The sad spectacle of basketball's new golden child

February 09, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - So for now, at least, it looks as if LeBron James is out of trouble.

Of course, trouble is a relative term. There's scant reason to weep for an 18-year-old who is expected, after his high school graduation, to sign a multimillion dollar contract to play basketball and a similarly lucrative deal to endorse athletic shoes.

Nevertheless, trouble of a sort did enter the young man's life recently. He accepted two athletic jerseys with a retail value of $845 in exchange for posing for an autographed picture. In so doing, Mr. James was found to have violated the prime directive of the Ohio High School Athletic Association: Thou shalt not "capitalize" on thy fame.

So the OHSAA stripped the kid of his amateur status, banning him from playing with the Fighting Irish of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. On Wednesday, a judge cut the ban to a two-game suspension.

That sounds fair to me; the OHSAA punishment was too harsh. It was not, however, unmerited. To the contrary, OHSAA offered a necessary coat-tug, a reality check for Mr. James and other children of the materialism-as-virtue era.

There is, I suppose, a fair chance you've never heard of LeBron James. Let's just say he's been anointed the Next Big Thing in basketball - "The Chosen One," as Sports Illustrated put it in a cover story. He is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft.

Not surprisingly, his retinue has risen with his stock and he has been busy acquiring all the accoutrements of fame. He has a logo. He has a security detail. ESPN televises his games. Shoemakers are anxiously currying his favor. And then there's the Hummer. Fifty-thousand-dollar vehicle. And that's before it was reportedly equipped with three televisions and a Playstation. Mr. James raised OHSAA's ire when he began tooling around in the thing shortly after his 18th birthday. But he was able to skirt any suggestion of impropriety when it was revealed that the vehicle was a gift from his mother, who had the loan papers to prove it.

Never mind that, according to the Sports Illustrated profile, Gloria James gave birth at 16 and reared her son in a series of dangerous neighborhoods. Never mind that nothing in that biography seems to suggest an ability to qualify for such a loan.

It's not hard to guess what collateral secures this credit. Mama's about to get paid. It's all about the Benjamins, is it not? All about the money.

Because her son is The Man. He's the Golden Child. He's the Ticket Out. And everybody's already on his coattails.

So one day, the kid walks into a sports paraphernalia store and they tell him he can have whatever he wants in exchange for his autograph. How many 18-year-olds do you know who would have said no?

That's the point. He's 18. Unfortunately, he's 18 in the bling-bling generation, the get-yours generation, the generation that believes a person's worth can be quantified by a price tag or a brand name. Moreover, he's surrounded by adults who did not protect him from his own youthful excess, adults busy enriching themselves or planning to enrich themselves off his ability to put a ball into a net.

There is something tawdry and sad in the very gaudiness of their expectations. And in their failure to ground and secure the teen-ager in their care. To give him something more substantial than a ridiculous SUV.

The day after he leaves high school, he will become richer than everybody you know, combined. And I feel sorry for him.

You see, it is not, in fact, all about the Benjamins. But how can we blame LeBron James for not knowing?

Apparently, nobody else did.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached at lpitts@herald.com or by calling 1-888-251-4407.

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