At the ripe old age of 18, high school basketball star LeBron James,on the verge of signing up to $30 million in endorsement deals, is widely considered the top player in the country.
But this weekend, he was forced to sit out the first game of his career because of some controversial off-court activities and he sat down for an exclusive interview with The Early Show Contributor Deion Sanders.
"You know, it hurts. But I just got to go out there and keep supporting my teammates," James says. He says he acted out of ignorance and he regrets making the mistake more than anything he's ever done.
James, who is from Akron, Ohio, is an honor student as well as a basketball player, but college probably won't be able to do for him what the NBA and a host of sponsors will do if he turns pro later this year.
But talk of big money can bring big trouble. In December, James' mom, Gloria, gave her baby a $50,000 Hummer for his birthday. She got it with a loan, but they live in public housing so people were suspicious and jealous.
"It's just the hard work I put into it and I just felt like maybe I should get a reward, you know," notes James. "Everyone else is getting rewards off of me you know."
Then two weeks ago, a New Jersey storeowner gave James two jerseys worth more than $800. State officials said James broke the rule for taking a photograph in exchange and he was suspended.
Did he even think he was violating the rules and Ohio State high school regulations?
"Well of course not," says James. "If I had known I was violating anything I would have never done it. I would have never jeopardized my eligibility. I would have never jeopardized my team. It was just me and a bunch of my friends went in there and the guy said, 'You know, I'll give you a couple of jerseys for your reward for being on the honor roll,' right?"
Looking back on it, James says he is sorry about the whole incident. "There's nothing I'm sorry more about, you know, disrespecting my teammates. You know, I love them to death and I can do nothing without my teammates. You know what I mean?"
James returned the jerseys and his teammates held on to win by one point without him. But he'd prefer to support them the best way he knows how.
"When I graduate from St. Vincent-St. Mary, I want my classmates to also know that LeBron James was an honor roll student and a great person," James says. "There's nothing else better to do than seeing people walk home with a smile on their face saying that they seen a great player and a great team."
James is hoping a court injunction will allow him to play while a bigger investigation takes place. His team has won two state championships with him and is hoping to for a chance to win a third.
With a Sports Illustrated cover, sold-out games from coast to coast, a pay-per-view audience, Lebron James is everywhere. Even David Letterman has to stand in line.
"You know, I think I've handled it well," says James of his success. "I just look at it as it's an opportunity for me and my teammates. Every time I go out there they also got to see my teammates also. So I'm a team-first-me-second type of player," he says.
It is not the team, but Lebron James who has sneaker companies fighting to offer him a deal worth $20 to $30 million, and that's before the high school senior even attends his own prom.
"You know, Nike, and Adidas and Reebok and all the people fighting over me right now," says James. "I'm just trying to live these last couple seven weeks out with my teammates and just trying to work hard and keep them coming."
Parents buy tickets to see him play and his school has been paid appearance fees.
"Ten to 15 dollars is not going to kill you for one night you know, to see the best team in the country and the best player in the country," James says.
The coaches, friends and fans that Sanders spoke with say great things about James' character. As for James, he just dreams of one day buying his mom the home she has always been dreaming of.
On Wednesday, Feb. 5, a Summit County judge in Ohio ruled James must sit out one more game. His team has four games left before the state playoffs. The school can decide which game James will miss.
The injunction is temporary, and the judge has set a preliminary hearing for Feb. 19 when he'll decide whether to make the ruling permanent or go to trial. Three of his team's remaining four games are before the hearing.
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