King For A Day

February 10, 2003

There was the high school god--6'8", 240-pound senior LeBron
James--sitting on the bench.

And here was the high school nobody--5'7 1/2", 150-pound junior
Brandon Weems--taking James's spot in the starting lineup.

If you squinted you could see a couple of slight differences.

James plans on being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Weems plans
on watching the NBA draft.

James drives a $75,000 Hummer. Weems doesn't have a car. He
doesn't even have a license.

James has a squadron of security guards, 781 listings bearing his
name on eBay and a strict no-autographs-during-school policy.
Weems also has a strict autograph policy: If anybody ever asks
him, he plans on signing.

But Weems had one thing on Sunday that James did not--his high
school eligibility.

James blew his (pending a possible appeal to the Ohio High School
Athletic Association) when he accepted two free throwback jerseys
($845 value) from a Cleveland store on Jan. 25. Never mind that
James has already been seen wearing at least a dozen throwback
jerseys--including Jim Brown's, Pete Maravich's and Joe
Namath's--for some reason he felt it was essential to have two
more, Gale Sayers' and Wes Unseld's.

So Weems became the first player in four years at St.
Vincent--St. Mary High in Akron to start in place of LeBron
James. It was an odd sight: the one they call King James, in a
gorgeous cream-colored suit and blinding bling-bling, rooting for
the hobbit they call Dreamer, whose mother won't let him wear
earrings and who doesn't own a necklace.

Of course the whole day at the University of Akron's sold-out
Rhodes Arena was bizarre. Fans heckled Cleveland Plain Dealer
reporter Susan Vinella, whose paper broke the free-jerseys story.
One woman held up a big sign that read, OHSAA, CAME FROM CHICAGO
TO SEE LEBRON--PLEASE REFUND AIRLINE TICKETS. And there was the
confused out-of-town fan who was overhead to say, "Why don't they
get the tall kid to go out for the team?"

Ten TV cameras, 15 writers and Deion Sanders, reporting for CBS's
The Early Show, followed James's every move on the bench. Weems
meanwhile went unnoticed while helping his team beat Canton
McKinley High, 63--62. He scored four points. James used to have
that many getting off the bus.

"That was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life," said
Weems, a 4.0 student this season. He would love to study
marketing and play for Duke someday, but has only received
letters from schools like Lake Forest and Lehigh. "I mean, those
were some impossible shoes to fill, but LeBron told me to go out
and play hard for him."

LeBron might've been out there playing hard for himself if he had
something that Weems had: better parental guidance. James has
never met his biological father, and the man who served as a
father figure, Eddie Jackson, is in jail for mortgage fraud. That
leaves James in the hands of his eccentric mother, Gloria, who
bought him the Hummer to begin with and who, during a blowout
recently, paraded in front of the visiting team's fans holding
high a picture of her son.

"Brandon's a good boy," said Weems's father, Darrell, a
supervisor at an aluminum factory. "He understands what rules
are."

Of course, Brandon hasn't spent the last two years having people
convince him he's the greatest thing to happen to basketball
since somebody cut the bottoms off the peach baskets. As one
sticker on eBay says, WHO DIED AND MADE YOU LEBRON JAMES?

Wouldn't you think you were rule-proof if: a) Your games were
televised on ESPN2 and regional pay-per-view, and moved to bigger
arenas to cash in on larger gates? b) You were on the cover of SI
as a high school junior? c) You worked out with Jordan, had
Shaq's cell number and AI came to see you play? d) Your school
accepted huge appearance fees, plus all expenses, to have your
team appear in Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Greensboro, N.C.; and
Trenton, N.J.? e) You had your own bobblehead doll?

So maybe James's high school career is over, and maybe it should
be, so he can just get on with the drudgery of signing Nike's or
Adidas's $25 million shoe contract. (Bet on Nike.) Or maybe it's
not over, and he will get an injunction or win an appeal and play
in Trenton on Saturday. James wasn't talking to anybody but Neon
Deion. But for one day at least, tiny Brandon Weems had one thing
LeBron James wanted--another high school basketball game.

"It was real emotional for 'Bron the last two days," said Weems.
"At practice [two days before] we could even see tears in his
eyes. I mean, they took away from him the thing he loves
most--basketball...I don't know...sometimes I feel sorry for
him."

Maybe he should. King James traded 11 teammates for two jerseys.
From here on out, basketball is a job. He gets the bazillions,
but he's stuck with the relentless attention and the
helium-filled expectations. Dreamer, meanwhile, is looking at a
full senior year, college and a future that stretches out
blissfully unplanned.

And remember, the kid has a 4.0 and loves marketing. You think
LeBron might need an agent?

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Brandon Weems had one thing on Sunday that LeBron James did
not--his high school eligibility.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)