Basketball: James takes fast track to fame with Cleveland

Eyes of a nation focused on NBA's No 1 draft pick billed as 'the next Michael Jordan'

There were few surprises for the crowd in New York, basketball fans across America, or, indeed, the young man himself when LeBron James was selected by his home team during the NBA draft.

The Cleveland Cavaliers did as expected - did as both their success-starved fans demanded and as logic decreed - and picked the 18-year-old who was this year's first choice among those selected to play in America's professional basketball league.

The draft is organised on a lottery system with the league's worst-performing teams receiving more chances to win the leading choices. Wages are fixed - players receive no more than 10 per cent more than those paid to the previous year's top pick, which means that smaller teams are not unduly hampered. This normally extends for four years, at which point players can seek contracts limited only by what teams will pay for their services.

"This is a long-time dream," James said, after hugging his mother, Gloria, and walking to the stage at Madison Square Garden on Thursday evening. "It shows that hard work has finally paid off for me."

Hard work and a lot more besides. James enters the NBA under more scrutiny as any draft pick in history. Not only will he be looked upon to help resurrect the Cleveland franchise, he will be expected to display the sort of talents and achieve the sort of results that have had people talking of him as the next Magic Johnson, the next Michael Jordan. Perhaps even a combination of the two.

And there is more to it than just talk. A few weeks ago, James, who had just graduated from St Vincent-St Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, signed a seven-year $90m (£56m) endorsement deal with the shoe and sportswear giant, Nike. All of this for a High School student who has yet to play a game of professional basketball.

The normal route for a High School basketball player looking to join the professional game is to play at college. LeBron is not breaking new ground in this respect: there are a number of other players - such as the LA Lakers' Kobe Bryant - who have skipped college and gone straight into the NBA. There are even High School players who have been the first pick of the draft before. Two years ago the Washington Wizards chose the High School player Kwame Brown as the first pick of that year's draft.

But no one doubts that James - 6ft 6in and 250lb - is different, that despite all the hype he really is something special, possibly the player who will fill the superstar void left by the now essentially retired Michael Jordan.

"He's perhaps the best athlete I have ever seen at that age in the 25 years I have been covering basketball," said Budd Shaw, a sports columnist with the Cleveland-based newspaper, the Plain Dealer.

Those who know the game of basketball talk not only of James' physical presence, his athleticism, but they identify in him things that cannot be learned - at least not easily. They talk of his court awareness, his knowledge where other players are around him apparently without looking.

They talk of him as a chess player such as Gary Kasparov - always several moves ahead of the opposition, always aware of the flow the game will take.

James has not had it easy. He never knew his real father, and his mother and the man James considers "Dad", Eddie Jackson, did not always make an easy home for the young man, growing up in one of the small towns south of Cleveland. His mother gave birth to him when she was aged just 16 and for a while they moved from rented apartment to rented apartment. Mr Jackson spent three years in jail when James was two years old after pleading guilty to a charge of cocaine trafficking.

Despite this, the combination of physical gifts and finely honed athletic instincts helped James lead his school to three Ohio state titles, averaging 31.6 points and 9.6 rebounds a game in his senior season. In his junior year at High School he featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated - a previously unimaginable event.

David Campbell, the Plain Dealer's Metro Sports editor who covered James for four years, said the city had taken a huge boost from James's celebrity and his signing for the Cavaliers. When it was announced that the team had won first choice in the draft it seems as though all of Cleveland went a little bit wild.

"They say that night was one of the most important nights in Cleveland's sporting history," he said. "People were hugging, cheering and crying. It was a sight to see."

Some commentators cool enough to keep their heads have pointed out some of the potential weaknesses of James's game and pitfalls on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer. Campbell questioned his outside shot - those worth three points - suggesting it was "not what it could be".

Others have highlighted the tremendous pressure the hype has created for James, wondering whether he can live up to the expectations that have been created. Others believe that he can handle all of that as well. "He will not feel the pressure. He is a supremely confident guy," said Michael Murphy, a senior sports writer for the Houston Chronicle. But he added: "He is going to have his good nights and he is going to have his bad nights - those nights when he gets his butt kicked by a lesser player."

All of that is in the future - but only just. For now, the 18-year-old from Cleveland and those fans who expecting so much from him are waiting for the new season to start, waiting to see whether James can turn around the team, fulfil his undoubtedly huge potential and their equally large dreams.

2003 NBA DRAFT: TOP 10 FIRST-ROUND PICKS

1 LeBron James (US) guard, to Cleveland Cavaliers

2 Darko Milicic (Serb-M) guard, to Detroit Pistons

3 Carmelo Anthony (US) forward, to Denver Nuggets

4 Chris Bosh (US) forward, to Toronto Raptors

5 Dwyane Wade (US) guard, to Miami Heat

6 Chris Kaman (US) centre, to LA Clippers

7 Kirk Hinrich (US) guard, to Chicago Bulls

8 T J Ford (US) guard, to Milwaukee Bucks

9 Mike Sweetney (US) forward, to New York Knicks

10 Jarvis Hayes (US) guard/forward, to Washington Wizards

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