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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Is the spotlight too bright?

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
LeBron James is introduced at last week's McDonald's All-American Game in Cleveland. LeBron James is introduced at last week's McDonald's All-American Game in Cleveland.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

CLEVELAND - Wednesday night, in front of 18,728 spectators at Gund Arena, a gap of 75 years was bridged when college basketball coaching legend John Wooden handed the MVP award to high school phenom LeBron James after the 26th annual McDonald's All-American game.

Wooden, 92, was a high school senior in 1928 and was the college basketball player of the year at Purdue four years later. Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of Wooden's unprecedented seventh consecutive NCAA championship at UCLA, the night that 1973's premier college star, Bill Walton, poured in 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting in the Bruins' title-game win over Memphis State.

But whether it be 30 years or 75 or the 112 since James Naismith invented basketball in Springfield, Mass., in 1891, the game of today seems light years removed from other eras.

James - who scored 27 points and added seven rebounds and seven mostly-superb assist passes - and his fellow 2003 stars toil on a much grander stage these days. Further, their talents are celebrated with much more media scrutiny than Naismith or Wooden or even Walton might've imagined during their heydays.

Aside from James, whose senior season has been played under a nationwide microscope, this McDonald's game was likely the career highlight, to date, of the other 23 high school boys chosen to the East and West squads.

But it was far from being the first voyage out of Anytown, USA, physically or emotionally, for any of them.

The modern prep game takes its top players through regional and national travel to summer camps and AAU tournaments throughout the offseason. For two or three or maybe four years they are written to, telephoned by and otherwise wooed by scores, perhaps hundreds, of colleges (although James will head directly to the NBA).

And with the advent of communications vehicles like ESPN and the Internet, factual information and hyperbole regarding today's prep stars is readily available at the flick of a TV remote or the click of a computer mouse.

The question is, how much is too much for today's high school stars?

The answer appears to be that while we don't know for sure, games such as the McDonald's, and all that they entail, are not the limit.

A check with some of those involved with this year's McDonald's game - players, coaches, administrators - indicates that the benefits gained from such high-profile events far outweigh the sacrifices made by the players in traveling and spending time away from home and school.

“You've just got to take it easy and go out and play your game and not worry about all the scouts and everybody watching you,” said 6-7 forward Ivan Harris, a Springfield, Ohio, native who played at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy and next year will play at Ohio State.

“I like everything about this. I enjoy talking to the media. I don't think there's anything negative about it. Sometimes it gets tiring, but it's fun being on the road.”

Harris' tune was one sung by all other players interviewed for this story.

Among the others:

  • Brandon Cotton, a guard from Detroit who is heading to Michigan State: “You get to meet all the great [high school] players, and you get to meet celebrities and NBA players. It's a good environment to be around. I'm kind of tired because I won a state championship on Saturday and I had to fly here the next day. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you've got to take advantage of it.”

  • Kris Humphries, forward, Minnetonka, Minn., going to Duke: “You get to spend time with all these players and have fun competing against the best players in the nation and show what you can do on national TV.”

    LeBron James is the center of attention as he receives the MVP trophy from lengendary coach John Wooden. LeBron James is the center of attention as he receives the MVP trophy from lengendary coach John Wooden.
    MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

    Humphries said that missing school isn't a problem for him because his academic standing is solid and he does some school work on the road.

  • Brian Butch, center, Appleton, Wis., going to Wisconsin: “The biggest benefit is just enjoying the experience and being a part of it. You get to look back when it's all over with and say you were a McDonald's All-American.

    “Travel is definitely not a good thing because you miss school, and this kind of puts pressure on a young kid to perform well. But you've got to enjoy it.”

  • Shannon Brown, guard, Maywood, Ill., going to Michigan State: “You get to see where you match up against all the top players in the nation and people get to see how you play, plus all the college and NBA scouts. It's all about marketing and getting to know the top players. It's also all about networking and getting to know the people that know the people that know the [most influential] people.

    “Being away from home and school is the only negative because you feel like you're missing out on something.”

  • Andrew Lavender, guard, Columbus (Brookhaven), going to Oklahoma: “The greatest benefit is all the people that look up to you that you can help out. We went to the hospital the other day and signed some balls for little kids and talked to them.

    “What [this game] does is give me more respect going to the college level. I'm Andrew Lavender, McDonald's All-American, not just plain Andrew Lavender going to Oklahoma. The worst part of this [summer ball and all star games] is the traveling constantly and not being able to get the rest you need so you can go out and give 110 percent like you'd like to.”

    While you might expect the players to speak highly of the game, many others did as well.

    “I don't think this here has any negative aspect at all,” said East coach Ron Hecklinski from Anderson (Ind.) High, “because the bottom line is to raise money for the Ronald McDonald charities. The players know that, and they understand that we're here to play a basketball game, and the big winner is the children's hospital.”

    Hecklinski acknowledges that time away from school can be detrimental to the players, but feels it is a small price to pay.

    “It's a great way to say `You worked your butt off as a high school athlete and here's a reward.' It seems to me that most of these kids here have good support systems back home, and they have an understanding of what they have to do academically to take care of business.”

    Palmer Moody is the senior manager of U.S. communications for McDonald's, and has been the game's spokesman for six years. “We carefully plan the week so that the players have a fun time. For many of them it's the first time they've played on national TV and they're truly excited about it. They're thrilled to represent their school and their coach and their town.”

    The McDonald's All-American game has generated over $3 million over the years, according to Moody, money that goes directly to Ronald McDonald charities. The beneficiaries of this year's “several hundred-thousand dollars” will be three Ronald McDonald houses in northeast Ohio.

    The McDonald's game has been on national television for most of its existence, including the past six years on ESPN. Spokesman Mike Humes said ESPN has received nothing but positive feedback from players, parents and coaches involved with the game, and from viewers.

    “Kids love to be on television, and this [game] is a great opportunity for them,” Humes said. “I would guess they like the opportunity to judge themselves against the other top players of their caliber, and it's a coup to get on TV. As for ESPN, we love the event and look forward to it each year.”

    Bart Schroeder, who coached Jim Jackson and Macomber High School to the 1989 state championship, said he also enjoys the game. “It's like whipped cream on a wonderful chocolate sundae. The kids have all had stellar years and they get to be showcased with a cast of like talent. I think it's a wonderful opportunity to get that kind of exposure.”

    Jackson remains Toledo's only McDonald's All-American game participant, playing in Kansas City in '89, a game Schroeder attended. Now residing a block from Gund Arena, the former coach also caught Wednesday's game.

    “That game has always been a big deal,” Schroeder said. “I remember I was probably more excited watching him than he was playing in the game. Jim just always seemed to take everything in stride. He just treated it as another opportunity and I'm sure he appreciated it.”

    As for benefits from to playing in the McDonald's game, Schroeder feels they are shortlived.

    “There is no long-term value,” he said, “just like the whipped cream on the sundae. You eat it and it's gone.”



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