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Ahead of His Class
Grant Wahl
February 18, 2002
Ohio high school junior LeBron James is so good that he's already being mentioned as the heir to Air Jordan
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February 18, 2002

Ahead Of His Class

Ohio high school junior LeBron James is so good that he's already being mentioned as the heir to Air Jordan

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If that sounds like enough hot air to pump up all the tires in Akron, check out LeBron's r�sum�. Last season, while leading St. Vincent-St. Mary to its second straight Division III state title, he became the first sophomore to win Ohio's Mr. Basketball award. His stock skyrocketed last July at the Adidas ABCD Camp, where he won MVP honors, and it threatened to soar off the charts after he totaled 36 points, nine rebounds and four assists to almost single-handedly keep the Irish close in a 72-66 loss to national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Trenton, N.J., on Sunday. Must have been the shoes: LeBron was wearing special American flag-themed Adidases given to him last Friday by Bryant, who was in nearby Philadelphia for the NBA All-Star Game.

"A lot of players know how to play the game," LeBron says, "but they really don't know how to play the game, if you know what I mean. They can put the ball in the hoop, but I see things before they even happen. You know how a guy can make his team so much better? That's one thing I learned from watching Jordan."

Indeed, while NBA scouts are universal in their praise of LeBron's all-around package—his shooting range, his fluid handle, his disarming explosiveness—their most common comparison is with another breathtaking passer, Magic Johnson. "The most surprising thing is that a guy who could dominate offensively is so unselfish," says one scout. "Most of these young guys don't know how to play, but he looks to make the pass first, and he's great at it."

"If I were a general manager, there are only four or five NBA players that I wouldn't trade to get him right now," says former Phoenix Suns coach Danny Ainge, who was in Trenton to see LeBron play for the second time. "I love Jason Williams at Duke, and I've heard of the Chinese guy [7'6" Yao Ming], but if LeBron came out this year, I wouldn't even have to think about it. I'd take him No. 1."

It's a moot point, though. After causing a stir last summer by saying that he might become the first high school junior to declare for the draft—and challenge the NBA rule which prevents players in this country from being selected until their high school class graduates—LeBron vows he'll stick around to get his diploma from St. Vincent-St. Mary in the spring of 2003. "The rule's not fair, but that's life," says LeBron, who has a 2.8 GPA. "I'll stay another year because my friends are here. The only thing I think is bad, they let that 17-year-old golfer [ Ty Tryon] on the PGA Tour. You've got tennis players competing professionally when they're 14. Why not basketball players?"

With LeBron staying at St. Vincent-St. Mary another year, the buzz around him should rise to an unprecedented level for a high school athlete. "This is like a mid-major college environment right now," says Frank Jessie, the school's athletic director. This year the Fighting Irish moved their home games to the University of Akron's 5,100-seat James A. Rhodes Arena. Some 1,750 season tickets were sold (at $100 to $120 a pop), and St. Vincent-St. Mary is drawing 4,075 fans, almost double the attendance of the university's men's team.

LeBron may be the reason for the hysteria, but he isn't your typical high school hoops phenom. For the last two years, in fact, he has risked career-threatening injury as an all-state wide receiver on the St. Vincent-St. Mary football team. At first Gloria refused to let LeBron play last fall, but after the 22-year-old singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash last August, he persuaded her to let him play. "You're not promised tomorrow," LeBron says. "I had to be out on the field with my team." Though LeBron did break the index finger of his left (nonshooting) hand, he helped lead the Irish to the state semifinals.

Gloria knows she can protect LeBron for just so long. She gave birth to him at 16, and after her mother died two years later, she and LeBron drifted from apartment to apartment around Akron. (On one occasion their building was condemned and bulldozed by the city.) "I saw drugs, guns, killings; it was crazy," LeBron says. "But my mom kept food in my mouth and clothes on my back."

The Jameses' nomadic existence and unsettled home life took a toll, however. In the fourth grade, LeBron says, he missed more than 100 days of school. Nor did it help that Jackson, who has been in a relationship with Gloria since LeBron was two, spent three years in jail after pleading guilty to a 1991 charge of aggravated cocaine trafficking.

Late in the fourth grade LeBron moved in with the family of Frankie Walker, his youth basketball coach. "It changed my life," LeBron says. "The next year I had perfect attendance and a B average." By the sixth grade LeBron was splitting time between the Walkers' home and Gloria's, and soon Jackson reentered the picture, providing financial support, Gloria says, from his work as a concert promoter and a full-time drug counselor at an Akron outreach program. LeBron, who has never met his biological father, refers to Jackson as Dad.

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