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.
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.
The Ohio State Athletic Association couldn't get James or his mother on that SUV. Then it suspended him for accepting a couple of sports jerseys, a Wes Unseld and a Gale Sayers, from a sporting-goods store. The suspension was originally for the rest of his senior year, and then got reduced to two games when James brought lawyers around. Should he have been able to wait a few weeks until his season was over, and he made the $20 million score he was expected to make from some sneaker company? Sure. It would have been the nice way to do it. The way kids did it in the old days. Young kids don't care anymore. Those days are gone.
The old rules are gone. It isn't right or wrong. Just the way things are. There was one game James's team played in a sold-out arena where the media seats were at the top of the place. You know who had the courtside seats usually reserved for the media? Representatives from the sneaker companies. You know why some St. VincentñSt. Mary games were shown on PayPerView in Ohio? Because there was an audience for them. Same as there was an audience for James on ESPN. And at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, New Jersey, where promoters ran a late-winter high school tournament and had the whole thing saved when James beat his suspension and showed up to score 52 points.
At that point, a high school kid from Akron was the most talked-about sports star in this country, bigger in this moment than Tiger, who was coming back from minor knee surgery at the time, or Michael Jordan, who was about to turn 40, or Shaq or Kobe or anybody. Another kid with talent not just walking into our living rooms and into our consciousness, but kicking the front door in and saying, Here I am, like it or not.
Adults in this country didn't seem to like it when Eminem's movie made about $50 million the first weekend it opened. They didn't want him to be the face of the movies, even for one weekend, any more than they ever wanted Allen Iverson to be one of the faces of the National Basketball Association, with his hair and his tattoos and an attitude the white people in his audience didn't like too much, and certainly didn't understand. They couldn't look past the hair or the tats or that bogus arrest last year or all his walkaround guys to see that this is the toughest and most gifted small man to ever play pro basketball.
They didn't want some high school kid making the rules. But there it was. They couldn't get him on the Hummer, they couldn't get him on the jerseys. They were like all the high school kids who tried to guard him. They couldn't get LeBron James, period. He will be the No. 1 draft choice in the NBA this year and would have been the No. 1 draft choice in the NBA as a high school junior last year.
He is a star. He did it. We did it. Does that mean he is a sure thing to be an NBA superstar? It does not. Some kids come out of high school and become Kevin Garnett, who may be the most talented all-around player in the league right now. Some never make it off the end of the bench. With others, like Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers, you stay at the end of the bench for a while, the way he did with the Portland Trail Blazers, and then become a star after they trade you. There are no sure things. James isn't either.
They ask Michael Jordan, who has played some ball with James, what he thinks, and he says, "I can't tell you for sure."
Jordan is right. We are grading LeBron James for now against overmatched high school kids. Next year he goes in with the big boys. Then we will see for sure how much game he really has, whether or not he will play the kind of point guard in the NBA, at his size, that Magic Johnson once did, doing it even more athletically than Magic did, being able to score more easily.
You never know. Six or seven years ago, Ken Griffey Jr. was supposed to be the one who was going to hit 60 home runs in a season, or 70, the one who was going to break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. Only Junior got hurt. Then he got passed, by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and finally by Mr. Barry Bonds himself. Last winter, the Reds tried to trade Griffey to the San Diego Padres for Phil Nevin. Things happen in sports. Shit happens. Tiger is going to win everything and beat everybody and break all of Jack Nicklaus's records. But what if he does something more than hurt his knee next time, if there is a next time? What if he throws out his back someday swinging a golf club the way he does?
Bad luck can happen in sports. Dan Jenkins once joked that the only thing that could stop Tiger Woods was injury or a bad marriage.
But LeBron James isn't a bad thing. This may all go wrong for him someday. He might not want to work hard enough or he might end up with the wrong team or the wrong coach or he'll have his money but he won't have the career he wanted. He won't have Michael's championship rings. Or Kobe's. Or Shaq's. He may have the wrong people around him, and that might even include Dear Old Mom, who seemed to get a lot more interested in this kid back in grade school when somebody pointed out to her that she had a basketball prodigy in the house. He may not show up in the NBA with the impeccable basketball values and work ethic that Kevin Garnett has.
It will all be in the finding out. For now people have to relax. The kid can be arrogant sometimes, and act stupid. Teenagers do, even when they can stroke the jumper and throw the no-look and lead the break and demand the attention of a busy public. Mostly, he has handled this all as well as you can, and even gotten good grades. Better than John McEnroe handled early fame once, or Andre Agassi or Jennifer Capriati. I hope he enjoyed the last months of high school basketball, and high school in general, because he will never be able to buy them back, no matter how much money he makes. It is impossible to call this the last innocent time for him. That ship sailed a long time ago. Or, more appropriately, when that SUV left the lot. But it is the closest he will ever come to any kind of innocence for the rest of his life.
We don't get to pick the face of sports. We don't get to set the rules anymore. Kids do. LeBron is just the latest one, certainly not the last. If you didn't worry about Sarah Hughes trading her childhood for a shot at a gold medal, don't worry that the kid from Akron is breaking some kind of law by reaching for the brass ring.
Mike Lupica writes a nationally syndicated sports column for the New York Daily News.