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Generation Now

Having raised their profiles in the playoffs and world championships, three members of the draft class of 2003 -- Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James -- are ready to lead the league into a new golden age

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Carmelo Anthony #15, LeBron James #23, and Dwyane Wade #3.
Carmelo Anthony #15, LeBron James #23, and Dwyane Wade #3.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
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By Chris Ballard

TO: Our lapsed fans
FROM: Your marketing pals at the NBA
SUBJECT: Exciting news!

We understand why you left. Not enough passing, too much showboating. Ron Artest's pugilism at the Palace, Kobe Bryant's infamous night in Colorado and Latrell Sprewell's approach to conflict resolution. And, sure, it has been hard to replace Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, to say nothing of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. We were happy when some of you got excited about Larry Johnson for a while, but a guy dressed up like his grandmother in ads only gets you so far.

Still, it hasn't been all bad, has it? There's Shaquille O'Neal; Kevin Garnett; a host of scruffy, sweet-shooting foreign players; and, best of all, Tim Duncan -- a pleasant, fundamentally sound 7-footer who wins MVPs and rings and has a surname that screams endorsements. Slam Duncan! The Reverse Duncan! O.K., so he's a bit like the Smithsonian magazine of NBA stars -- reliable and high quality but gets killed by the tabloids on the newsstands. We get it now. You want excellence and personality, flash and heart.

Which brings us to the exciting news: The good times are back, baby, thanks to LeDwelo! Or Cardwon! O.K. so we haven't figured out a good handle for them yet, but we're referring of course to the three prime members of the draft class of 2003: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Sure, we're always touting the high picks -- apologies for that Summer of Starbury mailing back in 1997 -- but these guys aren't mere products of shoe company hype, they're actual supertalents on and off the court, dynamic, self-aware, personable and sexy. Did we mention sexy?

Check this out. As third-year pros last season all three averaged at least 26.5 points. The last time three guys so green pulled that off in the same season? Try 1963, when second-year forward Walt Bellamy scored 27.9 points per game, joining a couple of third-year guards, Jerry West (27.1) and Oscar Robertson (28.3). That's 43 years ago, or one year for every point Wade scored for the Heat last June in that must-see, wake-up-the-kids performance against the Mavericks in Game 5 of the Finals. Not enough for you? Well, last season Wade accomplished something that Vince Carter and Allen Iverson haven't (won a title), while James pulled off a trifecta last achieved by Jordan (averages of 30 points, six rebounds and six assists). And two seasons ago Anthony become the third-youngest player to score more than 2,000 points in a year.

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski named these guys tricaptains at the FIBA World Championship in Japan in August. The squad won only bronze, but the trio represented their country admirably. Wade came off the bench without complaint, Anthony led the team in scoring, and James selflessly took up the role of playmaker. And there was not a single embarrassing international incident to report (unless you count the pick-and-roll defense in the semifinals against Greece).

They're in great demand. Wade's Heat and James's Cavaliers will be on national TV a league-high 24 times each during the regular season (tied with the Lakers and the Suns), and Anthony's Nuggets will appear 14 times. Crossover appeal? Wade's in a Converse commercial (directed by Spike Lee!) and a Lincoln ad, and last May GQ named him the NBA's best-dressed player. James recently guested on Letterman and is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this month. Melo just taped a SportsCenter ad and is on the cover of the latest NBA Street video game. They're getting so much attention that the reigning Rookie of the Year, point guard Chris Paul of the Hornets, says, "I tell these guys, Leave some for me. I wouldn't mind endorsing something. Won't be nothing left." (Don't worry, Chris, someone will have to play LeBron's foil during his Space Jam phase.)

Or look at their Q ratings. The Long Island, N.Y., firm Marketing Evaluations polls people around the country to determine the name recognition and likability of celebrities. A Q rating above 15 is impressive; Brad Pitt is a 20, for example. Our guys? According to the latest survey taken over the summer, Anthony is a 13, James is a 21 and Wade is a 31 (second to Jordan among all sports figures). In fact, that type of love brings to mind our earlier holy trinity: In 1988 Jordan had a 37 rating, Magic a 29 and Bird a 25. "No one's going to be another Jordan," says Marketing Evaluation executive vice president Henry Schafer. "But these guys are likable, present themselves well and cut across a lot of demographics. The NBA's got the right idea with these three."

Sure, some are taking a wait-and-see approach. "We're anointing them early," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant on the U.S. team. But most are on board. "These guys are the real deal as players," says Heat coach Pat Riley. "They understand their place in this game, and they're savvy above and beyond what players used to be like, because of the [off-the-court] success of a Michael Jordan. They know how to take care of business and how to translate their greatness into the marketplace as brand names."

Clippers forward Elton Brand, also a fan of the new troika, brings up another point: "I heard people saying they're being promoted like Larry, Magic and Michael, but I see it as a totally different dynamic. Larry and Magic were battling each other every year for rings, and then Michael came along and took the ring. These three guys came in together."

Came in together and are hanging together. Back in the day, NBA stars were rivals, if not enemies. Johnson and Jordan were barely on speaking terms for years. Bird almost came to blows with Magic in 1979 and tried to coldcock Julius Erving in '84. Bird met Jordan, then a North Carolina hotshot, during warmups before a 1984 exhibition game between the U.S. Olympic team and NBA stars. Jordan's ball rolled down the court to where Bird was shooting. Bird picked it up, looked at Jordan, then punted the ball over his head.

Not these three, who rarely go more than a few days, if not a few hours, without contact. Anthony e-mails Wade. Wade text-messages James. James leaves cell messages for Anthony. They dubbed themselves Our Family, which was extended to include Paul and Hawks guard Joe Johnson in Japan. "Wherever you saw one of us, you saw all of us," says Wade. Days were spent on the court. Nights were spent at the card table, playing bourré, a cross between spades and poker. "We hung out and talked about the future of the league and our place in it," says Wade. "We call it Our Family of the Young Guys because we're the next guys to take the torch. Hopefully [Paul and Johnson] can come along with us and change the game."

Change the game? Look, we admit it needs some changing. Fundamentals are in decline, the effort isn't always A-plus, and players have been known to spontaneously reenact an episode of Cops. But we at the NBA prefer to focus on the positives, like our three young stars. We suggest that you make Our Family part of your family.

D-WADE: Guaranteed lovable, or your money back

People want to compare the 6'4" Wade with Jordan, but they've got it wrong. Yes, he has a lot of MJ in him, but with ample parts Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. "His passing skill is what really surprised me," says Brand, another member of the U.S. team at the worlds. "He's an amazing playmaker. All I had to do was drop [the ball] in the basket."

Speaking to Wade's laconic demeanor, James calls him "the quiet assassin leader." Krzyzewski says, "Even though Dwyane's not that old, he has a maturity about him."

The 24-year-old Wade is also humble (he says his sister Tragil is his role model); beautiful (according to the list makers at People) and at ease in front of the camera. Here he is filming a T-Mobile commercial in Santa Monica, by the pool of the Viceroy hotel, with boom mikes, catered food and a cast of busty extras in bikinis portraying busty women in bikinis. Wade and Barkley are seated at a gazebo, as if eating breakfast. The setup: Barkley boasts that he is "a legend, an icon" compared with the young turk Wade. Waitresses scamper to the table, fawn over Wade and then turn to Barkley and say, "You must be very proud of your son." Zing.

What's apparent during the filming is that Wade can act, not just for-an-athlete act. He improvises gestures, ad-libs lines and throws himself into the scene. His cousin Antoine Wade, standing nearby, laughs when told that Dwyane looks like a natural. "Yeah, he loves to hear that," says Antoine. "But he took acting classes at Marquette, and he's practicing all the time." Think of that: Wade's working to make your commercial breaks more entertaining.

Five more reasons to embrace him.

1) He's not a product of shoe camps and talent brokers. Wade didn't make the Richards High varsity in Oak Lawn, Ill., until he was a junior and was seriously recruited by only three Division I colleges.

2) When he appeared at Disney World after being named Finals MVP, he bused in hundreds of inner-city and underprivileged children to join the celebration.

3) He's a uniter, not a divider. "He was never an overly cocky kid," says his high school coach, Jack Fitzgerald. "He got all the acclaim, but the other guys on the team loved him, loved how he made them feel. There was no jealousy, and that's pretty amazing because this is high school."

4) He knows his history -- of commercials, that is. "My favorite growing up was Larry and Michael playing H-O-R-S-E," Wade says of the 1993 McDonald's ad. "I just remember Bird saying, 'Off the middle of the court, off the Jumbotron, nothing but net.' That was just great. LeBron and I talk about that; it would be great to do something like that. It was good for the sport to see two icons, two guys who fought and went through battles, come together and be just people."

5) He's looking forward to having a second child with his wife, Siohvaughn. They have a four-year-old son, Zaire. (Hey, after Shawn Kemp, we've got to publicize this kind of stuff.)

CARMELO: Now with 50% more maturity!

Here's a moment you probably missed. After Greece upsets the U.S., 101-95, in the world championship semifinals, the American players trudge toward the tunnel that leads to their locker room. Lagging behind is the 6'9" Anthony, head bowed. James sees this and waits, then offers his hand, like a father reaching back to a young child. He pats Anthony on the hip, then puts his arm around him. "When we lost that game, I felt like it was the end of the world," Anthony recalls. "I sat there and tried to breathe, and I felt like I couldn't. [James] came over to me and said, 'We're going to be all right. We still got [the Olympics in] 2008.'"

Couldn't breathe? If this depth of feeling strikes you as un-Melo-like, then perhaps you are thinking of the old Anthony. The one who had dopey friends, run-ins with the law, battles with his coaches (Larry Brown at the 2004 Olympics, George Karl in Denver) and little interest in defense. Meet Melo 2.0. Testimonials, please!

D'Antoni: "He was the best player [on the national team] the first couple of weeks for sure, if not at the end. He really attacked practices."

Brand: "I didn't know he worked that hard. He got up shot after shot. He was big for us."

Wade: "He was on a mission. Not to show anyone up, but to show that what happened [at the Athens Olympics] in 2004 was because he was young. He's showing the world, This is what I'm about now, and that's what I was about then."

Take a guy out of his element -- and away from his posse -- and he can gain perspective. "At first it was weird being over there, by yourself," says Anthony, 22, of his experience in Japan this summer. "You don't have friends with you. Then you start thinking about a lot of stuff and things start to become more clear."

For instance, the limits of friendship. In October 2004 Anthony was cited for possession of marijuana before boarding the team plane; that charge was dropped when one of his friends claimed responsibility for the drugs, which he said he'd left in Anthony's backpack. In July police found marijuana in a car registered to Anthony that another of his friends was driving; again, Anthony was absolved of any wrongdoing. He says he's since had "heart-to-hearts" with his buddies, explaining to them that this is no way to live. "If they don't know that by now, they're fools," Anthony says. And if something happens again? "It's too late, it's over," he says. "You can't breast-feed the baby too long."

See, Melo now offers personal responsibility and the creative use of metaphors. And he's taking initiative. Last month he stopped in to see commissioner David Stern in New York City on a Friday afternoon. (James came by three days later.) Though Stern won't give specifics on the discussion -- "We talked about current events, current basketball events" -- Anthony got some valuable face time. And what about his playing a central role in the remaking of the league's image? "I'm pretty sure [Stern's] not going to just come out and say that," says Anthony, "but that's the feeling I got [at the meeting]."

And now, three more aspects of the new and improved Melo.

1) He's making a commitment. In July, Anthony agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension with the Nuggets, a deal two years longer than the ones James and Wade signed, saying, "This is where I want to be. The whole state has embraced me."

2) He's all about D. O.K., so that's an overstatement; he's still prone to reaching and is a poor help-side defender, but at least he's working at it. "He gets a knock, and sometimes LeBron gets a knock about not being defenders, but when you see guys trying to get better at it, that's what matters," says Wade. "Carmelo's trying to become a complete player. We saw it in Japan. I was really impressed."

3) He's working for the kids. Anthony has taken over an abandoned rec center in his hometown of Baltimore and is turning it into the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center. He's even getting Jordan to do some promo work for it. "I always wanted to build a rec center," says Anthony. "I wanted to start from the ground up, but this worked out. I'm renovating the whole center to make it mine." He renovates his center, we renovate his image.

LeBRON: Approved by nine out of 10 Chinese teens

Wade may have the higher Q rating, but the 6'8" James is more of a household name. Marketing Evaluations measures the public's familiarity with Wade at 27% (that is, about one in four Americans knows who he is), while James's is 46%. (By comparison, Tiger Woods's is 85% and Jordan's is 80%.) Over the summer in his native Akron, James and his marketing team held a "summit" for four of his sponsors so they could talk about how to better build the global brand of LeBron.

Joining Team USA didn't hurt James's image. While in China for an exhibition game before the world championships, he signed autographs in a schoolyard in Guangzhou. In Sapporo and Tokyo, Nike held LeBron press conferences at his hotels, which were decorated throughout with framed portraits of James and pillows embroidered with his likeness. Passengers departing at Saitama-Shintoshin train station north of Tokyo were greeted by not one but two different Nike billboards of James. He even learned some Mandarin before his appearances in China. "I had my note cards, my cheat sheets," he says. What's important is, he made the effort.

The point: He wants the attention and is prepared for the responsibility that comes with it. Remember when Barkley argued that athletes weren't role models? The 21-year-old James disagrees. "Kids look up to us," he says. "They love the way we play the game of basketball, and they like some of the things we do off the court, so we are role models. That wasn't Barkley's point of view, but he knows he's a role model no matter how many times he says [otherwise]."

Five more things you should know about King James.

1) He likes sports, maybe even more than you do. James will watch anything from the World Series of Poker to English soccer. He's also pals with Tom Brady, Maria Sharapova and Lance Armstrong.

2) He prefers passing to scoring. "What you realize when you play with him is that he's very selfless," says Brand. "Because of the commercials and the fame, all the fans over there [in Japan] wanted to see him score and dunk, but he seemed like he didn't care if he was sacrificing points. He wanted to be the distributor."

3) He's all about bang for the buck. According to 82games.com, James was the most valuable player in the league last year based on its Fair Salary rating, which factors in offensive production, defense, influence on team success and minutes played. The site calculated that James, who was paid $4.6 million, was worth $27.39 million, just ahead of Bryant and -- you guessed it! -- Wade. Who said all NBA players are overpaid?

4) He can appear unassuming. Asked if he considers himself an ambassador for the game, he says, "I just consider myself one of the good players in our league, and just try to spread the game and the right way to play it -- and that's being a team player. Being an ambassador, that's such a big word. I'm nowhere near that yet."

5) He respects his hoops forebears (if not their haircuts). In Japan, as Team USA strolled through the Institute of Sports Science, James stopped at a flat-screen TV. Wade and Anthony joined him. On the tube, the Magic were playing the Rockets in the 1995 Finals, a skinny Shaq versus a crafty Hakeem Olajuwon. James made a crack about O'Neal's near-buzz cut, causing Wade and Anthony to break into giggles, yet the players remained there, transfixed. They stared at the screen, one generation paying silent homage to its predecessor. "That's one thing about the three of us: We respect greatness," explains Wade. "We respect what the guys before us did to get [the league] to this point. Without them, there'd be no us. We love the game of basketball, we love the history of basketball. We were excited and giddy talking about Shaq and Olajuwon."

and hopefully you'll be excited and giddy talking about Wade and James and Anthony. Really, just check them out. We're not promising that every game is worth watching -- or any Hawks game, for that matter. But this league has moved past relying on the Shaq-Kobe drama. With this trio of stars, the next 10 years could be another golden age. As SuperSonics guard Ray Allen says, "A lot is riding on those guys."

Of course, it's conceivable that James, Wade and Anthony might not be the next Michael, Magic and Bird, or even the next West, Robertson and Bellamy. But isn't the possibility that they will -- the chance to witness transcendent talent blossom, to see historic rivalries forged, to be swept up in the beauty of high-caliber competition -- the reason you watch sports in the first place?

Issue date: October 23, 2006

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