James, Adu raise the bar, lower boom on age issue

November 20, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WASHINGTON - Ah, youth. Sweet, talented youth. Thy name is LeBron. Unless it's Freddy.

LeBron James, meet Freddy Adu.

Freddy Adu, meet LeBron James.

Oh, you're already acquainted? Why, of course. What world have I been living in? Certainly not the brave, new world of youthful sporting supremacy.

"He's part of the Nike family, too. He's my brother," 18-year-old LeBron James said last night about 14-year-old soccer phenom Freddy Adu, America's newest, youngest professional team-sport athlete.

Of course, LeBron is worth $90 million to Nike, while Adu, or soccer, rather, is worth only $1 million. But the real point is that their paths and stars cross.

The LeBron James Show came to the nation's capital last night, part of a three-game ticket package that the Wizards sold to maximize James' first pro appearance in Washington. You understand the power of King James now.

An 18-year-old king of the NBA was under the bright lights, commencing a dunkfest at MCI Center that had the fans cooing in a way they have not done since the original Air 23 was playing for the Washington Wizards.

Meanwhile, Adu, of Ghana/Potomac, Md., headed north to Madison Square Garden. Adu was ceremoniously introduced as the newest player under contract with Major League Soccer. He'll suit up for D.C. United, close to home, eschewing Europe and the lure of the soccer's biggest stage - for now.

The timing of the events was as surreal as it was sublime. Call it reinforcement. Call it confirmation. It's really true what they say. The world belongs to the children.

So does the NBA. So there, David Stern.

So does MLS, which just got a ratings boost from a supernaturally poised and talented kid not yet old enough to even think about applying for a learner's permit. So no. Adu doesn't have a Hummer like LeBron - yet.

I don't know about you, but the older I get, which is hourly, the less upsetting it is that 18-year-olds fresh out of high school are taking over the NBA.

Last night, the mere presence of James at MCI Center sparked a high-energy show that the Wizards were more than happy to win. Inspiring, this LeBron kid. He spurred on the Wizards while himself scoring a game-high, career-high 28 points along with seven rebounds and eight assists.

Even without a stunning, over-the-head, two-handed, reverse jam to demonstrate his creativity and explosiveness, James did nothing to diminish expectations that as good as he is now, real greatness is ahead.

This is a special case, this kid. Maybe that's why he can smile the smile of an 18-year-old who's six degrees or less of separation from all the real players. Michael Jordan's his cellular speed dial.

Who does Adu call? Pele?

Likewise, the older I get, the less weird it is that a 14-year-old soccer player can expect to use his skill and speed to outrun 28-year-old grizzled veterans who'll want to take the legs out from under the kid.

Adu, so poised, so confident, is not the least bit scared of playing against the big boys. He's so good, Adu already has LeBron's admiration. How many American-born NBA stars even know from soccer?

Not only is Adu eager to become the youngest professional athlete since a 14-year-old named Chapman played baseball in 1887, but he also now appears to be a self-appointed spokesman for sports' stunning youth movement. At his New York news conference yesterday, Adu said NBA commissioner David Stern should not insist on instituting that LeBron James Rule.

See, the NBA commissioner, in talks with the NBA players' union over a contract extension, wants to raise the minimum age level for entry to the NBA to 20. That would mean all 18-year-olds who now go from high school to the NBA draft will instead have to ply their trade in those pastures of innocence: College.

Adu had these words for Stern: "If you're good enough, you're old enough," Adu said.

Adu is right. From his NBA debut against Sacramento, James has already proved he belongs. He is already one of the league's assist leaders. He is wildly creative, a stunning passer who can see the floor, understands plays before they develop.

So what if he can't post up and he's really not sure when to penetrate? At age 18, he can't be expected to do everything, even with $150 million in the bank and an agent who projects a net earnings of $1 billion by the time his career's done.

The future is now - for him, for the NBA, for you and me. That's why it's tough to disagree with Cavaliers coach Paul Silas, an old-school type who won't pander to anyone or anything. Silas, charged with shepherding James through this inaugural stage of his career, said he'll take the promise of talent, pitfalls and all.

"Hey, you're not going to win in this league if you don't have talent. I would rather have young talent than old guys who can't play. No question about it [that old guys sometimes know how to play a different way], but in the end, they're going to get their butts beat," Silas said.

"That's innate in him. He wants to win. ... The kid is learning. That's the main thing," Silas said.

James is glad he slipped into the pro game, before the NBA could rule him too young.

"I love to compete, go out every night and play against the best players in the universe," he said.

Meanwhile, in New York, Adu reminded everyone it might be time for an attitude adjustment toward talented youths.

"If you feel like you're ready to go, then go, give it a shot," he said.

"If you make the decision to go, you have to have some confidence in yourself. I don't think it's fair to take that away from someone."

The kids are all right.

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