Big Wheel

LeBron's Hummer finally prompts the high school athletic association to lift its head from the sand.

Everybody's making money off LeBron. - WALTER  NOVAK
Everybody's making money off LeBron.

A few weeks ago, the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School boys basketball team played a game in Los Angeles that ESPN2 carried live. A New York Times writer caught up with SVSM star LeBron James the day before the game. The Chosen One wore a crucifix and earrings encrusted with diamonds. "They only cost 25 cents in a gumball machine," James said, apparently with a straight face.

In case you've been hiding in a teacup, James, a senior, is expected to become the first player selected in June's NBA draft. In fact, it is unlikely he could play college basketball even if he desired. As Sports Illustrated has noted, James "has received free gear and been feted by sponsors. The NCAA would surely view those as what it calls 'improper benefits' -- and make him ineligible."

Free headbands aren't the half of it. Last week it was reported that James is driving a $45,000 Hummer. A birthday gift from his mother, we're to believe.

So if James couldn't play college hoops, why is he eligible to play high school basketball?

"Their rules aren't the same as ours," says Deborah Moore, an associate commissioner at the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

The OHSAA was not prepared for someone like LeBron, who has been coveted by shoe companies since his sophomore year. Association bylaws are primarily concerned with schools recruiting athletes. Massillon versus McKinley-type stuff. But a king of James's stature? There's no language preventing him from signing with an agent.

An OHSAA rule does forbid players from "capitalizing on athletic fame." Gifts and awards may not exceed $100 in value.

Still, when Scene spoke with the OHSAA the day before the Hummer story broke, LeBron's amateur status didn't seem to weigh on officials' minds. We wondered, for instance, whether the services of Michael Jordan's orthopedist and personal trainer (LeBron broke his hand last summer) might qualify as a "gift." Jordan, after all, is a Nike man. Moore, sighing with impatience, compared Jordan's act to the neighborhood plastic surgeon volunteering to treat a scarred field hockey player. "I don't see any evidence in front of me that there has been a violation," she said.

A lot of eyes are looking the other way. Before the Hummer was revealed, even a rival coach thought LeBron so exceptional, the compliance police needn't fuss. "Unless there was something blatant that occurred, I think he should be able to play basketball in the state of Ohio," Archbishop Hoban coach T.K. Griffith said.

The Hummer might be that blatant.

When the news hit, Clair Muscaro, the OHSAA commissioner, said he was "concerned" about an NBA star's ride in a high school player's driveway. "We just may call and see what they can tell us about it," he said last week, sounding as if he had just woken from a long nap.

Adult guilt may explain why LeBron's eligibility hasn't undergone a rigorous inspection: Everyone is making money off the kid. St. Vincent-St. Mary is commanding five-figure guarantees and pay-per-view audiences. The OHSAA has in the past moved SVSM tournament games to larger venues (in the name of shorter travel, of course). James's felon of a surrogate father and Stow's athletic director recently dickered over a rim that was broken after a scrimmage; they recognized the sum such a memento could fetch at auction.

It does seem silly to punish James for opening his presents before Christmas, especially when promoters for some games are charging $35 to see the Irish play. What's harder to accept, though, is how the OHSAA can be such a stickler when cash registers aren't ringing.

In the spring of 1999, Hudson baseball player Jeff Panhorst broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord in a car accident. He lay in a coma for almost a month, and when he woke up, his left side was paralyzed. He hoped to pitch in 2001, almost two years removed from the accident. But his chances of playing competitive baseball "would have been marginal, even then," says his coach, Chuck Schilling.

The OHSAA deprived Panhorst of the chance. Its bylaws state that an athlete has eight semesters of eligibility. Panhorst's were set to expire after the 1999-2000 school year -- what should have been his senior year, when he earned a grand total of two credits as he learned to walk, speak, and write again.

Panhorst asked for an extra semester of eligibility. Rules were rules, OHSAA officials said. Appeal denied.

In 1991, Archbold High School runner Rachel Sauder was stripped of two state titles. Her crime? Wearing navy tights with yellow trim. Tights must be just one color, according to OHSAA regs. Not even an affidavit from a runner at another school, who said she heard an OHSAA clerk say the leggings were legal, could convince officials to restore Sauder's medals.

The OHSAA holds itself to less exacting standards, according to an investigation by The Columbus Dispatch in 2001. The paper found an internal auditor's note warning OHSAA officials about the practice of covering spouses' travel expenses. "The potential for public scrutiny as well as Internal Revenue Service scrutiny both exist," the auditor wrote. "We don't feel we have to elaborate in this area."

As far as the Hummer, St. Vincent-St. Mary Athletic Director Grant Innocenzi pledged full cooperation with the OHSAA's investigation. Beyond his statement, the SVSM camp held silence. Gloria James, LeBron's mother, refused to comment. The media battalion at SVSM's game at the Convocation Center Sunday night left with unsatisfied notebooks.

"It's basketball questions only," coach Dru Joyce said when he and LeBron entered the press room. The conversation stayed to steals and dunks until The Plain Dealer's Susan Vinella finally brought up the Hummer. Joyce reminded her of what he said at the outset. "I'm a basketball coach, and this is a basketball player."

And that was it. "Thank you," James said, following Joyce out the door.

The reporters rose from their chairs. Vinella heard grumbles that a question about "distractions" might have been a better tactic. Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston then gave Vinella a sympathetic pat on the back. "We were all trying to come up with some softball way," he said.

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