High school phenom ready for national stage

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

CLEVELAND -- Tighten the laces on your sneakers, America. LeBronmania is finally going prime time.

LeBron James, perhaps the most talked about high school basketball player ever and the probable No. 1 overall pick in next year's NBA draft, will make his national television appearance Thursday night.

For curious hoops fans, it's must-see TV.

Dick Vitale will be there, baby. Bill Walton asked ESPN2 if he could broadcast the game between James' Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary squad and powerful Oak Hill Academy.

And Cleveland State's 13,000-seat Convocation Center is expected to be near capacity for fans anxious to get an up-close look at the 17-year-old phenom.

A local ticket brokerage is selling courtside seats for $100 apiece.

James' debut could be the most anticipated small screen performance since the Beatles got off a plane and stormed Ed Sullivan's stage nearly 40 years ago.

Even Mr. Big Time himself is excited.

''This is NOT like any other game,'' said James, whose every dribble, dunk and 3-pointer this season seems to be being making national headlines.

This week alone, James' face graces the cover of ESPN The Magazine and Wednesday's USA Today ran a front-page story featuring the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder, who shares the same birthdate (Dec. 30) with Tiger Woods and wears the same uniform number (23) as his idol, Michael Jordan.

''I have not seen it, but I know about it (the ESPN cover),'' said James, who earlier this year was stamped the ''Chosen One'' on Sports Illustrated's cover. ''I love it. I want to be on them all. I'm working hard and I want all the spotlight. I'm not being selfish.

''If I'm in the spotlight, that means my team is in the spotlight, too. I'm having a lot of fun with it.''

It's great that James says he's enjoying the attention, because it's only going to intensify as his senior season progresses and the klieg lights brighten.

In addition to Thursday's matchup with Oak Hill, James and his team will soon embark on a national tour of big arenas, playing games against topflight competition in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, and Greensboro, N.C.

James and his teammates have played on local TV before. The demand to see the Irish has been so overwhelming this season that 10 St. Vincent-St. Mary games have been made available in Northeast Ohio on pay-per-view at $7.95 per contest.

James swears he's not nervous about the national exposure. He's not going to be intimidated by extra cameras or the sight of Dickie V's shiny bald head.

''I'm just out there trying to play my game,'' the kid they call ''King James'' said. ''I don't know which cameras are ESPN. There's cameras at every game and I don't try to play to them. I've played in front of more fans at the Gund (Arena). There's no pressure. I just am going to go out and play my game and give my team the best chance.''

Normally, James has his way on the floor while playing against smaller players from tiny Ohio towns. They can't stop him or slow him down.

Oak Hill, which has gone 126-3 over the past four years, is another matter.

In recent years, the Mouth of Wilson, Va., school has produced NBA players like Jerry Stackhouse, Rod Strickland, Corey Alexander and Ron Mercer.

This year's squad has at least five Division I prospects, including Ohio State-bound Ivan Harris and Dion Dacons, who will attend Connecticut next year.

James knows he'll have his hands full.

''It's Oak Hill,'' he said. ''It's like when you are in the NBA and you play the Lakers there's a different mentality.''

James wants to avenge two straight losses to the Warriors. Despite his 33 points, Oak Hill beat St.Vincent-St. Mary 79-78 in 2000 and 72-66 last season, overcoming 36 points by James.

''A lot of coaches tell you just to treat this game like every other game but from a player's perspective, me and my teammates are treating this like a whole different game,'' James said.

So is everyone else.

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