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Rookie LeBron James Wows Crowd at Cavaliers-Magic Game - 2003-07-10


It was a meaningless game, but thousands of basketball fans showed up to watch it. Why? Because it was the debut of high school sensation LeBron James against players from the National Basketball Association.

The NBA has a summer league where incoming rookies and veteran players alike keep their skills sharp before the next regular season. Normally, nobody pays much attention to the games and many are closed to the public. Scores are rarely even listed in the newspapers.

But that was not the case for Tuesday night's game in Orlando between the host Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The appearance of the Cavaliers meant something observers are now calling "LeBron-mania." That's a reference to the player Cleveland selected first in last month's players' draft, 18-year-old LeBron James, sometimes referred to as "King James."

He stands 2.3 meters and weighs 109 kilograms and many believe he will have an impact on the NBA like legends Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. For his first professional exhibition game, tickets priced at five dollars were going for as much as $75 outside the arena in Orlando, Florida.

LeBron James did not disappoint, scoring 14 points - including one beautiful, hanging reverse lay-up - grabbing seven rebounds and handing out six assists in Cleveland's big 107-80 win. He said he was glad to put on a show for the fans.

"I like the bigger stage, you know, and my teammates like it too," he said. "You know, I keep telling you all, my crowd is bigger than the (Cleveland) Cavs (Cavaliers) crowds last year. So I know they (Cavaliers officials and fans) loved it. I know they loved it. I loved it also."

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not only counting on LeBron James to help sell tickets, but also to help the team improve its standing in the NBA. The Cavs won only 17 of 82 games last season and have not made the playoffs in five years.

Even new Cleveland head coach Paul Silas was surprised at the more than 15,000 fans who showed up in Orlando to see James in his first NBA summer league exhibition game.

"To have this many people out there come to see him, you know the whole thing has been amazing to me. It really has. But, you know, everywhere we go it's going to be that way, so we have to deal with it," he said.

Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams said from his observations, high school graduate LeBron James does belong in the NBA.

"Poised. Looks like a man," he said. "They look to him. He's their leader immediately. Brilliant passer. Under control. Smooth, tough. Oh, I was just . . . just overwhelmed, really."

If LeBron James, who already has a $90 million shoe endorsement contract from Nike was nervous, he did not show it. And after the meaningless game he smiled, and said stepping on an NBA court for the first time will be a great memory.

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