A long, long time ago in a land that now seems so far away, basketball was a simple game.
The shorts were shorter, violations like carrying the ball were actually called and you played basketball as an amateur until at least your junior year in college.
But over the years, very slowly, things began to change.
Shorts extended below the knee (Thanks, Chris Webber and the Fab Five), you now need to take five steps for traveling to be called (Thanks, MJ) and fifth-graders are now considered to have “pro potential” (Thanks, Kobe and T-Mac).
It used to be just at the college level.
But when a sophomore went pro and was a No. 1 draft pick, the freshman said, “Hey, I could do that.”
And when the freshman got drafted, the high school senior said, “Well I’m better than him.”
And when the high school senior skipped college altogether, then everything went into a downward spiral.
Which leads us to LeBron James.
James will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in June. He is in the middle of a sneaker battle, in which Nike and adidas want to give him $25 million before he plays one minute of pro ball.
Almost no college coach gave him a first look, let alone a second look, because the writing was on the wall.
High school basketball isn’t supposed to be about shoe contracts and draft status. It’s supposed to be an extracurricular activity, like any other sport or the glee club.
And James isn’t the only one to blame. His high school sanctioned the team to travel around the country and play in 20,000-seat venues, as well as charge four times what they normally ask for tickets.
James did what UCLA hasn’t done this season – sell out Pauley Pavilion.
But with all the photo shoots with lingerie models and the phone numbers of NBA stars programmed in his cell phone, James somehow found a way to avoid the pitfalls of agents, street runners and general scumbags that try to mooch off the potential wealth that is a few months away.
He didn’t take any cash or gifts, and despite all the attention, he still played at a very high level.
That is, until last week.
Last Friday, James was ruled ineligible by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for accepting two vintage jerseys that had a combined retail value of $845. The fact that two jerseys cost that much when they’re not dipped in gold or encrusted in diamonds is another story.
OHSAA rules state that an athlete forfeits his or her amateur status by “capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value” and that an athlete “may receive an award or merchandise as a result of your participation in school or non-school competition from any source, provided the value does not exceed $100 per award.”
This came four days after James was cleared of any wrongdoing when his mother gave him an automobile for his birthday.
For most 18-year olds, this is common practice. Except this was not just any car, it was a Hummer with all the perks, like televisions in the headrests and a video game console.
But after it was checked and re-checked, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Everything was by the book, so James could play.
And then came the jerseys.
If Joe Schmoe walked into that store and picked out those jerseys, the response from the clerk would have been, “Cash, check or charge?”
But James is different. He is a celebrity. The store manager, Derrick Craig, even admitted it.
“We get celebrities in here all the time,” Craig said in published reports. “They spend a lot of money and sometimes you just got to give them some love.”
And that’s where the problem lies. He got free (and expensive) things because of who he is as an athlete.
When you’re a high school or college athlete, that’s a no-no. You can play basketball, soccer or field hockey – it doesn’t matter.
James knew this. He had to know this.
Everyone’s been telling him to be careful for over a year now.
What’s most disturbing is that this came with five games left in his high school career. Five games. Four weeks max.
All he had to do was wait until March, and he could have all the jerseys and sneakers and cars he wanted.
In five months he’ll have more money than the Gross National Product of a third-world country.
James apparently realized his mistake and brought the jerseys back to the store. But unfortunately for him, his teammates and his school, what’s done is done.
You might think that James is the exception. There are experts who feel that James is the best high schooler ever.
This is something that will happen once in a generation, that everything will return to normal and kids will play in front of dozens and learn what high school basketball is all about – hard work, commitment and dealing with adversity.
But to those who think that this is going away, you’ll only have to wait until next season, when Sebastian Telfair takes to the court for his senior season at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
Telfair is the cousin of NBA star Stephon Marbury.
And some think he’s an even better player than James is.
Jason Della Rosa is a senior journalism major who thinks LeBron, his coach and his mom should know better. Send comments to [email protected]