October 9, 2003

Having Something In Common With King Lebron James

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I remember reading my local sports page the senior year of high school, looking for articles about my school and my friends in the paper. I rarely found any, but there were always articles about this one freshman; he was in the process of leading his basketball team, St. Vincent-St. Mary, to a state title that season. At the time, I never really stopped to reflect on how good he might be or where he might end up. I just wondered why fame never smiled on Field High School, and why some freshman was the new local-media posterboy. He eventually showed me (and a lot of other people) the answer to the latter question, though. In retrospect, I guess the Akron Beacon Journal was pretty smart to cover LeBron James.

Three years later, I’m in Ithaca pulling all-nighters to write English papers and wondering what I’m going to do when I graduate. He’s still talking to the media, and his future, at least for the next year or so, is pretty well mapped out. Unfortunately for the basketball program, LeBron James didn’t decide to follow in my footsteps and go to Cornell; he decided to skip the whole college thing. I went to the Finger Lakes (“Centrally Isolated!”) and he went to the NBA. Not that I can really blame him, though. The media, from the Beacon Journal on up, made him a sensation. They made him one of the biggest stars in basketball, maybe even in the country, before he ever played a pro game. Nike, Sprite, and Upper Deck took a ride on the James wave too, all to his benefit. If you had, among others, a 90 million dollar contract waiting for you the day you graduated high school, would you bother with the four years and 160k? I would definitely figure school could wait for a bit. It’s not every day that a person combines the youth, skill, and public image to cash in like that. LeBron was blessed with the opportunity of his life.

James doesn’t even turn 19 until the end of December. That makes him three years younger than I, and certainly younger than most of the people who go to college here, and he is likely not quite as well educated. Granted, none of us has had to deal with three years of relentless media coverage; we haven’t been on the cover of Sports Illustrated (or even ESPN Magazine) and few of us, if any, can reliably execute picture-perfect tomahawk dunks at game speed. But, I doubt his lack of a college education will affect his lifetime earning potential too dramatically, provided he has money management skills even marginally better than MC Hammer’s. He will very likely do well for himself, even if you ignore his accomplishments already. Even if each one of us has a good (or better) chance at success, few will have the chance to succeed on James’s financial level. While I’d love to believe my Cornell degree is worth anything near the 90 million Nike is paying LeBron, or even the 20 million or so he’ll earn playing basketball in the next four years, I’m not delusional. I have no plans of holding out for a multi-million dollar offer after school. No, I’ll be happy enough if I can find a decent job where I can use my degree. I won’t even complain if they don’t put me in a beverage commercial.

The life LeBron leads is in many ways incomparable to ours. At an age when most of us were (or are) learning how to navigate the lines at Robert Purcell, nearly selling our souls for a third cup of warm Beast, and living out our basketball dreams shooting ping-pong balls into cups on a table, he has his own house, a brand new car (if not cars) and more spending money than most of us could ever comprehend. It only took some ball-handling skills and a few endorsements.

On Tuesday, James made his pre-season debut as a starter against the Pistons in Detroit. In that game, he tallied eight points, three rebounds, a pair of blocks and seven assists, including a pretty, behind the back bounce pass to teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He will inevitably sell out Gund Arena several times this year, and if he can score a few more points, and more importantly, if he can help the Cavaliers win, like he did against both Detroit on Tuesday and Atlanta last night, the media should be happy with him, and he should be all right. Then, he can begin his success in the pros.

James will feel the wrath though, if he underperforms, if he ever lets down his perfect disposition media guard, or if he falls into any legal problems. With so much money and so many expectations, he faces a slim margin for error. And there, I don’t envy LeBron so much. While all of us face expectations in school and when we graduate, none of us come close to the expectations facing him. In the NBA, he plays a game with much higher stakes, and every misstep that awaits him has the potential to be amplified that much more in the media and in his livelihood. That comes with the money and the fame, I suppose; James will get more of the good but probably more of the bad. The boy’s got game, and that’s the price he has to pay. And I guess I’ll always wonder, at least for a second, whether or not that fame, that possibility, is worth the cost. But as students at Cornell, we have always had that question asked of us, and have always asked that question of ourselves. I know I have. So even when I drive home tonight in my old Honda, I guess I’ll have something in common with LeBron. We all will.

Archived article by Matt James