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Original Issue

The Gifted Ones Kobe Bryant wasn't the first teen to go pro, and LeBron James won't be the last. Let's stop wringing our hands and enjoy the next wave of prodigies

It's been a year since SI put LeBron James on the cover, and the
outcry has only gotten louder, as if fame and celebrity are
inevitably corrupting, ruinous: Can't he just play basketball,
just be an 18-year-old, just get his high school diploma, go to
the prom? Does he have to be on the cover, have to be marched
across the country in what amounts to a coast-to-coast bake sale,
have to be on ESPN, have to consider his own line of footwear,
have to be on Shaq's speed dial? ¶ Does he have to be fetishized,
this kid and his headband, his image now an athletic aphrodisiac
for a country that gets off on ... what? Youth? Freakish ability?
Unlimited potential? The vicarious excellence that buoys the
entire hero industry and keeps us calm and complacent in our
recliners? ¶ Look, we all hope James does pass his finals and go
to the prom, but until he expresses his real-world ambitions ("I
think I'll study architecture!"), missing out on those things and
going straight to work in the NBA is a sacrifice we think he can
live with--and one we're willing to watch him make. ¶ Yes, he's
part of a process now that will likely ensnare him more than once
before it's all over. He's already had his first taste of
litigation--he can barely drive!--when he had to answer for some freebies. Avoiding college athletics and the spectacular hypocrisy
of that system may save him further grief from the guardians of
amateurism, but he's soon going to be wealthy beyond the value
of retro jerseys and Hummers, and we know where that can lead.
We all watch Behind the Music, don't we?

Simply put, though, James is gifted, and it's not like no one's
ever been down this road before, not like it's a new phenomenon.
Mozart had a pretty good head of steam well before puberty.
(Although he had trouble posting up.) And the aforementioned Kobe
Bryant (who did go to the prom; he took the singer Brandy) is the
ideal role model for our teen idol culture. James is just the
latest to join Star Search, arousing once more our ambivalence
about this ... youth problem. Nurture the kid, or just pay him
out the wazoo immediately?

In James's case the answer may be a no-brainer, if he turns out
to have one-of-a-kind wiring, a fast-twitch fiber better than the
rest (although there's a lot of fast-twitch fiber out there). But
he's also ambitious, arrogant, with the wonderful sense of
entitlement that comes with the world's full acknowledgment of
his ability. He knows he's good, he wants to be better yet, and
having grown up in America with the TV sensibility that shapes
expectations about achievement and reward, he's aware he's got
something coming.

And does he ever. Not just money, though; not just magazine
covers. Not just the fame and scrutiny that celebrities complain
is the collateral damage of simply showing up for work. What
James has coming is all that and more. We do pay dearly for
fast-twitch fiber, and all we expect in return is breathtaking
performance and the complete abridgement of privacy. Is that too
much to ask?

If James is truly one of a kind, or even one of a dozen, he
writes his own ticket (and to judge by his going-to-school
wheels, that ticket promises to run several pages). And really,
what is the harm in that? What is the harm if LeBron and Britney
don't make their high school proms? What's the harm, moreover, if
they go together? What's the harm, exactly, in the accelerated
childhood required of Serena, Tiger, Kobe and now LeBron?

There will be silliness involved, no question, and a lot of
harumphing from older generations that don't understand the need
for posses or dashboard LCDs or landscaping that spells, say,
LEBRON. Who knows where he'll take us? We're going to watch him
grow up, after all, and both enjoy and deplore his virtual
adolescence. It will be, as with any child, exasperating and
exhilarating, and there will be, as always, an outside chance of
tragedy. Comes with the price of the ticket.

But James wins, no matter what. There is nothing we can possibly
do to him that outweighs the benefits of his precocity. Have we
plunged him into some kind of athletic sweatshop? No prom for
LeBron? Tough. What he gets back is something that's been the
whole point of our American experience so far. He gets the chance
to be as great as he wants to be, has the platform to provoke
awe, the opportunity to explore the boundaries of his talent, to
establish new thresholds of glory. Like any young person, of
course, just more so.

So, yeah, we put him on the cover. Found a few more like him too.


COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. (KOBE AND MAGIC) EARLY EXPOSURE SI's teen cover subjects have included Bryant (atage 19), Steve Cauthen (16) and Jennifer Capriati (13).