SECAUCUS, N.J. -- LeBron James won't have to go far to play in the NBA.
The Cleveland Cavaliers scored perhaps the biggest victory in franchise history Thursday night, winning the NBA draft lottery and the right to select James, the 18-year-old high school phenom from nearby Akron.
"We don't know who we are going to pick,'' Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund quipped. He later held up a Cleveland jersey with James' name embroidered on the back and his No. 23.
"I'm very excited for the fans of Cleveland,'' said Gund, who smiled broadly after NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik announced that the Cavs had won the James sweepstakes. "This is a great day for them and for all of that market, for Akron, for Cleveland, all of northeastern Ohio. I'm tremendously excited about it. It's a big day in Cleveland sports.''
James is considered by most experts the kind of rare player who can turn around the fortunes of a franchise.
"It's no secret that we intend to select LeBron James with the first pick," said Jim Paxson, Cavs vice president and general manager.
"I'm staying in Cleveland, and I'm real excited,'' James said at a news conference, wearing a Nike headband and warmup suit and surrounded by his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School teammates.
The 6-foot-8 swingman, who just signed lucrative multiyear endorsement deals with Nike and Upper Deck trading cards, averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 steals as a senior.
James will try to lead the Cavaliers back to the playoffs for the first time since 1997-98, and he's bound to be a big box-office attraction for a team that tied Denver for the worst record in the league this past season at 17-65.
James didn't want to make any predictions about what he'll be able to do for the Cavs.
"I'm not going to guarantee a championship,'' James said. "But
I will guarantee we'll get better every day. We're going to be a
lot better than we were last year.''
It was the first time since 1990 that the team with the worst record -- in this case a tie for the worst record -- won the lottery. New Jersey was the last team, selecting Derrick Coleman with the first pick.
While the Cavaliers won the lottery, the Pistons had to be smiling after winding up with the second overall pick. Detroit, which posted the best record in the Eastern Conference, had the rights to Memphis' first-round pick because of a trade for Otis Thorpe in 1997. The Grizzlies would have kept the pick if it had been No. 1.
When the pick was announced, Jerry West, the Grizzlies'
president of basketball operations, seemed to sink a little.
"It would have been like Christmas,'' West said. "But it's
like Christmas and Thanksgiving for them.''
Denver, which like Cleveland had 225 chances out of 1,000,
slipped to No. 3 in the draft order, despite having the same record
as the Cavs.
"Regardless, we're going to get a great player no matter
what,'' Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke said.
Toronto got the fourth pick, and it was followed by Miami, the
Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago, Milwaukee, the Knicks, Washington,
Golden State, Seattle and Memphis.
Milwaukee, which made the playoffs, got Atlanta's pick at No. 8
because of the trade that sent Glenn Robinson to Atlanta last
August. The Hawks would have kept the pick had they received one of
the top three. Memphis got the 13th pick as part of a trade that
sent Steve Francis to Houston in 1999.
For all the teams that didn't get the top pick, the good news is
that this is one deepest drafts in years.
Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the national championship
this season as a freshman, and Darko Milicic, a left-handed
7-footer from Serbia who turns 18 on June 20, are considered the
next-best players available.
However, James is the player everyone has been coveting.
"Everybody is just speculating on what he could do when he
steps on the court, not what he is doing when he is out there,''
Carter said. "He's stepping into another level. I think he is
going to be a great player. I think everybody thinks it, but I
think that's what this is all about, his potential.''
This is the first time the Cleveland has had the first pick in
the draft since 1986, when it took Brad Daugherty.