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Cavs get their savior
by Bruce Meyer / May 23, 2003

Yes, Cavaliers fans, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is LeBron James. For the faithful few who actually paid attention to the Cavs suffer through a miserable 17-65 campaign this season, the perseverance paid off Thursday as the Cavs beat the odds and became the first team in 13 years with the worst record to win the top draft pick.

And Cavs owner Gordon Gund, who hasn't had much to laugh about in recent years, even showed he hasn't lost his sense of humor when he quipped to a national television audience, "We don't know who we're going to pick."

In fact, odds are LeBron now is richer than Santa Claus, as the NBA lottery capped an incredible week for the St. Vincent St. Mary high school senior from Akron, Ohio. (He still doesn't graduate for another couple weeks.) Besides the lottery, LeBron signed a shoe and apparel deal with Nike worth at least $90 million and a reported $5 million contract with Upper Deck for sports cards and memorabilia that brought a relatively paltry -- by comparison-- $1 million signing bonus. Counting the roughly $13 million he will be paid over three years as the top pick, that means well over $100 million guaranteed to someone who has yet to play his first NBA game.

Though the NBA's weighted lottery gave the Cavs just a 22.5 percent chance at gaining the top spot, it just seemed right that "The Chosen One," as Sports Illustrated dubbed James some time back, would end up in Cleveland as the team's savior. The city is, after all, just a 40-minute drive from Cleveland; LeBron often was spotted in the front row at games this year; and the high school senior -- also known as King James -- is friends with a number of Cavs players.

Even James' agent Aaron Goodwin, who also represents Gary Payton, said it felt predetermined that his newest -- and richest -- client should play in Cleveland. "I hate to take his moniker, 'The Chosen One,' but it seems as if it was all a nice little plan for him," Goodwin said after the NBA lottery. "I think we told him a week and a half ago, 'LeBron you're going to end up playing in Cleveland.' And with that comes a lot of responsibility, because with that comes a lot of people in Cleveland wanting, hoping and wishing. It's a lot of responsibility, but he's the right kid for it."

VIEW FROM LEBRON

Just after the lottery results were announced, James met with media in Akron and displayed all the qualities that make him attractive not only to NBA teams but also to companies looking for athlete-endorsers. Appearing with his entire St. V team -- all clad in Nike garb -- James was well-spoken and said all the right things.

"This was one of the long-term dreams I've had: just playing in the NBA," LeBron said. "I'm not going to guarantee a championship. I'll tell you that I will guarantee that we will get better every day. And that comes from practice. We're gonna be a lot better team than we were last year."

LeBron said he hopes his new teammates accept him both for who he is as a player and a person. "I'm not coming into the team right away trying to be a leader," he said. "If they give that to me, I know how to be a leader."

He sees the biggest obstacle as staying focused over an 82-game schedule, compared with 27 in high school. That comes from eating right and staying healthy, "and doing the right things on and off the court," though he still plans to keep eating Skittles candy (perhaps another potential endorsement contract?)

James also says such things as defining success in terms of the "team" rather than personal goals, and how he looks forward to the Cavs hiring a permanent coach, "because as soon as we get a new coach, the sooner I'll be able to get a good relationship with him."

The newest Cav also said he doesn't feel any extra pressure, being looked upon as a savior for the struggling franchise. "There's no pressure at all. I've been getting pressure since I was 10 years old. I don't think there's no pressure for me because I'm doing something that I love to do: play the game of basketball."

As for the Nike deal, James said: "I'm real excited. It's not kicked in yet. I'm so excited about being a Nike guy. I just felt that was the best fit for me. Somewhat it had to do about the money of course. But I think they showed me it could be a long-term thing."

Personally, though, LeBron is ready to get on with the business of playing basketball. "I'm just ready to roll," he said. "I'm ready for the season to start. I've been ready since the end of our games. Working out every day by yourself isn't fun, but you know you have to do it. I'm real excited about being a Cavalier and wearing that wine and gold."

IMPACT ON CAVS

His excitement, however, doesn't come close to that of Cavs management. "This is a great day for Northeast Ohio and one of the biggest days in Cleveland sports history," said Cavs GM Jim Paxson. "It's no secret we intend to select LeBron James with the first pick."

The impact of King James staying home to play in Cleveland clearly can't be understated for a team that this past year was last in wins, last in attendance and last in excitement. But immediately after the lottery results were announced, fans at the Cavs draft lottery party went wild and started signing up for season tickets on the spot. Phones also started ringing in the team's ticket office immediately, and sales reps planned to work late into the night; something they hadn't had to worry about for some years now.

"I hope I can put a lot of smiles on peoples' faces in Cleveland," LeBron said. "The baseball team is going through a transition right now. The football team is starting to kick in. People will be excited to go see the basketball team."

Goodwin said he talked quite a bit with James about the impact he will have on Cleveland. "While some say Cleveland isn't a good market, it's an excellent market," the agent said. "It's an excellent opportunity for him to help resurrect basketball. Kids have been following him in Ohio for years so they get some inspiration. It's a good story."

It also makes the Cavs' lineup for next year immediately more formidable. If healthy, a lineup sporting All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center, Ricky Davis and Carlos Boozer at forward, and LeBron and Dajuan Wagner at guard, looks light years better than any combination the team had on the floor last year. Add in potential bench help from Jumaine Jones, Chris Mihm, Smush Parker and even possibly Darius Miles (a friend of LeBron's) and DeSagana Diop, another 17-65 campaign definitely seems out of the question.

And with the Cavs weakest spot being point guard, James unselfish play and sometimes spectacular passing skills will be welcomed. "From what I've seen watching him in a lot of different situations is that he has as good a floor vision as any young player who has come into the game in a long time," Paxson said. "I think you can put the ball in his hands and ask him to do a lot of things."

His addition also makes the team a much more attractive candidate for a coach. Management has talked with interim coach Keith Smart, Paul Silas and Jeff Van Gundy about the position. Van Gundy is believed to be Gund's favorite, with Silas a close second. The Cavs said they want to get a coach hired before the June 26 draft, but whomever is selected must be someone the players will respect, listen to and know is in control. He has to be a coach who can mold the abundance of young talent on the roster and get players like Davis to focus his talent on the team and playing together, and get others like Ilgauskas to remember that defense is part of the game as well.

But all of that work to be done can be undertaken fervently now, as the Cavs have its willing savior in place. "We were ready for it to happen," James said. "It seemed like on Monday that this day would never come. Now we're going to do a little celebrating this weekend." And so, likely, will Cavs management.

Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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