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LaBron James Classic

December 12, 2002 Columns No Comments


The LeBron James Classic

by Adam Shandler

As if ESPN didn’t have enough to do.

Between college hoops, NBA, NHL Tonight, NHL Tomorrow, NHL Next Thursday, Billiards, Rodeo, the four-hour Heisman preview and World’s Strongest Man (where you can see a 500-pound South African tow a locomotive across town with his teeth), you would think the cable sports leader would be satisfied with the comprehensiveness of its sports coverage this season.

But ESPN, never one to miss out on a chance to capture a classic sports moment, has decided to air the Progressive (Car Insurance) High School Classic.

Actually, the game will air on ESPN 2, known in couch potato slang as “the deuce.”

Classic!

The game features Number 1 St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, Ohio, battling traditional scholastic powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, the high school sages’ 20th ranked squad in the country.

Classic!

If you follow any kind of basketball then you know that this game is essentially being billed as “Maybe Your Last Chance to Catch LeBron James While He’s Still in High School”. Even ESPN.com is advertising the game as such.

Six-eight, 240 LeBron is the two-time Mr. Basketball of Ohio and, unofficially, Mr. High School Basketball USA. If he decides to choose door number one (that being the NBA) in the “Let’s Make a Deal” version of his career, he could conceivably be the number one pick in next season’s lottery. That decision will trampoline James, naturally, to a sneaker deal, and you’ll be seein’ nothin’ but LeBron during commercial breaks for the NBA and in inserts for sports magazines.

So don’t worry if you haven’t heard of LeBron James yet. He’ll be around.

So why all the hubbub around this game? Why is this pairing better than, let’s say St. Vincent’s-St. Mary versus local rival Our Lady of the Goodyear Tire? Oak Hill, with its legacy for basketball greatness and reputation for as a high school hoops pedigree, will probably offer LeBron (his fellow Irish teammates not withstanding), the greatest challenge of his high school career. If he can do damage against giants Jarvelle Scott and Byron Jones, then we know he’s the real deal.

Classic!

So is this the beginning of a socially debatable trend? Are we going to start seeing more “classic” moments from guys who barely walked out of chem lab and onto the hardwood? Is there truly an audience for these types of games or is it merely a case of sports media banging the drums of hype?

ESPN had experimented with some high school coverage during the college football season when it aired in-game highlights of consequential high school games. But not as much fuss was made about that programming decision. Probably because hoops is a totally different animal. In football, there is more focus on the team game whereas in basketball, one player can be a whole story, no matter how bad the rest of his team might be. Plus, kids develop faster as basketball players than they do as football players, making those who go out for hoops celebrities from the seventh grade.

So is it right for ESPN and other cable networks to push the exploitation lever full-throttle? (FYI, Time Warner and St. Vincent’s-St. Mary have agreed to a Pay-Per-View deal to air all Irish home games in Northeast Ohio. It’s a brilliant business move on the part of both parties, especially SV-SM, which sells out to standing-room-only capacity.) Had the LeBron genie not been let out of the bottle already, I would say, just let the kids be kids. It’s high school basketball. It’s hard enough following over 320 college programs. But let’s get real here.

We’ve been hearing about LeBron James for a while now. We’ve seen him grimace on the covers of magazines. He’s been the subject of hip-hop style basketball shows and the focus of message board banter. The dude is out there, he’s no secret. And neither is Oak Hill Academy. The Mouth-of-Wilson, VA, school has been known for decades as an NCAA/NBA factory, a credit to coach Steve Smith. Former Warriors include Jerry Stackhouse, Ron Mercer, DeSagana Diop, Cory Alexander, Jeff McInnis and Maryland point guard Steve Blake.

So who are we kidding here? ESPN isn’t hurting or exploiting anyone anymore than those magazines that called LeBron the second coming (of Kobe). Sure, the network and the high schools get some serious cash out of it, but the players get more exposure out of this game, something they’ve been looking for anyway.

If you decide to watch, enjoy this “classic” game of young players, and please, email me. Tell me what you think. Do you want to see more high school games featuring big-name talent? Do you think games like this are simply a waste of time? Is LeBron James worth all the hoopla?

If I like your responses, I’ll post them in a follow-up column next week.

     

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