|Thursday, July 11
Updated: July 12, 3:35 PM ET
Shoes, not schools, on James' mind
By Andy Katz
HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Gloria James jokingly turned to her son, LeBron, as cameras were flashing Thursday, and a horde of media surrounded them during a news conference and said, "I'm a celebrity."
Her 17-year-old son, who could end up being the first million-dollar player before an NBA draft, smiled and said, "Nah."
In a way, they were both right.
In this crazed world of high-profile prep basketball -- Thursday's setting being the adidas ABCD Camp -- both LeBron James and his mother have become celebrities in their own right. The son because of his unquestioned talent on the court. The mother because of the role she plays in a game played by rival sneaker companies trying to get close enough to LeBron to get his signature on an unprecedented sponsorship deal sometime during the next 12 months.
LeBron James is the next athlete both Nike and adidas see as its poster child of the 21st century. And with each hosting all-American basketball camps this week -- Nike in Indianapolis and adidas in New Jersey -- the James clan has been pampered and pursued by shoe salesmen all week. James, his mother, and the embattled Eddie Jackson, who is facing federal fraud charges and is referred to as James' "stepfather," have created quite a circus as they fly back and forth between the two all-American camps at IUPUI and Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Oh, and James can't even play.
The St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) 6-foot-7 rising senior is out of action for the July recruiting period with a broken left wrist, suffered in an AAU tournament in Chicago on June 8. It's an injury he said Thursday ended his football career but won't have any effect on his hoop career. And it certainly hasn't stopped Nike or adidas from trying to woo James in the hope they can land him for an estimated $20 million to $25 million contract in advance of him likely being the No. 1 choice in the 2003 NBA draft.
James has yet to say he will definitely be in the draft, even hinting Thursday he might still pursue colleges and listed his five choices as North Carolina, Duke, Florida, Ohio State and Louisville. But sources close to James say any talk of going to college is a farce, and James' only interest in college is the free recruiting trips he's entitled to as a senior in high school.
Besides, the only recruiting that matters in James' world has already started. The only decision seems to be either Nike or adidas. And James is learning quickly how to play the game.
James seems to be playing both sides, initially saying his only reason to check in on the Nike All-America Camp on Monday and Tuesday was to see his competition. But the reality is James, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the spring, was at Nike because of the company, not the camp, and has already been to see Nike in Oregon. So much for adidas having an edge, which it might have had after James stole the show at the ABCD Camp last year and then wore an adidas team uniform he reportedly helped design for St. Vincent-St. Mary.
"It's a business thing, going to see Nike," said James, the only player at either camp to have his own news conference. "I'll do what's best for me. I don't have a timetable. It's a business and I need to start early because things are about to get crazy."
"It's good business," adidas camp director Sonny Vaccaro said. "The kid will have two choices between me (adidas) and Michael (Nike)."
Signing with either company before his senior season could jeopardize James' amateur status. It also could create a precedent in the world of high school basketball, with a decision needing to be made by the Ohio state high school association. But agreeing in principle with either company also isn't out of the question, and the fact that St. Vincent-St. Mary is an adidas-sponsored school wouldn't necessarily have a bearing on his ultimate decision.
Gloria James was quick Thursday to say the family hasn't been courted. But to anyone who watched closely enough, that wasn't the appearance given over the past week.
It started Monday night when Nike gave James his own court to play on the IUPUI campus. The players who attended the Nike camp stayed at the University Place Hotel on campus, but James' crew arrived at the downtown Westin Hotel for their stay -- in a town car. And James' appearance at Nike wasn't unexpected, especially in light of his blossoming relationship with Michael Jordan. James has played with Jordan in Chicago and said the one event he might play this summer is at Jordan's camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., Aug. 1-10. James has had the cast on his left arm reduced to below his elbow, allowing him to shoot and dribble and possibly get back on the court by August.
When he arrived at the ABCD Camp on Wednesday night, he was wearing Nike shoes, to go with his adidas headband and a "King James 23" shirt he said was a gift "from God," when he got into his hotel room. He did stay at the players' hotel at the Hilton near FDU. But get this, one NBA coach working the camp said he saw the James family having its bags carried for them upon arrival.
According to Vaccaro, Nike and adidas aren't doing anything illegal (under NCAA rules) with James because he's not a camper. In other words, he can get special treatment.
"For me, I think it's great to have two companies chasing after a player like me," James said. "I'm liking it and it's going to be a race to the finish line and whatever the best decision for me and my family I'll make the best decision that it has to be. Right now, it's not just Nike and adidas ... everybody has a chance and I'm not playing any favoritism. It's business, but it's relationship, too. I'm a smart guy and I know what's good for me and my family."
And apparently that doesn't include signing with an agent, just yet. James could command advance money immediately if he just said yes. A mansion could replace the James apartment in Akron in a day.
"I always said to my mom that we would live in a big house because we've been in apartments," James said. "We've never had a lawn. I've got no brothers or sisters. It's just me and my mom and uncles. We waited this long, 17 years without a house. We can wait a couple more years. Ain't no good houses in Akron anyways. All the houses in Akron are too little anyways."
Candid, yes. But, James is just as quick to say the attention he commands hasn't changed him as a person. As for his life the past 12 months, well, that has changed. He's no longer just one of the boys, and can't do the normal kid things, "like bad things, like knocking on doors and running. Can't do that no more."
But James has been thinking about the NBA since he was in the fifth grade, something he said his teachers said was crazy back then. But he never deviated from his dream and made it reality with a high school career that's still not finished, but already unlike any player's before him. So, why shy away from the attention?
"I'm already playing in front of thousands, but I can't wait to do that in an NBA uniform," James said. "I love (the attention). I made this. If I keep working hard then you'll keep coming. I'd rather you come in my face then not even knowing me. Keep coming."
The college coaches won't bother, though.
James said about visiting his five choices, "Don't they pay for that? Yeah, I'll take my visits. Yeah, I'll take my visits. North Carolina always been a tradition and North Carolina and Duke have the rivalry; and Louisville has Rick Pitino, one of the greatest coaches ever, and Ohio State is up the street and is like my hometown. But Florida, I just like the way they play."
A number of coaches told ESPN.com they stopped recruiting him after his sophomore season. Coaches who had connections to his coaching staff, or the city of Akron, schools like California and Cincinnati, didn't bother because they assumed he was going straight to the NBA. High-profile schools like Maryland and Michigan State didn't bother, either. Why waste money recruiting him when the only time they need to see James is at an event they'll already attend. Florida does have him on its mailing list, but has the money to send out a mass mailing, so it wouldn't make that much of a difference to cross him off.
Still, Gloria James said the mailbox is full every day. But LeBron said "letters doesn't mean anything."
St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce said he told schools to focus on other players, but to stay in touch. James could still take a standardized test as a backup plan, but the chance of him going to college is minuscule, according to Vaccaro. One coach said it might be worth it to have James say he would have gone to their school (see: Eddy Curry and DePaul) if he had gone to college. But college presidents would probably have a field day if a school's athletic department paid for James to make a recruiting visit when he could turn around the next day and sign a multimillion dollar sneaker deal and lose his amateur status.
But the money-making machine that is LeBron James doesn't end with shoe deals, or NBA contracts. James' star status at the high school level has risen to the point that St. Vincent-St. Mary is commanding guarantees to play road games next season. The estimated appearance fee is $15,000, and one source close to the school said it earned close to $200,000 to $300,000 by playing games at Akron University's 5,000-seat gym last season.
Joyce said the school received one offer for $25,000, but turned it down. The school was approached by Madison Square Garden to play New York's Lincoln High and high-profile point Sebastian Telfair. MSG was expected to pay $15,000, but the game couldn't get scheduled because St. Vincent-St. Mary couldn't add another game.
"This game isn't happening, but the idea of an appearance fee was broached," MSG's Joel Fischer said. "It's common practice (in the entertainment industry, but not in high school sports) and with LeBron James we were prepared to do that. That's how the business has changed. It's standard practice in college. And ($15,000) actually is on the lower side."
Fischer even added that MSG knew there was always a chance James could have gotten hurt, thus a threat of a bust at the box office.
"You take that risk with any high-profile athlete and sporting event. Sometimes players get injured and that's the risk you take," Fischer said. "This one was a worthwhile opportunity. If they were able to play this game, we would be willing to make an investment to make it happen. Being Madison Square Garden, we always want high profile events."
Joyce said St. Vincent-St. Mary will play guarantee games at Ohio State against Columbus Brookhaven and against Oak Hill Academy (Va.) at Cleveland State. The LeBron James Tour 2002-03 also has dates booked at Pauley Pavilion, the Dean Dome, the Palestra in Philadelphia and at Detroit University.
"It's crazy how many people are calling to put on a game," Joyce said. It's not any more insane than the interest James is receiving this week from Nike and adidas.
"I'm not amazed by y'all," James said. "I'm amazed by myself. If I keep working hard, you all will keep coming."
Don't worry, LeBron, they will.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.