Gloria James was hiding. Curled up tight in a metal folding chair, the better to diminish her frame, she sat surrounded by a determined team of publicity and security types whose presence not only kept unwanted visitors out of reach, but effectively kept Gloria James out of sight. You got the impression she wanted it that way.
This was early February, a frigid Saturday afternoon in Trenton, New Jersey, and the woman known to friends as "Glo" was seated at the back of a long, cramped room in the bowels of Sovereign Bank Arena. Directly in front of her stood a two-tiered metal platform supporting nearly a dozen TV cameramen and their gear; before the riser, an overflow crowd of nearly one-hundred-fifty print, radio, and Internet reporters, crammed into rows of chairs and lining the only available aisle. And at the head of the room, staring back at the assembled horde from atop a raised podium, sat the six-foot-eight, 240-pound reason the horde had assembled in the first place.
From her secluded spot in the back of the room, Gloria James peered through the tangle of legs and tripods on the platform in front of her, hoping to get a look at her son. At one point, working for a better view--and with the room's attention focused elsewhere--she rose out of her seat,climbed onto the back of the riser, and stayed for a few moments before settling back into her chair. She'd seen enough, and, as her son's voice continued to spill out of the room's speakers, she smiled.
Back at the podium, stuck behind a microphone answering many of the same questions he'd been answering patiently for the past month, LeBron James wore a smile not unlike his mom's. Seeing this, someone observed that, maybe a little surprisingly, LeBron looked happy--genuinely, honest-to-God happy. Glo overheard, and she smiled again.
"Well," she whispered, "he should be happy."
Having just scored fifty-two points to lead his St. Vincent-- St. Mary High School team to another lopsided win against another nationally ranked opponent at yet another high-profile tournament, eighteen-year-old LeBron James seemingly had every reason to beam. And yet, given the recent torrent of negative attention he'd endured--a swirl of controversy unheard of in high school sports and made that much nastier by many of the same media facing him now--LeBron might've been excused a trace of bitterness. But if any such trace existed, he didn't show it, gamely answering familiar queries, time and again directing praise and thanks toward his coaches, teammates, family, and friends for their support on and off the basketball court. When the postgame press conference finally ended, he stepped from the podium and toward the door, escorted by his coach, tournament promoters, a few close friends, and a phalanx of personal and arena security. Shielded by her own portion of the James family security /PR detail, Glo quickly followed from the other end of the room.
Before it unfolded that night in Trenton, it's safe to say such a scene had never occurred at a high school sporting event. No doubt, there had been prominent athletes and teams that, because of historical achievement or great runs of success, some large-scale controversy or simply the size and passion of their followings, had attracted substantial attention. But before LeBron James, well, everything was just different, at least in the high school sports world. The scale of things, it was generally considered, was appropriately small--this was high school, after all. And while there had long been exceptions, of the pitching phenom drafted to the majors straight out of high school, the quarterback prodigy recruited by major colleges as a ninth grader, or more recently the handful of basketball stars who had skipped college and made a successful entry into the NBA, even the best high school athletes were regarded, quite naturally, as largely unworthy of the attention lavished on professional and collegiate stars.
And then came LeBron. And that's exactly when everything changed.
Well, maybe exactly isn't the right word, as it's impossible to pick the precise instant that LeBron forever altered the face of high school sports--or even, one could argue, sports period. But anyone looking for a prime example, a definitive moment in LeBron's roughly two-year rise from just another great high school basketball player to one of the biggest and most unprecedented stories in modern sports, would be hard-pressed to find a better set of conditions than those on display that day in Trenton. Everything that has made his ascent so compering--including the sorts of things that would keep his normally gregarious mother in hiding from the media--was evident on that cold Saturday afternoon.
It all starts with 'Bron himself. In leading his St. V squadto a 78--52 win over Southern California powerhouse Westchester, LeBron showed off every facet of his frighteningly complete game: a career-high fifty-two points, including eighteen of his team's first twenty in the game, coming on an efficient mix of long-range jumpers, determined post-ups, and awe-inducing dunks; twelve rebounds, putting his long, athletic frame to work inside despite playing most of his minutes on the perimeter; and five assists, a lower number than he was capable of but, given how his shot was falling that day (he hit twenty-one of thirty-four field goal attempts), hardly subpar. Defensively, he helped hold Westchester star Trevor Ariza, widely considered one of the best forwards in the nation, to just twelve points. But beyond the numbers, and maybe even more impressive, were the "intangibles"--those hard-to-define but undeniable qualities all great athletes possess. Leadership, timing, and the ability to deliver in the clutch all fall into this category--and so, in this case, does the ability to turn a basketball game into a personal statement of resilience, even defiance. That a high school kid could be thrust into such a situation helps explain the scope of the story; that LeBron actually pulled it off helps define just how good he is.
Because, even for a player and a team so used to sold-out gyms and TV cameras and highly touted opposition, this weekend trip to south Jersey was very different for LeBron and St. V. Just nine days before, LeBron had been ruled ineligible by the Ohio High School Athletic Association after he accepted, without charge, two pricey throwback jerseys from a Cleveland-area clothing store. The decision, as it was laid down, meant the previously unbeaten Fighting Irish would have to forfeit their last victory; it also meant LeBron's remarkable high school basketball career was finished. Only after five days of legal wrangling that saw the authority of ascholastic governing body temporarily voided by a county court judge--and after a media assault that turned one talented high school athlete's brief lapse of judgment into a nationally broadcast scandal--did LeBron regain his eligibility. Thanks to a judge's temporary restraining order, just three days before his team was scheduled to continue its season at the Prime Time Shootout, LeBron was able to exhale. He would play--he could play, as sweet as that must have sounded--and the world would be watching even more closely than it had before.
And so this was the setting: a packed arena, scores of reporters, a foe that shared space with St. V in all the national top twenty-five polls. Nothing new, in other words, except that it was. It was in the air, really, this mix of opinion and emotion and expectation, hanging over the stands and the hardwood floor, and all of it focused on one eighteen-year-old kid. For the crowd of nearly nine thousand, probably 80 percent of whom had bought a ticket for this three-day,...