When it comes to a teenaged basketball player named LeBron James, everybody has an excuse.

His Ohio high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, which is showcasing James around the country this season, flying him everywhere from L.A. to Philadelphia, has its excuse: “We’re giving him a chance to face top-flight competition,” it says.

And the school’s athletic director, who sanctions a large appearance fee for James and the team to play in your gym — reportedly between $10,000 and
$15,000 a game — has his excuse: “We’re helping raise money for our school.”

The Ohio cable company that is offering James on a pay-per-view basis, up to
$7 to watch a single game on your TV set, has its excuse: “We’re giving the people what they want.”

And the cable TV network, ESPN2, that will show James’ Dec. 12 game across the entire country — the first time the network has televised a high school game in 13 years — has its excuse: “There is a tremendous amount of interest in this kid.”

The announcers who will work that game, men who have, at other times, urged high school players to go to college, will trumpet James’ shots and rebounds, even though he is 17.

“It’s our assignment,” they shrug. “We go where our network tells us.”

He’s The Chosen One

The shoe companies that chase James shamelessly, flying him to summer camps, paying for hotels, pampering him and praising him and whispering sweet promises in his ear, all in pursuit of his signature on a contract that will pay him $25 million to start — these companies have their excuse: “LeBron is one of a kind. We’re making an investment.”

And the NBA, which will open its arms to James in next summer’s draft, making him a multimillionaire professional by age 18, has its excuse: “We prefer our players to be older. But legally, if they want to come, we can’t stop them.”

Sports Illustrated, which put James on the cover when he was just a junior — under the headline “The Chosen One” — has its excuse: “He is newsworthy. It was warranted.”

And colleges who would love to have LeBron play for them but are not even bothering to recruit him? They, too, have their excuse: “Why waste our money? He’s not interested in college. He wants the NBA.”

The schools, the coaches, the TV, the agents, the media, the shoe companies, the league.

Everybody has an excuse.

But nobody has a good one.

He’s King James

Nobody explains why a talented high schooler MUST be showcased around the country. Nobody explains why charging an appearance fee for your high school team is anything more than exploitation.

Nobody explains the message that is being sent to other students — that brains don’t get you as much attention as brawn, that a teenager is a golden goose, that it’s OK for a school to make money off a kid but not OK for a kid to make money off himself.

Nobody explains how this disproportionate attention cannot help but mess the kid up, flip-flop his values, make him feel that pampering is normal and worship is expected. Already, LeBron wears a “King James 23” T-shirt, has shoes made with his initials, and talks more like a businessman than a teenager. Once, when asked about buying a house for his mother, and he said,
“Ain’t no good houses in Akron anyways. All the houses in Akron are too little.”

We all know what’s happening. We all watch it happen. We all do nothing.

So if LeBron James turns into an arrogant millionaire, if his friends turn into mooches, if his classmates roil with jealousy, if his teachers roll their eyes, if another kid in years to come hears his parents tell him he should put down the ball and do his homework, and that kid says, “Why should I? If I keep playing, I can be on TV and have people wearing my name and make $25 million by the time I finish high school — just like LeBron James did.”

If that happens, we’ll know why.

And we’ll have no excuse.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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