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The Life

November 18, 2002
LeBron's world
ESPN The Magazine

He's either going to the NBA or the hospital -- whichever comes first.

LeBron James dunked a basketball in practice this weekend, decided to take the whole rim with him and landed spine-first. He could've broken his neck -- or worse, his promise to buy his mom the world -- but he got up, slung his adidas bag over his shoulder and walked straight to the john.

Asked later how he'd managed to dislodge an entire rim, he said, "All that liftin'." But the truth is, this cannot keep happening. He is 17 going on rookie-of-the-year, and he has too much at stake to be dunking on rickety high school rims. In June, he broke his wrist at a Chicago AAU tournament, when some wanna-be undercut him, and then at his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School practice in Akron not long ago, he got undercut again.

LeBron James
LeBron James has outgrown the high school game.

"I'm off!" he said that day at his high school, plopping himself down in the bleachers.

"Where you going, n-----? We're practicing," said his teammate and close friend, Sian Cotton.

"I broke my f------ wrist being undercut like that, n-----," James answered.

Either way, James is about to start a senior year of high school that potentially could be frightful. His mother, at one point last year, insinuated she wouldn't be against him turning pro after the 11th grade, and now we know why. He has the body of a 25-year-old (6'8", 240), and, when he goes hard to the rack, those are 5'9", 16-year-olds trying to draw the charge. He has outgrown high school, outgrown high school refs and outgrown high school rims that can no longer take his punch.

After he tore the one down on Saturday -- during a scrimmage I witnessed in a Stow, Ohio, auxiliary gym -- he and the rim lay there side-by-side. The team's trainer went rushing toward James, and eventually the Stow High School athletic director went rushing for the rim.

That rim was cash lying on the ground. That's how out of hand LeBron James Fever is. LeBron's surrogate father, Eddie Jackson, tried to grab the rim himself -- "for the trophy case," he said -- but the AD, Gene Lolli, wouldn't let him have it.

"We'll sue you, then," said Jackson, who is possibly facing jail time for mortgage fraud. "We'll sue you for the fall."

LeBron's mother, Gloria, then started chirping herself. "Sue, baby, sue," she said, laughing.

Jackson asked again for the rim, and again, the AD said no.

Jackson: "You take this lawsuit then."

Gloria (howling with laughter): "We about to have a sweeeeet Christmas!"

Jackson: "Lawsuit, man."

Gloria (laughing again): "He's trying to get paid!"

It was all certainly facetious -- especially since LeBron was back scrimmaging again soon and dunking on underclassmen -- but it also showed how much of a cash cow LeBron has become. Money is a lot of what Eddie and Gloria talk about, and money is a lot of what his fans talk about. Last year, LeBron was appalled when several of his autographs ended up being hawked on eBay, and his teachers say his innocence was permanently over after that. It's not that LeBron's been unaffected -- he wears a two-way pager and two separate cellular phones on his waistband wherever he goes -- but he just doesn't believe in people profiting off of him. Sincerely doesn't.

He thinks his memorabilia should go scot-free, and not that long ago, he brought a duffel bag full of sneakers with him to school. These shoe companies have long showered him with free sneaks, and it was his idea -- his idea alone -- to pick up a microphone during lunch period and hold a free shoe auction. He asked questions like, "Who did we beat in the state playoffs last year?" Or, "When is Sian Cotton's birthday?" And the winner would get free sneakers. Could've sold them on eBay.

But high school is jaded for him now, and LeBron James is living in a world where his headbands are for sale -- the price going up by the minute after this latest dunk, which was of course caught on videotape. He's living in a world where he'd better not get injured, or the Knicks, Heat, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Warriors and Grizzlies are going to slit their wrists. He's living in a world where he'd better have good insurance -- after all, it could be a backboard falling on him next time.

"We got it covered," Jackson said.

It's a world getting more ridiculous all the time, and before Eddie and Gloria left the gym Saturday, they asked one more time for the rim.

"Give me six autographed basketballs, and you've got it," said the Stow AD, whose school would've auctioned the balls off for cash.

"You can take your basketballs and ...," said LeBron's mom.

If she wasn't getting paid, nobody was.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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