Ohio says basketball star ineligible for final games

Saturday, February 1, 2003

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James' season ended with the swiftness of one of his ferocious dunks.

The nation's top high school player -- and projected NBA star -- was ruled ineligible as an amateur because he accepted free sports jerseys, ending the celebrated senior's high school career.

The decision Friday by Ohio High School Athletic Association commissioner Clair Muscaro came four days after James, the 6-foot-8 phenom from Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary, was cleared for accepting a $50,000 sports 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. The Fighting Irish (13-1), ranked No. 1 by USA Today, have five games left in the season, plus state playoff games.

"There are things that happen in life," said James' coach, Dru Joyce. "These are life's lessons."

James can appeal. Gloria James said through attorney Fred Nance that the family was "deeply disappointed" with the ruling and evaluating its options.

"We're going to abide by the ruling," said Joyce, who would not comment on a possible appeal. "We think that maybe there are some facts that could change things."

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

James' now-famous Hummer was moved after the news briefing, but it was unclear where the 18-year-old star went following his team's afternoon practice.

Even if James doesn't play another high school game, the ruling has no bearing on his future as a professional and is unlikely to prevent him from being the No. 1 selection in June's NBA draft.

Although he hasn't officially declared himself eligible for the draft, Friday's ruling might prohibit him from playing in college because of NCAA rules, said Bill Saum, a director in the NCAA's enforcement department.

"An athlete may not receive a benefit because of his athletic talent," Saum said. "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 in the store.

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 on Friday to talk to James.

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

Gloria James disputed Muscaro's account that he tried to contact her son.

"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" by the magazine. James' popularity forced school officials to move his home games to the 5,900-seat Rhodes Arena at Akron University.

ESPN2 televised the school's Dec. 12 game against Oak Hill Academy, the network's most-watched show in two years.

The school also scheduled games around the country, so James and his teammates could face quality opponents in NBA-sized arenas in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Greensboro, N.C.

Nike and Adidas have been waging an off-court war for James, who was projected to earn up to $20 million for an endorsement deal.

Spokesman Bob Goldring said the OHSAA is not investigating James or the school for any other infractions. St. Vincent-St. Mary plays Canton McKinley on Sunday.

Muscaro was concerned that 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.

Sayers' blue No. 40 Bears jersey, and Unseld's red-white-and-blue striped No. 41, are two of the oversized throwback jerseys popular with pro athletes who can afford to buy them.

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" 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."

On Monday, Muscaro ended a two-week inquiry by ruling James did not violate any rules in receiving a custom-made Hummer H2 as an 18th birthday gift. Gloria James provided loan information to support her purchase.

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