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By TOM WITHERS



Published: Tue, February 11, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



By TOM WITHERS

ASSOCIATED PRESS

EBRON JAMES LEANED HIS HEAD against the folded-up wooden bleachers inside the high school gymnasium a year ago and talked about life.

That was when he was still LeBron James, basketball prodigy and curiosity.

The St. Vincent-St. Mary student hadn't been anointed "The Chosen One" yet.

There were no magazine covers. No national tour of NBA-sized arenas. No games on pay-per-view. No bodyguards. No limousines. No Hummer. No state investigations.

James wasn't a household name. His amateur eligibility was as unquestioned as his wondrous playing skills.

"This is easy," he said on Jan. 12, 2002. "I've got nothing to worry about. I've got my friends to keep me cool. I've got this inner circle. As long as you've got friends, you've got nothing to worry about."

Currently

These days, James, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft, has more friends and worries than he could have imagined.

David Letterman and Jay Leno want him as a guest. He has become daily fodder for sports talk shows nationwide, and everyone seems to have an opinion about LeBron.

On Wednesday, "King James" was in another court.

A state athletic association declared James ineligible to compete as an amateur after he accepted for free from a store two "throwback" sports jerseys worth $845. A judge issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the ruling, allowing the 6-foot-8 senior to play at least three more games.

After that, James may have to appear at a Feb. 19 hearing where his eligibility will be ruled on again.

For now, the 18-year-old can play and chase a state title before he turns pro.

On, off court

On the court, the kid compared to a young Michael Jordan is in complete control. Off it, others direct his every move.

Gloria James makes most of her son's major decisions. There's a bodyguard and security staff. Attorney Fred Nance handles the family's legal affairs and there's a public relations executive for the media.

He has become the most celebrated high school player ever.

Gloria James bounces out of her seat and screams at her only child.

"Let's go, baby," she yells as LeBron dribbles up the floor of Akron's sold out Rhodes Arena and completes a 3-point play.

Spotting Gloria James in the 5,900-seat building is easy. She often wears a replica St. Vincent-St. Mary jersey with either "LeBron's Mom" or "James" on the back.

During a recent game, she stood behind the bench and cheered for the nation's No. 1 team while working the officials like an assistant coach.

"We've got to get you a seat, Gloria," Fighting Irish head coach Dru Joyce told her afterward.

Growing up

Gloria James had LeBron when she was 16, and they've endured their share of tough times. For a brief period, LeBron lived with another family.

Now, they're tighter than ever.

Eddie Jackson, a former boyfriend of Gloria's, has been a father figure to LeBron. But Jackson is serving a three-year prison sentence for mortgage fraud, leaving Gloria as LeBron's closest confidant and adviser.

Soon she'll help him choose whether to sign a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike or Adidas.

James remains a loyal and loving son.

After being named Northeast Ohio's top high school athlete, James thanked her during an acceptance speech.

"She's my mother, my father, my sister and my brother," James said. "Everybody knows who she is."

And she doesn't miss a chance to remind others.

After James scored 45 points in three quarters -- he finished with 50 in 23 minutes -- in a blowout win, Gloria James paraded around the arena's concourse waving a hand fan with a picture of her son's grinning face on it.

As King James holds court in the hallway outside the St. Vincent-St. Mary locker room, four members of his security team keep a close eye on those around him.

James signs some basketballs, poses for pictures and shakes a few hands.

"Go, go," someone says, and James is off.

Heading down a hallway, James is flanked by men wearing laminated "LeBron James Security" credentials around their necks. The badges have James' likeness on them.

Accompanying the group are four uniformed University of Akron police and a few select friends.

"I understand that the entourage has grown," said school headmaster David Rathz.

Protection

Darrell Hill has had James' back all season. With the Roman Catholic school's blessing, the beefy bodyguard has been making sure James stays out of harm's way.

"He does a good job," Rathz said. "He has been approved. We don't employ him. He is employed by the family."

Recently, off-duty police officers in street clothes joined the entourage.

The Akron police only require officers to get approval for off-duty work if they will be in uniform. The department would not release their identities.

Rathz said they are not being paid by the school.

"We are not providing any wherewithal," he said. "To my knowledge, they work for the family. Unless they're all donating their time."

Business is booming at the Shillelagh Shack, the concession stand next to St. Vincent-St. Mary's gym.

Senior night

It's Jan. 24 -- senior night -- and some of the school's 600 students excitedly mingle in the dining area. Parents buy raffle tickets to win a yellow Chevrolet Cavalier.

The grand prize sits on the sidewalk out front, next to James' $50,000-plus pewter Hummer H2 vehicle his mother gave him as a birthday gift. He hopped the curb to park it near the building.

Inside, a "60 Minutes" crew sets up to record James' last game on campus. He only played there twice this season after the school moved home games to Rhodes last year to accommodate ticket demand.

"This is what high school sports is all about," Rathz shouts as the band plays the school's fight song, which is also Notre Dame's.

"The amount of money we're making is nothing like people are speculating," Rathz said. "Pay-per-view? We're not getting anything. ESPN? We didn't get a penny. Those games are all done by promoters. The away games we do make some money in guarantees, that's it."

Increase in revenue

The school reported its revenue from basketball jumped from $79,000 when James was a sophomore to $298,000 last year. This year's figures won't be available until June.

During time-outs of the junior varsity game, James, wearing a No. 32 Jim Brown jersey -- not one of the ones he got from the store -- shoots jumpers as the crowd files in to see the varsity play.

Later, as senior cheerleaders and players are introduced along with their parents, James learns his mother hasn't arrived for one of the biggest nights of his life.

Nearby, Hill is on a cell phone.

"You got Glo?" he asks.

Gloria James never made it to see LeBron walk to half-court, accompanied by four of his classmates as students, parents and faculty applaud. Her absence is never explained, and Gloria doesn't talk to the media anymore.

LeBron appears to choke back tears.

On a table, the rose corsage his mom was supposed to wear sits alone in a plastic container.




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