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Jack McCallum
October 27, 2003
Can an 18-year-old shoulder the burden of a league, a city and a few corporations?
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October 27, 2003

You Gotta Carry That Weight

Can an 18-year-old shoulder the burden of a league, a city and a few corporations?

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James's statement is the politic thing to say, what you should say when you're 18. It's also nonsense; even if he doesn't spend a minute at point guard this season, he must take over the team.

But how to manage this? In deference to the others, the Cavs have tried, in Paxson's words, "to pull LeBron back more than push him out front." Paxson told the team's marketers to use Boozer, Davis, Ilgauskas and Miles, not James, for a bus ad. The cover of the Cavaliers' press guide does not proclaim WE'VE GOT LEBRON!; it's a generic photo of the new uniforms. Silas hasn't spoken with James about leadership. "Until you've done something on the court, veterans are reluctant to listen to you," says Silas. "LeBron is smart enough not to push it. Leadership comes. You can't mandate it."

As well as he understands anything, James knows that he should not jump into the spotlight, pound his chest and talk about, as Reggie Jackson once memorably put it, "the magnitude of me." In this respect he is further along than, say, the young Jordan, who didn't realize that some of his peers might resent his celebrity. James is genuinely solicitous of the men around him. He invariably mentions other Cavs during interviews. "I don't want to be a cocky rookie coming in trying to lead right off the bat," says James. "I'm going to lead more by example this first year. If there's one message I want to get to my teammates it's that I'll be there for them, do whatever they think I need to do."

It's anybody's guess what Davis, Cleveland's second-best player, thinks that might be. But here's a clue. "LeBron is going to help me," says Davis. "With a great athlete like myself and a great athlete like him, we can put it all together." Davis also mentions that he sees himself as a " Jamal Mashburn type," a point forward through whom the offense flows. One problem: That's the role James should play. Good luck straightening that out, Coach Silas.

James's closest friend on the team is Miles, who came straight out of East St. Louis Senior High as the third pick (by the Los Angeles Clippers) in the 2000 draft. James calls him "my main man" and says Miles's brain is the one he picks when he wants to talk about the nuances of coming into the league straight from high school. Miles is a likeable young man but, having just turned 22 and not being the most fundamentally sound of players, not the ideal tutor for this special tyro.

It's a fine line James must walk between working his way into the team respectfully yet not surrendering too much of his game to soothe the egos of his buds. Believe this: The sooner the Cavs become the James Gang, the better for everyone.


If James doesn't catch on a la Jordan and turns into merely another young master of conspicuous consumption, the NBA will suffer, and suffer deeply. It's not just the Cavs (average attendance: a league-low 11,497 in '02-03) who are looking for sellouts. Cleveland games are suddenly a hot ticket for other franchises, which are using Cavs dates to induce fans to buy partial season-ticket plans. If that is to be a trend rather than a novelty, James will have to play stylishly and well. Predictably, the Cavaliers' national TV appearances went from zero last season to 13, and that number will be increased if he's as good as advertised. If he isn't, sets will begin to click off in frightening numbers.

Far less popular than pro football and far less ingrained in the American consciousness than major league baseball, the NBA counts heavily on the crossover appeal of its superstars. Bob Williams, the CEO of Burns Sports & Celebrities, a company that specializes in placing endorsers with companies, says James is off to "the best start to an endorsement career ever, better than Michael, better than Tiger." While Nike is being careful to stay away from comparisons with Jordan, Lynn Merritt, the Swoosh exec who handles James, says that the Internet and the growth of global marketing provides James the potential "to have the largest impact in sports-marketing history."

Williams is almost as impressed with the $12 million James got over six years to endorse Sprite and Powerade, both Coca-Cola products, as he is with the Nike deal. "Jordan got 10 years from advertisers but for the same dollars at the peak of his career," says Williams. James also has a $5 million deal with Upper Deck, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin, says more are in the works, a computer company likely being one of them.

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