Here comes LeBron James, Cavaliers cap pulled down low, the sight of him sending an energy surge through the dozens gathered near Cleveland's team bus. He works the crowd like a polished pol, hugging and shaking hands and smiling.
Then he comes to Mama, and to her he extends an additional honor: He puts the cap on her head, bends down and kisses her on the cheek. Gloria James—wearing a green-and-gold jersey from her son's high school in Akron, the one with number 23 and LEBRON'S MOM on the back—looks as if she might burst with pride. LeBron's cellie rings, as it does hundreds of times a day, but he ignores it. Who knows? It might have been Michael. James has Jordan on speed dial, but he won't say in what spot, only that Mama is No. 1.
That was the scene after James's first pro game, a 100-96 preseason victory over the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Oct. 7, but time and place are irrelevant. This is what it will look like all the time for James, one of the most famous and well-paid athletes on the planet though he has yet to play one official NBA minute, is two months shy of his 19th birthday, and begins each morning with a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles—"No extra sugar," he assures. Hordes of reporters will cluster around his locker before each game; thousands of eyes will lock on him while he plays; sound-bite seekers will trail him afterward; an army of acolytes will wait for him before he departs into the night. Madness. Nothing but madness, 24/7.
"I've been going through it for two years," says James. "I can handle it."
NBA officials will tell you that we've seen this before, a phenom receiving big bucks, arriving amid much fanfare. But they're kidding themselves and they know it No one has gotten this much this soon, no one has ever entered any league under so much scrutiny. The three-year, $10.8 million rookie contract he's getting from the Cavaliers is Monopoly money to James, who has endorsement deals worth more than $100 million. "I've been around the game for 40 years," says Cavs coach Paul Silas, "and I've never seen anything like it. It's scary."
The Cleveland law firm that represents James has pursued more than 1,000 infringements on LeBron's name and image. At the Caesars Palace Race & Sports Book these days you can wager on all things James. He's 10-to-1 to score between 22.1 and 24 points per game, 8-to-1 to have a high game of 49, 50 or 51 points. Already he is an economic system as much as he is an athlete, the primary link in a long chain of dependency. His performance on the court and his comportment off it bear consequences for—take a deep breath—a city, a franchise, a coach, a general manager, a league, several corporations and an extended family bound to get even more extended.
There are no odds posted in Las Vegas on James's emerging from all this with his money, his integrity or his sanity. He's a better bet than most, and not merely because he's a 6'8", 240-pound man-child who could pass for twice his age. It's also because he has overcome so much already, having been engulfed in a climate of avarice since first demonstrating that magical thing called promise.
"I can handle it," says James. That is his mantra. I can handle it.
"He's done well so far," says Fred Nance, his lawyer, "but it's hard to imagine that any 18-year-old could fully comprehend all of this."
LEBRON AND THE GAME