Amid demands, James focuses

NBA: Cavaliers rookie LeBron James, 18, has dealt with the crush of media and fans while still performing at a high level.

November 19, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- The basketball world is entirely LeBron James' now, and that's not a bad thing for an 18-year-old fresh out of high school with millions in his pocket.

The trouble is, the world isn't just basketball, and the part that isn't wants a piece of him, too. Slowly, in the first three weeks of his professional basketball career, James is beginning to realize that there just might not be enough of him to go around.

"It will never happen [where it will just be basketball]," James said before the Cleveland Cavaliers' home opener earlier this month. "I'm all right with it, but there's no way that you can just play basketball."

James is hardly the first player to land in the NBA straight from high school. He isn't even the first high schooler to be taken first overall in the NBA draft, a distinction that belongs to Kwame Brown, a forward with the Washington Wizards, who play host to the Cavaliers tonight at MCI Center.

But James is probably the most celebrated, and certainly the most watched, newcomer in the NBA in years, and with his entrance comes a touch of the surreal.

To wit: Three of Cleveland's first four games were nationally televised, the first time the Cavaliers had been seen nationwide in five seasons. In addition, the Ohio State marching band stomped through Gund Arena for the Cavaliers' home opener as the Goodyear blimp flew over it and rapper Jay-Z and baseball player Ken Griffey sat in it.

Needless to say, none of that was to mark the triumphant return of guard Ricky Davis to northeast Ohio.

"I hope [the media crush] won't continue," said Cleveland coach Paul Silas. "In one way, if we win and the team does well, there will be a certain amount of that. But there's been too much of it already. I, for one, am kind of tired of it. But it's something that you have to deal with and go through. It's all due to one guy. If it was the team, that would be different, but it's all due to one fellow."

It's in James' smile, a slight grin that straddles the line between enthusiasm and world-weariness, that tells you he both gets it and wishes he didn't.

James doesn't need pity. Don't forget every other kid is wearing No. 23 jerseys with his name on them, not to mention he is collecting millions in endorsements, in addition to the $13 million in salary he will collect from the Cavaliers over three years.

A sneaker designed to resemble the infamous Hummer his mother bought him while he was in high school will go on sale next month, just in time for Christmas, for $110, the first byproduct of his corporate marriage with Nike.

James is learning on some level how to deal with the crush. He has the phone number of the other famous basketball player to wear No. 23, Michael Jordan, programmed into his cell phone. The two have chatted and will continue to talk about coping with the cult of celebrity that is following James.

"He gives me a lot of advice," James told The Boston Globe. "He wasn't winning a lot in his rookie season, either. He tells me to stay focused, to not get distracted."

And then there's the winning. The Cavs, who went 17-65 last season to earn the first pick in the draft, dropped their first five games this season before beating Washington 11 days ago for their first victory. James has likely already lost as many games in three weeks as a pro as he did in four years at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.

"I'm not a loser," James said to the Globe. "I've got nothing to do with our record. I knew some of that would come with the territory, but as long as I go out and give my all, I can take it."

James is doing his part to make the Cavaliers (4-7) better. He leads Cleveland in scoring (16.5) and assists (6.5) and is second among all rookies in scoring, just behind his good friend, Carmelo Anthony. James is shooting 44 percent from the field after shooting 34 percent in the preseason.

And his defense continues to improve. With the Cavaliers leading by two Saturday, James got a block of the Philadelphia 76ers' Kyle Korver with 11 seconds to go in overtime, in a game Cleveland won, 91-88.

Silas would like James to take advantage of his size (6 feet 8, 240 pounds) to post up smaller players, and he would really like James, one of nine Cleveland players who are 25 years or younger, to take charge of the team and be more vocal.

But Silas already has a willing pupil, a diamond in the rough.

"His ability to learn and translate what you tell him is amazing," Silas said. "You tell him something once and he goes out and does it and he doesn't make the same mistake. He's going to be really good."

LeBron James by the numbers

16.5 Points per game

6.5 Assists per game

6.5 Rebounds per game

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers

Site: MCI Center, Washington

Time: 7 Radio: WTEM (980 AM)

TV: Comcast SportsNet

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