All LeBron James wants to be is a basketball player. He is very good at the sport, good enough to play in the NBA now, even though he is only 18. But since he does not meet the NBA's minimum age level, he was forced to play basketball at an amateur level, thus delaying his multi-million-dollar payday.

How many teenagers know patience? Dollar signs were in front of his eyes, and he wasn't allowed to grab them. Something had to give.

An amateur athlete, in its strictest definition, is simply a person who does not receive remuneration for playing sports. If I play soccer in a recreational league, then I am an amateur. If David Beckham is a salaried midfielder for Manchester United, then he is not.

On the other hand, a true amateur takes a more conservative line. This person rejects the commercialization of sports. He or she is committed to developing into a complete human being with non-athletic interests. To this person, the spirit of amateurism is more important than the letter of the law — accepting free orange slices after a game wouldn't be a problem; but being shown on national TV, even without receiving payment, would be unthinkable.

Yes, LeBron James received much more than orange slices. Retro sports jerseys worth $800-plus is nothing to sneeze at. But forget the free gear, forget the H2 his mother gave him. LeBron James is an amateur like I'm the tooth fairy.

It's hard to say when LeBron-a-mania started. Maybe when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February of 2002 as a junior. Maybe when he was USA Today's first junior to be named national player of the year. Maybe it was when his coach said he was the "best (freshman) he had ever seen." Maybe it was when Michael Jordan invited him to his pre-comeback workouts in summer 2001 and watched the rising junior match up against NBA players.

Did I mention that this was all in high school?

There's nothing American society loves more than hype, and LeBron James is all that. He is now the most-searched basketball player on Lycos. Adidas has been besieging his school (St. Vincent's-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio) with free shoes and gifts. One day, he showed up at school driving a new Lincoln Navigator. In 2003, his mother gave him a new Hummer H2; she's a woman who, a few years beforehand, had moved LeBron in with family friends when she couldn't make rent.

Is LeBron a good basketball player? Damn straight. Eighteen years old and 6-foot-8 tall, James is ambidexterous and has been called a better passer than two-thirds of the NBA's current players. He can gracefully stride down the court faster than people who are sprinting. He can shoot accurately from long-range and has an impressive vertical leap. He has yet to develop a me-first attitude that's cancerous to sports teams.

How do I know this? I've seen him play on ESPN in Los Angeles. His high-school team decided to barnstorm over the 2002-03 holiday break. All for more ticket sales.

High school basketball players in the United States have to be amateurs. Specifically, they cannot receive payment, gifts or favors due to their athletic star status.

Yeah, right. Do you know any 17-year-olds who get free shoes every week?

At most high schools, this sort of thing is overlooked. A few free shoes, maybe a Playstation2no big deal. At first this was true for James as well. In the summer of 2002, when James was recovering from an injury, no one minded that he was a spectator at all-star games wearing an expensive retro Joe Namath jersey.

But a willingness to look the other way can only go so far. As the hype grew, the media paid more attention to LeBron, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer noticed that he was driving a new Hummer. An official investigation discovered that his mother, Gloria Marie James, paid for the car with a loan — obviously assuming that he would receive future earnings in the NBA. The high school regulators shrugged their shoulders and the mini-scandal died.

Then came "jersey-gate." News broke that James had received two expensive jerseys from a sporting-goods store for free (of Gale Sayers and Wes Unseld). The store manager even admitted that he gave them to James for free, an act the store often does for celebrities.

Ooops! On January 31, 2003, with his high school career almost completed, LeBron James was suspended for the rest of the season.

The lasting effect of jersey-gate on James' basketball career will be negligible. He'll go into the 2003 NBA Draft and will likely be chosen first overall. Maybe the incident will make LeBron more careful in the future; maybe not.

But at last, LeBron James is what he always was: a professional.

Sources/more info:
Thanks to Spasemunki for spelling help.
Thanks to wertperch for reminding me that I needed a lede.