NEXT ATHLETE: LeBron James
His World Is A Cacophony Of Hype And Hops.
But Inside Is A Kid They Still Call Bron Bron
BY TOM FRIEND
This time, Next is robbing the cradle. There's this boy/man/narcissist out there, impersonating an NBA player, except he's 17 and still subject to a Catholic high school dress code. He lives in a two-bedroom Akron apartment, with an Ann Iverson clone, and the place is a virtual shrine to a 6'6" guard from North Carolina. "Got like 50 pictures of MJ on my wall-that's all you need to know about me," the phenom says. "Got Iverson, McGrady, Magic and Kobe on there, too. And myself. I'm on my wall." He goes out in public reluctantly, with a Celtics cap tugged low over his eyes, but at least he's reachable. He's got a two-way pager on one hip and two cell phones on the other-because he never knows when Antoine Walker might call. "Shoot, we were at Applebee's one day, and Antoine Walker did call," says a buddy named Frankie Jr. "And he put him on hold. How can you put Antoine Walker on hold?" But this is the life of a teenage Next. His home games are on pay-per-view for $7.95 a pop in 14 Ohio counties, and a Dec. 12 matchup with national power Oak Hill was scooped up by ESPN2. "I hope Kobe watches," the kid says. He wanted Dickie V to do the broadcast-because it's not like he'll be playing on Big Monday next season-but there are more important things to worry about. He needs to pick a sneaker company, insure his body for at least 5 mil and cross his fingers that the judge goes easy on his surrogate father. He needs to find a parking space for his Explorer, keep his mother off the refs and avoid the Internet. Not long ago, he read online that he'd fathered three children by two women, which was news to him. But all of the mystery and intrigue will be over in six months, when LeBron James finally shakes the commissioner's hand and gets on with it. Not since Lew Alcindor has a high school senior been hoisted this high over the bean stalk, and there's an entire basketball public tripping all over itself in anticipation. Michael calls him "Young Buck." Shaq is proud to say, "I'm in his Rolodex." And Cleveland coach John Lucas has said, "Gotta have him, gotta have him." Meanwhile, his own prep coach thinks every last one of them is setting Bron up to fail. "I mean, it took Kobe three years," says Dru Joyce II, the God-fearing St. Vincent-St. Mary's mentor who makes James do 10 push-ups every time he curses. "But everyone expects Bron to go right into the NBA and dominate. And I'm concerned about the kid." Not so concerned that he objects to moving most of LeBron's home games to a college fieldhouse. Not so concerned that he won't accept the free adidas shoes and uniforms that Sonny Vaccaro sends in bulk. Not so concerned that he won't let LeBron James wear monogrammed "LJ 23" adidas tees, sweats and sneakers. A teenager is up for grabs here, to the point that some NBA teams look as if they've already thrown in the towel to get him, and no one has been able to stop the insanity. The kid has charisma-"Charisma? He's a damn fool," says his mother, laughing-but he's also oblivious to the flaws of his inner circle. An ex-con is handling his business affairs. Another ex-con wants to tell him he's his biological father. Even his own mother, Gloria, has been seen trading adidas gear to gain entry to local bingo games. It isn't easy being a 17-year-old prodigy who's the so-called future of a pro sports league, especially when you haven't even experienced prom night. But that's the rushed, inflated world LeBron James lives in. It is no surprise that he already refers to himself in the third person-"LeBron stays humble by just being LeBron," he says-or that he shouts "King James!" or "You sorry!" after he's dunked on you. It is no surprise that LeBron memorabilia are up on eBay, or that 30-year-old women want to date him, or that a football game in an Amish community a year ago ended with his signing autographs for 45 minutes. It is no surprise that his surrogate dad wants him to play for the Knicks-"Mecca, Mecca," the man says; or that the NBA is already thinking about putting him on the 2004 Olympic team; or that, according to Lycos, LeBron is the subject of more Internet searches than any NBA player other than AI, MJ, Kobe, Vince and Tracy. He has sold out Cleveland's Gund Arena and Ohio State's Value City Arena, not to mention local 8 a.m. scrimmages. And that's why the Madison Square Garden suits, who suddenly have seats to fill, are salivating over a kid who can windmill a dunk on one possession and no-look a bounce pass through a 2-1-2 zone the next. He doesn't post up yet, but NBA scouts say he can pass out of a double-team better than two-thirds of the league. He shot just 59% from the foul line and 34% from three-point land last season, but that was LeBron in the gym all August, extending his range to 30 feet. He could win the NBA dunk contest right now, but it's his basketball IQ, his feel for the game, that has league cellar dwellers thinking savior. Scouts like that he's a people person, and predict he'll make a better teammate than Kobe. They say he'll be a distributor as a rookie, a go-to guy by Year 2 and on a Wheaties box by Year 3. The kid is okay with the obscene hype, but there's also a real LeBron James down there somewhere, under all that muck. And the real LeBron James happens to be a gem. He scribbles "Gloria" on one adidas sneaker stripe, "Marie" on the next and "James" on the third. He shops at the NBA Store, just gave up soda for spring water, sings karaoke at school and visits one particular family every Christmas Eve. He has a 3.2 GPA and took the ACTs out of sheer curiosity. The real LeBron James gets inundated with free sneakers, so he gives them away for nothing in the school cafe teria, shouting out trivia questions like, "Who did we beat in the state playoffs last year?" The real LeBron James once got reprimanded by his coach for wearing his shorts too low, so he pulled them up like Urkel for a week. The real LeBron James tells his posse they can live with him for his entire NBA career-or at least until he gets married. The real LeBron James still gets roasted for having the floppiest ears in Akron. "Yep, he gets called Dumbo, Airplane, anything you can come up with," says friend and teammate Sian Cotton. "We treat him like anyone else. Of course, he says he's gonna get all of us cars after the NBA draft. Tells us whatever kind of truck we want we can get." First he has to learn how to write a check. HE USED to stand on his tiptoes, to stretch himself to 6'6". That was his prayer-to be Michael Jordan's height. But ever since he passed Mike by, he's refused to be measured. "I don't know how tall I am or how much I weigh," he says. "Because I don't want anybody to know my identity. I'm like a superhero. Call me Basketball Man." The best estimate-or at least what the St. V's program says-is that he's 6'8", 240. But like most everything else with LeBron James, it's an absolute guess. The general public has been hearing about him for 2 years, ever since he was the nation's No. 1 prep as a sophomore, but his evolution can be broken down into two stages: pre-6'6" and post-6'6". He had little stability in his early years, because of a father who never checked in and a mother who scoured the want ads. "When I was 5, some financial things happened, and I moved seven times in a year," LeBron says. "We moved from apartment to apartment, sometimes living with friends. My mom would always say, 'Don't get comfortable, because we may not be here long.' " Her name is Gloria Marie James, and she's a testy, diminutive woman with a serious set of lungs: "I'm loud, can't help it." She got pregnant at 16, and it's been just her and her "Bron Bron" ever since. She says the father was a casual sex partner named Anthony McClelland, who by now is well-known within the state and county penal systems. He's been convicted of arson and theft, to name just two of his many transgressions, and he certainly wasn't the one to help Glo out of her monetary hardships. Glo's always been late to bed, late to rise- "I ain't into mornings"-and she's seen her share of trouble as well, having spent a total of seven days in county jail. According to Akron court records, she's been cited over the years for playing music too loudly, criminal trespassing, contempt of court and disorderly conduct. It's something she plays down-"There wasn't any drugs involved"-but it was never trivial to her son. Out of shame, he stopped going to elementary school, instead spending his days walking back and forth between his apartment and the corner store. "In fourth grade, I missed 82 days of school," LeBron says. "Out of 160." One thing he did embrace was football. He joined a Pee Wee team and scored 19 touchdowns in six games as a receiver. When his coach, Frankie Walker, noticed LeBron didn't return to school after fourth-grade Christmas break, he quizzed some of the other parents and learned that Glo was looking to find LeBron a more stable home. After consulting with his family-wife Pam and kids Chanelle, Frankie Jr. and Tanesha-Walker volunteered to take the boy in. "I don't want to give the impression that Glo just dropped LeBron off on our doorstep," Pam says. "It was important to him and to her that they maintain their relationship. So, wherever she was staying, he went with her on the weekend." But on weekdays LeBron was getting his first taste of family. "My life changed," he says. "I had shelter and food." With Glo, LeBron would go to bed after Jay Leno; with the Walkers, he had bathrooms to clean and couldn't talk back. He didn't miss one day of school in fifth grade, and at the end of the year he took home the school's attendance award. "Best award ever," he says. LeBron returned to his mom for part of sixth grade, but she couldn't make rent and sent him back to the Walkers. Glo then considered moving her son to New York, where she had relatives, but the Walkers wouldn't hear of it. They had this ritual of baking LeBron a German chocolate cake on his birthday, and hosting him every Christmas Eve. And rather than lose him, Pam and one of her friends found Gloria a permanent apartment. It meant the boy could keep his pals-Frankie Jr., Sian, Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis-and together that crew won more than 200 AAU basketball games. LeBron, by then a six-foot eighth-grader, was the jewel of the squad. He saw the court better, shared better, jumped higher, wore No. 23. And after dominating a series of tournaments, he found himself rated a top-five national prospect. He also had a certain gleam now, because he and Glo had their own place. Pam Walker still drove him to school every morning, but after practice he wanted the gang over to his house now. Then, the summer before 10th grade, lightning struck. "I remember sleeping over at his place," Sian says. "We woke up, got some cereal, and I'm like, 'You grew two inches last night!' I swear, he grew two inches overnight! By the end of the summer, the dude was six-six something." Six-six three-quarters inches. Exactly.
The first sign of chaos was when he showed up at St. V's driving a Navigator. Those weren't his wheels-they belonged to an ex-con-and that's when the negativity kicked in. Until then, LeBron James had been his own creation: a kid who dished like Magic, created like Michael, slashed like McGrady and was ornery like Iverson. It was hyperbole, of course, but the talk had enough merit that shoe companies, investment firms and even Shaq needed someone to call as a go-between. The ex-con, he was that guy. His name is Eddie Jackson, and he'd been one of Glo's boy friends from the formative years. When he actually resurfaced is up for debate, but the LeBron regulars don't recall seeing him at any AAU games before the eighth grade. They never saw Glo, either-"LeBron would look up in the crowd for her," Frankie Sr. says-but from eighth grade on, Eddie and Glo never missed a free throw. "What, I knew he was gonna be an NBA prospect in the eighth grade?" Eddie says. "Come on. That's hideous." Fact is, IMG-the rep firm based in nearby Cleveland-inquired about LeBron as early as the ninth grade, so the secret had long been out. And if Eddie hadn't already done 27 months for drug trafficking in the early '90s, his presence might have been more palatable. But he showed up at the Walkers' one Christmas Eve to give LeBron a Play Station 2, and as the teen grew past 6'6", the gifts grew too. Last year's whopper was a '95 Ford Explorer. "Absolutely, I gave him the car," says Eddie, now a concert promoter and a drug-and-alcohol prevention counselor. "When you got a kid that's a 3.0 student and dominating the country in basketball, you get him whatever the hell he wants." This was the world LeBron had to somehow make sense of, and he began to confide more in Eddie than in folks like the Walkers. He asked Eddie to join Gloria as his financial adviser, and began calling Eddie Dad. It was the first in a series of events that turned LeBron's life into what it is today: a circus. Adidas swoops in. Vaccaro was shrewd enough to befriend Eddie; before long, adidas was the official sneaker of St. V's. But the battle for custody of LeBron's size-15 feet was only just beginning. Nike's George Raveling will be glad to know that James wears Air Force Ones in practice and once switched from adidas to Nike at halftime of a bad shooting night. "I wear the sneakers that go with my outfits," Bron says. "Haven't signed nothing yet." Michael's secret workouts. Jordan was bringing the big guns to Chicago for private scrimmages before the 2001-02 season, and he sent for LeBron. The kid had just finished 10th grade, yet Michael mostly matched him up against Jerry Stackhouse and Corey Maggette. LeBron held his own, and Michael was impressed by his ambidexterity. (James eats and writes lefthanded, but shoots righthanded.) Before LeBron left, Michael gave him his cell number. "We stole it from LeBron's phone," Frankie Jr. says. "We called, and Michael picked up. We hung up. Mike changed his number after that. Now we've got to get the new one. That's our goal before the season ends." Turning pro after 11th grade. When a reporter asked Glo if LeBron would consider skipping his senior year, she chirped, "Who wouldn't?" By now she had become the town's unofficial loose cannon. She'd attend games in a "LeBron's Mom" jersey, shouting, "Yeah, baby, we going to the bank," and rushing the court whenever an opponent low-bridged her son. "I had to put an end to that-she was getting a bad name for herself," LeBron says. "Around the house, I call her Miss Ann Iverson or Iverson's Mom Part II." Says Glo: "Ann ain't got nothing on me. Matter fact, me and Ann may turn out to be good friends." St. V's outgrows its gym. With the fire marshal worrying about SRO crowds, most of LeBron's games were moved to the U. of Akron's 6,000-seat JAR Arena last season. The town just couldn't get enough of his 37-inch vertical and his topspin passes, and the kid was turned into a cash cow. The school has reportedly earned $200,000 to $300,000 by playing the larger venue, more than enough to buy a new sound system for its matchbox gym. "Who paid for that sound system?" Glo growls. "Bron did. And do you know they want him to pay almost $40 a year to park at school? Let me get out of this school before I get nasty." The father resurfaces. It was inevitable, but Glo says LeBron's biological dad wants back in. Problem is, McClelland has been found guilty of theft five times and just got arrested for theft again on Nov. 12. LeBron is vetoing any meetings. "I keep that somewhere far, far away," he says. The Cavaliers audition. James has never been able to stay away from Gund Arena. He loitered outside the Cavs locker room all last season, and says he knows "at least two or three guys on every NBA team." But it got surreal when Shaq reciprocated and showed up at one of LeBron's St. V games. ("I wanted to take a look," Shaq says. "Every No.1 high school player gets that hype. Marcus Liberty got that hype back in my day. Where is Marcus Liberty now?") Though the Big Fella gave him a thumbs up, he was nowhere near as intrigued as the Cavs' Lucas, who had worked out Kobe in high school and had long itched to see LeBron. "I kept hearing he was better than Kobe," Lucas says. "So I went to see him play at an AAU tournament and stayed 11 hours. Stayed 11 hours looking for a weakness." Last spring, Lucas invited James to an informal Cavs workout, then watched him dunk on Jumaine Jones and jam backward over Chris Mihm. But it was the kid's point guard skills that floored the coach, so much so that Lucas has no regrets about the two-game suspension and the $150,000 fine he received for bringing LeBron in. In fact, some Cavs players suggest the front office traded point guard Andre Miller to pave the way for a lottery run (which is what happens when you peel off 15 losses in a row). Either way, LeBron Fever was off the charts after the Cleveland workout, even though critics still saw a kid who drifted to the perimeter on offense and looked indifferent on defense. Adidas and Nike didn't care. Adidas engraved his sneakers and made him a gold mouthpiece with "King James" across the front and "Gloria" across the molars. Nike handed him swooshed rubber-band wristlets with "King" on one side and "James" on the other. And then, thankfully, came a dose of reality. At a summer AAU game in Chicago, LeBron was undercut on a dunk and broke his left wrist. Pros like Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson were in the stands, but left as soon as they saw the kid weeping in Glo's arms. "I was like, 'Why me?' " James says. "I hear 'broken,' and I'm thinking I'm out a year, two years." Jordan's personal orthopedist monitored LeBron and his personal trainer rehabbed him, and it made for a cathartic summer. He played pickup with his cast on, and people started to see the real LeBron James again. "I treated it like every day was my last day with a basketball," he says. At the time, Eddie was facing prison again (his sentencing for mortgage fraud was scheduled for Dec.11), and LeBron started re-evaluating. It wasn't his fault everybody around him had their calculators out. He nearly broke his neck when he tore down a rickety rim in Stow, Ohio, a month ago, but when the Stow athletic director wouldn't let Eddie have the rim as a momento, Jackson yelped, "We'll sue you then!" Glo chimed, "Sue, baby, sue! It'll be a sweeeeet Christmas." So the AD said, "I'll give it to you for six autographed basketballs," at which point Glo told him, "You probably want six [favors] instead." LeBron was the only one around him who could keep his head, and what he decided to do-at least temporarily-was stop fixating on the NBA. "People ask me if it's a hard decision going to the NBA, but I've made harder decisions," he says. "Decisions about smoking or going to school, or stealing from a store or not stealing. Those are harder decisions. Yeah, I smoked weed. When it's around family, around friends, of course you want to try it. I tried it a couple of times. But when you get on the court and your wind ain't there, that's when you've got to just stop doing it. So the NBA decision ain't a hard decision compared to that." It's a side of Bron Bron nobody has really seen since ... before he was 6'6". Maybe he's finally growing up, maybe not. But when asked by friends what he wants for his 18th birthday later this month, LeBron James doesn't flinch. He wants German chocolate cake. At the Walkers'.