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Sport: Why Are We So Upset About LeBron James?

LeBron James isn't the first wonder child of sports, just the latest. And the tallest. Sarah Hughes was 16 years old when she became the darling of the country and the whole world at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Mike Lupica
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

It was her time in skating, and when that happens for stars, everybody else has to get out of the way. As always, nine million hours of television coverage were just a warm-up act for women's figure skating, which is always the whole ball game. The whole two weeks are always built around that one competition, because it is the one people most want to watch on television, the women in the audience especially. So last year it was built around this smiling, thrilling girl from Long Island, who blew the doors and roof off that ice palace in Salt Lake.

Sarah Hughes was This Year's Girl. There is always one at the Olympics, sometimes more than one. Sometimes -- and American television looks for them -- we get a girl in the Summer Games as well, the way we did with Mary Lou Retton in Los Angeles and then little Kerri Strug in Atlanta.

They are all hopelessly young. No matter how much we romanticize who they are and where they come from and the way they are reaching for the sky, we also can't forget that they have never had anything resembling a normal childhood; their parents have essentially handed them over to coaches, telling those coaches to make their kids, if they are special enough, into gold medal winners. They are teenaged pros sometimes before they have ever gotten a driver's license or gone to a prom or kissed a boy.

Somehow, we are all right with that. They are our Golden Girls. We are fine with Sarah Hughes being the face of sports, or Tara Lipinksi or Michelle Kwan. They are cute, they are girls. They're ours.

Sarah Hughes getting this rich and this famous this way, we're good with that. No one wrings their hands and worries about how she's not having a normal high school experience, or being corrupted by television, or magazines, or anything else.

But that is exactly what happened with LeBron James. A high school kid touring the country like Holiday on Ice, that was supposed to be the greatest crime against the young since, what, since Richard Williams was supposed to be ruining the childhoods of Venus and Serena? Richard Williams is no saint, and hasn't always behaved like the Father of the Year, and he will certainly burn some comments dumber than "Joe Millionaire" into your memory. But here is the question you have to ask about him, and his daughters, now that the daughters aren't teenagers anymore, and keep making tennis history:

How did it all work out for them?

We're not nearly as comfortable with LeBron James, out of Akron, Ohio, out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, off the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine, out of all the headlines about the retro jerseys he was given and the arenas he sold out; out of the front seat of that famous Hummer his mother Gloria gave him for his 18th birthday. It's all right for him to be the face of sports, people seem to be saying, but we'll let him know when.

Except we don't get to set the agenda here. We don't get to make the rules. Talent has always done that. Nobody could hold back Tiger Woods -- the last person to make this spectacular a move from being an amateur to being an official pro -- when it was his time and nobody could hold back Sarah Hughes. And nobody could hold back LeBron James, the most famous high school basketball player this country has ever produced, at least all the way back to when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Lew Alcindor and tearing things up for Power Memorial in New York City in the early '60s. That school is gone now. So is the world in which Lew Alcindor grew up.

Now it is LeBron James's world. And we all have to deal with it or get out of his way. And stop acting like hypocrites as we weep at the sight of little Sarah Hughes, ice-dancing pixie, becoming our star-spangled girl, and then become outraged because LeBron James, even living in public housing, was driving around his final semester at St. VincentñSt. Mary in a $50,000 SUV.


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