All LeBron James wants to be is a basketball player. He is very good at the sport, good enough to play in the NBA now, even though he is only 18. But since he does not meet the NBA's minimum age level, he was forced to play basketball at an amateur level, thus delaying his multi-million-dollar payday.

How many teenagers know patience? Dollar signs were in front of his eyes, and he wasn't allowed to grab them. Something had to give.

An amateur athlete, in its strictest definition, is simply a person who does not receive remuneration for playing sports. If I play soccer in a recreational league, then I am an amateur. If David Beckham is a salaried midfielder for Manchester United, then he is not.

On the other hand, a true amateur takes a more conservative line. This person rejects the commercialization of sports. He or she is committed to developing into a complete human being with non-athletic interests. To this person, the spirit of amateurism is more important than the letter of the law — accepting free orange slices after a game wouldn't be a problem; but being shown on national TV, even without receiving payment, would be unthinkable.

Yes, LeBron James received much more than orange slices. Retro sports jerseys worth $800-plus is nothing to sneeze at. But forget the free gear, forget the H2 his mother gave him. LeBron James is an amateur like I'm the tooth fairy.

It's hard to say when LeBron-a-mania started. Maybe when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February of 2002 as a junior. Maybe when he was USA Today's first junior to be named national player of the year. Maybe it was when his coach said he was the "best (freshman) he had ever seen." Maybe it was when Michael Jordan invited him to his pre-comeback workouts in summer 2001 and watched the rising junior match up against NBA players.

Did I mention that this was all in high school?

There's nothing American society loves more than hype, and LeBron James is all that. He is now the most-searched basketball player on Lycos. Adidas has been besieging his school (St. Vincent's-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio) with free shoes and gifts. One day, he showed up at school driving a new Lincoln Navigator. In 2003, his mother gave him a new Hummer H2; she's a woman who, a few years beforehand, had moved LeBron in with family friends when she couldn't make rent.

Is LeBron a good basketball player? Damn straight. Eighteen years old and 6-foot-8 tall, James is ambidexterous and has been called a better passer than two-thirds of the NBA's current players. He can gracefully stride down the court faster than people who are sprinting. He can shoot accurately from long-range and has an impressive vertical leap. He has yet to develop a me-first attitude that's cancerous to sports teams.

How do I know this? I've seen him play on ESPN in Los Angeles. His high-school team decided to barnstorm over the 2002-03 holiday break. All for more ticket sales.

High school basketball players in the United States have to be amateurs. Specifically, they cannot receive payment, gifts or favors due to their athletic star status.

Yeah, right. Do you know any 17-year-olds who get free shoes every week?

At most high schools, this sort of thing is overlooked. A few free shoes, maybe a Playstation2no big deal. At first this was true for James as well. In the summer of 2002, when James was recovering from an injury, no one minded that he was a spectator at all-star games wearing an expensive retro Joe Namath jersey.

But a willingness to look the other way can only go so far. As the hype grew, the media paid more attention to LeBron, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer noticed that he was driving a new Hummer. An official investigation discovered that his mother, Gloria Marie James, paid for the car with a loan — obviously assuming that he would receive future earnings in the NBA. The high school regulators shrugged their shoulders and the mini-scandal died.

Then came "jersey-gate." News broke that James had received two expensive jerseys from a sporting-goods store for free (of Gale Sayers and Wes Unseld). The store manager even admitted that he gave them to James for free, an act the store often does for celebrities.

Ooops! On January 31, 2003, with his high school career almost completed, LeBron James was suspended for the rest of the season.

The lasting effect of jersey-gate on James' basketball career will be negligible. He'll go into the 2003 NBA Draft and will likely be chosen first overall. Maybe the incident will make LeBron more careful in the future; maybe not.

But at last, LeBron James is what he always was: a professional.

Sources/more info:
Thanks to Spasemunki for spelling help.
Thanks to wertperch for reminding me that I needed a lede.

Noder's note: LeBron James is a high school basketball player at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio, subject to the most hype of any high schooler since The Artist Formerly Known As Lew Alcindor. James was recently ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season for accepting approximately $800 in gifts from a local merchant. James is expected to be the #1 pick in this year's NBA Draft.

What you've written is slightly condescending and very unfair -- it paints LeBron James as some kind of criminal, or at the very least someone who has executed some form of poor judgment. The line between professional and amateur athlete is blurred considerably, and varies from sport to sport. A high school baseball prospect has the rights to negotiate with his team for almost a year, at which point he is returned to the draft and can continue playing at an amateur level. A college basketball player can declare eligibility for the NBA Draft, but if he signs an agent, he loses his amateur status in the eyes of the NCAA. Pro football has a ban on drafting college sophomores, regardless of talent, and the NCAA will suspend you fewer games for accepting free jerseys at a store than they will for playing in an over-40 men's league. Does it really matter what his "amateur status" is?

You take an eighteen year old and subject him to the kind of hype and attention that LeBron James has received, and then try to convince me that this wasn't going to happen? Time out, Green Bay. When your games are being televised nationally, you're being referred to as "King James", half the girls in school are willing to suck your dick, and half the guys try to hang around you to be cool by association? A kid who had nothing and now has everything thrust upon him? And you want him to worry about his amateur status with the Ohio State High School Athletic Association? Please.

Yeah, he gets new shoes. That's what sponsors do. Any team that's on television is going to have an athletic sponsor, high school or college. You think Texas high school football doesn't have athletic sponsors? Guess again. There's a state where the high school championship is played in front of a sold-out crowd at Texas Stadium. Nike was the sponsor at Boston College while I was there. My roommate got free shoes as often as he wanted, too. And T-shirts. And shorts. Does that mean he was a professional? Even if he was forbidden by NCAA rules to hold a paying job? Even if, on a campus where a breakfast sandwich and a glass of milk costs $6.50, he was given a $25 a day meal stipend and expected to maintain a weight of 225 pounds despite three hours of rigorous practice each day? Even if the $100 check his dad sent him each month was barely enough spending money for two weeks? And even if he hadn't taken any of the gifts that the sponsor gave -- legally, under NCAA rules -- played it straight all the way just to be sure, aren't colleges and universities essentially paying all of their athletes in excess of $100,000 worth of tuition, room, and board for four years?

I suppose accepting that Mach 3 Razor that Gillette sends you when you turn 18 would constitute his violating his "amateur status" in some eyes?

The media frenzy surrounding LeBron James has divided most folks into one of two camps. The first are those who think that LeBron is a kid caught up in all of this hype, through no fault of his own. Nearly 61% of voters in an informal poll agreed that the OSHAA unfairly singled James out. I'd wager than most of that 61% can't name another high school basketball player in the state of Ohio, so naturally, he's being singled out. I'd also wager that some of those folks would forgive Osama Bin Laden, if he could nail the three and play great transition defense. These are the ones who treat our athletes like heroes, forgive their transgressions, and can't understand why James was suspended.

The other camp are those who are angry at the supposed commercialization and bastardization of sports, the iconification of thugs and criminals. Sports were simpler way back before everything became a circus, back when the blacks played in a different league and Ty Cobb climbed into the stands during a game to physically beat a fan in a wheelchair. Ah yes, give them back the good old days, before the underclassmen left school early for the professional ranks, before the high schoolers made the jump. These people see the trend as inevitable, waiting for that terrible day when we start marking eighth graders in this country for stardom and following their daily progress from puberty to the professionals. (Hey, that sure didn't happen with Ronaldo, did it?)

Despite the fact that a long time NBA coach and scout called LeBron a poor perimeter shooter, an "atrocious" defender with a "barely adequate left hand" dribble (Vince Carter, anyone?), he's going to be the number one pick in the NBA Draft. Why is that? Have you seen an NBA game lately? Is it any wonder that the U.S. finished sixth at the latest World Championships? For a slumping league whose All-Star Team couldn't defeat the 1986 Boston Celtics, this kid is just about the best thing going.

LeBron James is driving a Hummer for the same reason that I'm driving a 4Runner. Neither Mrs. James or myself have the money to pay for it outright. But the bank forsees us being able to pay for the vehicle in the future, and has thus allowed us to pay in installments. So he's driving an H2 and wearing a slick looking jersey... why should he be "more careful"? Who says that he was less careful? Amateur status? Professional status? Who cares? It's all bullshit. He's not an amateur. He's not a professional. He not right and he's not wrong.

He's a boy. Leave him the fuck alone, because God knows no one else is going to.

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