The winner of the second annual Salon Sports Person of the Year award is LeBron James.
No other sports figure garnered attention, sparked conversation or moved product like the NBA's No. 1 draft pick. He started the year as the most hyped high school basketball player of all time and ended it as the leading scorer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, a moribund franchise that James has rejuvenated in every way except, so far, in the win column. That will change soon enough unless management blunders horribly over the next few years.
Michael Jordan has retired three times now, and each time the league has searched desperately for a successor. Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal: There have been plenty of candidates to fill his Airness' signature Nikes, but none of them, talented as they are, has been able to do it. This year, on the heels of Jordan's final farewell, came the high school phenom from Akron, Ohio, selling out full-size arenas, having his games televised on pay-per-view and ESPN, and wearing Jordan's No. 23.
And he's not Michael Jordan either.
But he's special. Not only has he seemed to handle the media and fan crush with aplomb, but he's also shown that he's ready to play in the NBA, and play well.
As Cleveland's losses have mounted, James has come in for some criticism from those who were expecting Jordan's brand of highlight-show ball. He's not that kind of player. He's a remarkably assured, mature, fundamentally sound forward -- more Tim Duncan than Michael Jordan -- who's as happy passing as shooting. And he's a rookie. He's just learning the pro game. He'll turn 19 on Wednesday.
James' own Nike shoe, the Air Zoom Generation, was released over the weekend and sales were reported to be good but not spectacular. Retailers who were expecting a mad rush and a quick sellout learned that LeBron is no Michael, but they'd do well to remember that Michael wasn't Michael either, in the retail sense, until he'd been in the league a few years. And besides, the Air Zooms are kind of ugly. James' jersey did rocket to the top of the NBA sales charts as soon as it became available.
The league would be wise to stop looking for a new Michael Jordan anyway, because there's not going to be one. But there is going to be a LeBron James for a while, and that's a pretty good thing.
The Salon Sports Person of the Year, or SPotY, is awarded, according to criteria thought up on the spot a year ago, to "someone who dominates his or her sport, and sports that Americans watch carry more weight than those we ignore. If that dominant performer also separates from the pack, becomes a hot topic around the water cooler, so much the better."
James hardly dominated his sport, at least once he left high school, but then, neither did anyone else. Sports Illustrated chose Duncan and David Robinson as co-Sportsmen of the Year. That worthy pair led the San Antonio Spurs to the world championship, but they didn't exactly dominate as a team. Although Duncan was probably the NBA's best player in 2002-03, it's not clear the Spurs would have won the title absent an off year for O'Neal and key playoff-time injuries to Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki.
There were others who had great years -- Albert Pujols and Peyton Manning spring quickly to mind -- but no one stood astride the sports world.
James did dominate the water cooler, though, so to speak. As his senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School progressed in the form of a nationwide tour of large arenas, his status as an amateur athlete making a lot of money for a lot of people became one of the topics of the year. Was the attention being paid to his schoolboy career exploitative? Dick Vitale and Bill Walton clucked disapprovingly at all the attention being paid to the teenager -- during an ESPN broadcast of a St. Vincent-St. Mary game.
Another question: Just how amateur was LeBron? The $50,000 Hummer his mother bought him became the most famous ride owned by a kid since Velvet Brown took Pie to the Grand Nationals. James was suspended briefly and flirted with disqualification throughout the year. In the spring, the talk turned to the NBA draft and how good James would be. Thanks to him alone, the Cavaliers went from TV exile to regular national appearances. Also thanks to him alone, ESPN has continued to televise high school games.
He's no Michael Jordan, but no one left a deeper footprint in 2003 than LeBron James.
The obvious choice for S.I. Sportsman of the Year, by the way, would have been a famous athlete whose name I've promised fans of his sport I wouldn't mention again in this column during 2003, because I can't seem to do so without making them foam at the mouth. I also said I wouldn't mention the sport. That fellow won his sport's most famous race, which I also promised not to mention and which takes place in France, for the fifth straight year. Sports Illustrated for Kids polled its young readers and they voted this Postal Service spokesman their Athlete of the Year, ahead of James.
Unfortunately for S.I., it would seem a bit over the top to give this man the award two years in a row, and the magazine wimped out last year, afraid he wouldn't get the record-tying fifth win, and named him 2002 Sportsman of the Year for winning his fourth straight. That award was so silly it prompted the emergency invention of the Salon Sports Person of the Year award, won by Serena Williams.
Each year's SPotY winner is entitled to a home-cooked meal at my house, incidentally. Williams has not called, but the invitation stands.
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