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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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LeBron has been Akron's rising star ever since he led his eighth grade team to the finals of a national AAU tournament. Though he says he's considering Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio State and Louisville, no one believes he'll go to college. Meanwhile Gloria, 34, and Eddie, 35, are busy crisscrossing the country, "listening to folks, letting them give their sales pitch, weighing the options," as Gloria puts it. They attended the Super Bowl in New Orleans after having met with "some representatives there in regards to some marketing" for LeBron, which is all Gloria will say.

Adidas already has a relationship with LeBron through its sponsorship, now in its second year, of the St. Vincent-St. Mary team (LeBron even got to help design the Irish's uniforms) and of an Oakland AAU team that he has played on the last two years. Gloria and Eddie have visited the suburban Los Angeles home of Vaccaro, and LeBron has attended Vaccaro's ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J. Nike has gone to a full-court press as well, hosting Gloria and Eddie in Oregon for a meeting with company chairman Phil Knight. "Why go through the middleman when you can go straight to the top?" Gloria says. " Nike's very interested."

Jordan could play a role too. "This is going to be like a Shakespearean drama," Vaccaro predicts. "Basically, only two people are involved: me or Michael? Adidas or Nike? Whoever it is, LeBron's going to translate far and wide. I believe that."

"A lot of NBA players who wear Nike have never gotten to meet Phil Knight, but it's also an honor to meet the Adidas people like Sonny Vaccaro," Jackson says with perfect politesse. Either way, Jackson knows LeBron's in the driver's seat, yet he also knows firsthand that the distance from jail to the office of a multinational's chairman is shorter than you'd think. Not long before his meeting with Knight, Jackson pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge and received a suspended 30-day sentence for his role in an altercation last July at an Akron bar.

For now LeBron exists in a weird netherworld between high school student and multimillionaire, between dependent child and made man. He's both, of course. At Gund Arena during the Cavaliers game, middle-aged fathers and mothers asked him to pose for pictures; LeBron dutifully complied. Later, an 11-year-old boy in a Jordan jersey collared him for an autograph, one of dozens he signed during the evening. Even Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis chatted up LeBron after the game. "Hey, LeBron! How you doing?" Davis said, slapping him on the back. "Want to be a wide receiver for us? Just for the red zone, how about that?"

It's heady stuff, but in so many other ways LeBron remains a kid. During a Cavaliers timeout, he frantically waved his arms as the rally crew shot plastic miniballs into the crowd. (He eventually snagged one, which he was still clutching when he met Jordan after the game.) On the ride back to Akron in a reporter's car, LeBron simultaneously blasted Jay-Z over the stereo, gabbed on his cell phone and checked his two-way pager for messages from pals like Sebastian Telfair, the Brooklyn whiz kid who's regarded as the nation's best sophomore.

He's almost there, but not yet. Only one more year—with no injuries, no complications—and he'll make it. Then he can worry about the next step. Above the television in the Jameses' modest west Akron apartment, LeBron keeps an ersatz SI cover featuring his photograph and the cover line IS HE THE NEXT MICHAEL JORDAN? It's preposterously too early to answer, of course, yet judging from young LeBron's unprecedented rise, it's a question that is at least worth asking.

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