Resplendent in a sleek navy blue suit, his burnished dome gleaming in the light, Michael Jordan steps into the tunnel of Cleveland's Gund Arena, flashes a million-watt smile and gives LeBron James, the top high school player in the country, a warm, we're-old-pals handshake. "Where's Mama?" Jordan asks.
"She's in New Orleans," LeBron says, grinning at the memory of how well his mother, Gloria, had gotten on with Jordan when they met in Chicago last summer.
It's 10 p.m. on the last night of January, and the moment feels charged, even a little historic. Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent.
Jordan has just hit another buzzer-beater to sink the Cavaliers, but another game is afoot. A spectacularly gifted 6'7", 225-pound guard who averages 29.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists for St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, LeBron is thought to possess all the elements necessary to do for some apparel company what Jordan did for Nike. Not only does he have the requisite high-flying game and an Iversonian street cred that Jordan himself lacked, but he can also turn on the charm when necessary. It's why LeBron is a year from signing what's expected to be the most lucrative shoe deal in history for an NBA rookie, estimated at $20 million over five years, and why Jordan, who represents his own division of Nike athletic wear, would want LeBron in the Swoosh family.
Tonight, however, LeBron is wearing a black coat and stocking cap bearing the logo of Adidas, his high school team's sponsor, which Jordan can't help but notice yet chooses to ignore. They schmooze for a few minutes, bantering about LeBron's upcoming game, until Jordan leaves, offering this piece of advice: "One dribble, stop and pull up. That's what I want to see."
LeBron nods and smiles. "That's my guy," he says. All things considered, it's hard to decide what's more impressive—that LeBron could be hailed as the best high school player even though he's only a junior, or that many NBA scouts believe he would be the first pick in this year's draft (if league rules didn't forbid his entering it), or that he can get an audience with Jordan as easily as a haircut appointment.
Then again, the world behind the velvet rope is nothing new to LeBron. Last summer he was the only schoolboy invited to play in Jordan's top-secret workouts in Chicago. LeBron speaks regularly with Boston Celtics star Antoine Walker, who is his best friend among NBA players. Those floor tickets to the Cavaliers game? LeBron's surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, simply made a call to Cleveland coach John Lucas. Already LeBron has hung out with Michael Finley, Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse, to say nothing of his favorite rapper, Jay-Z. "He's a cool guy too," LeBron says. "We went to his hotel first, and then I had backstage passes."
Did we say LeBron just turned 17?
"At this age LeBron is better than anybody I've seen in 37 years in this business, including Kevin [Garnett] and Kobe [Bryant] and Tracy," says Sonny Vaccaro, the Adidas rep who signed the first shoe deals with Jordan (for Nike), Bryant and McGrady.
Says Germantown (Pa.) Academy coach Jim Fenerty, who watched LeBron pile up 38 points and 17 rebounds in a 70-64 defeat of his Patriots in December, "We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we've ever played against. LeBron is physically stronger than Kobe was as a senior, and we've never had anybody shoot better against us."