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High school star James is ineligible

LeBron James' promising NBA career won't be affected.

©Associated Press
February 1, 2003

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James was ruled ineligible to play for the rest of the season because he accepted free sports jerseys, bringing a sudden end to the basketball star's celebrated high school career.

The decision Friday by Ohio High School Athletic Association commissioner Clair Muscaro came four days after James, a senior at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary, was cleared for accepting a $50,000 sport utility vehicle from his mother.

Last Saturday, James was given two retro sports jerseys valued at $845 for free from a clothing store, the OHSAA said. The trendy jerseys were replicas of those worn by former Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and Washington Bullets center Wes Unseld.

Muscaro's ruling means St. Vincent-St. Mary must forfeit Sunday's win over Akron Buchtel, dropping it to 13-1. The Fighting Irish, ranked No. 1 by USA Today, have five games left plus state playoff games.

James, 18, can appeal the decision in writing. Gloria James said through attorney Fred Nance that the family was "deeply disappointed" and was evaluating its options.

"We're going to abide by the ruling," said coach Dru Joyce, who said he could not comment on a possible appeal. "We think that maybe there are some facts, that I don't know what they are, that could change things. But the bottom line is, that we're moving on as a team."

As Joyce spoke outside the school's gym, passengers in cars driving by shouted, "Leave LeBron alone!" and "It's all your fault!"

James' Hummer was moved after the news briefing, and it was unclear whether he was picked up or still in the building.

Even if James doesn't play another high school game, the ruling has no bearing on his future as a professional. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound player is considered the best prep player in the country and is expected to be the No. 1 selection in June's NBA draft.

Though he hasn't declared himself eligible for the draft, Friday's ruling might prohibit him from playing in college.

"There could be possible eligibility ramifications with his participation in an NCAA school," said Bill Saum, a director in the NCAA's enforcement department. "The broad scope is, an athlete may not receive a benefit because of his athletic talent. We would have to see in our investigation if that's why he received these jerseys."

Muscaro reviewed a report that James received the jerseys at Next Urban Gear and Music in exchange for posing for pictures to be hung on the store's walls.

The association's rules say an athlete forfeits amateur status by "capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value."

"In talking with the store's personnel, I was able to confirm that on Jan. 25, the merchant gave clothing directly to LeBron at no cost," Muscaro said. "This is a direct violation of the OHSAA bylaws on amateurism, because, in fact, LeBron did capitalize on athletic fame by receiving these gifts."

Robert Rosenthal, the store's owner, declined comment.

Muscaro said he asked school administrators at St. Vincent-St. Mary on Friday for a chance to speak with James.

"But LeBron did not want to speak with me," said Muscaro, who added that in his 14 years as commissioner, he had never invoked the rule to declare an athlete ineligible.

Gloria James disputed Muscaro's account.

"In fact, none of us was even notified by OHSAA that an investigation was under way, much less permitted to provide any information," her statement said. "We do not understand how this could be considered a fair process."

James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior, dubbed "The Chosen One." His popularity forced school officials to move his home games from the school to the 5,900-seat Rhodes Arena at Akron University.

The school also scheduled games around the country, so James and his teammates could face quality opponents in NBA-sized arenas.

Nike and Adidas have been competing for James, who was projected to earn $20-million for an endorsement deal. OHSAA spokesman Bob Goldring said because James is no longer an amateur, he can sign deals.

Goldring said the OHSAA is not investigating James or the school for any other infractions.

Muscaro was concerned critics would think the OHSAA was giving James preferential treatment if he had not ruled him ineligible.

"Naturally, LeBron is talented and he's noted nationally and internationally, but as far as this association is concerned, we will treat him the same as all our other athletes," he said.

Muscaro said his ruling was not an accumulation of evidence, and it was specific to James receiving the two jerseys.

James refused to comment about the jerseys Thursday night at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards. However, he did allude to "all the controversy that's going on with me" during his acceptance speech after being named the area's top high school athlete for the second straight year.

"I'd like to thank my teammates for helping me through all this," he said. "It will be in the paper, but remember I'm on the honor roll with a 3.5 grade-point average."

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