams nationwide. Here are James's final
four out-of-town stops on his grand tour and the best opposing
players he will face.
DATE CITY, ARENA (CAPACITY)
Jan. 12 Cleveland, Goodman Arena (13,610)
Detroit Redford (4-0)
Dion Harris, a streak-shooting 6'4" guard, has orally committed
Jan. 20 Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum (23,500)
Winston-Salem R.J. Reynolds (6-4)
Reyshawn Terry, a 6'7" forward and North Carolina recruit, could
challenge James with his athleticism.
Feb. 8 Trenton, N.J., Sovereign Bank Arena (8,100)
Los Angeles Westchester (14-1)
Trevor Ariza, a 6'8" forward and UCLA signee, should test James
on the perimeter and down low.
Feb. 16 Dayton Arena (13,455)
Kettering (Ohio) Alter (5-2)
Doug Penno, a burly 6'4" guard, may try to muscle James.