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The latest battleground in the never-ending sneaker wars is a 6-7 high school player who jumps like Michael, shoots like Kobe and passes like Magic. His name is LeBron James, and he is expected to enter the NBA Draft next year -- fresh out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron, Ohio. That and this report from The Newark Star Ledger's Steve Politi
When he does, Nike wants him wearing its sneakers. So does Adidas.
The lines are drawn. The trenches are dug. The two biggest combatants in the billion-dollar sneaker industry have targeted James as the next basketball superstar; and, if the past is any indication, they will do anything to get him.
They will load up his high school team with Free gear. They will send his AAU team around the country for summer tournaments. They will use the biggest names in the Sport to recruit him and, if that is not enough, they might send his friends and family members gifts or money.
"It's as competitive as ever, because it's more money than ever," said Dan Wetzel, the author of "Sole Influence," a recent book detailing the sneaker wars.
"The player every scout and every Madison Avenue executive believes is the next Michael Jordan just finished his junior year of high school, so this is huge Business," he said. "You have to get some kind of relationship with these kids at an early age, and Lebron James is why all the seed money for the other kids is worthwhile."
James, 17, plays for an Adidas-sponsored high school and AAU team and, even though he is recovering from a broken wrist, he still plans to make an appearance (but will not play) at the Adidas ABCD Camp this week.
The annual event, held in Hackensack at the Rothman Center on the Fairleigh Dickinson campus, is a major recruiting tool for the sneaker company. About 200 of the nation's top players will attend, playing in front of eager college coaches and scouts.
But the player No. 1 on everyone's list is James. Already a Sports Illustrated cover boy, James is the most recent player Nike and Adidas have fought over to control. Nike became the industry leader thanks to its relationship with Jordan; in recent years, Adidas countered with young stars such as Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant.
Neither company wants to miss out on James, the player most scouts project as the No. 1 pick if he skips college and enters the NBA Draft next spring -- as everyone expects.
Why the urgency? Consider that Bryant helped sell 500,000 pairs of Adidas shoes bearing his name last year at $120 a pop. Do the math.
"Both organizations are going strong for Lebron James," Rutgers head coach Gary Waters said. "There's a lot of money on the table for that kid."
Industry experts predict James will command at least a five-year, $20 million contract from one of the two companies when he turns pro. But which one? That and this report from The Newark Star Ledger's Steve Politi
"The options are still open," his mother Gloria James said in a phone Interview. "He still has time. He likes the people with both Nike and Adidas, first and foremost. He likes a lot of Nike shoes and a lot of Adidas shoes."
Both companies are positioning themselves to get him. Bryant, fresh off his third straight NBA title with the Lakers, has played the part of a salesman for Adidas. The young NBA All-Star met James in Philadelphia during the NBA season and gave him a new pair of red-white-and-blue Adidas sneakers to wear at a tournament.
"If Adidas signs LeBron, they'll go into the future with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Lebron James trying to sell sneakers, and I think they'll sell a lot of sneakers," Wetzel said. "If I know that, Nike knows that."
Nike has attempted to counter Bryant with its biggest star: Jordan. The Washington Wizards guard has befriended James, once offering him tips before an NBA game in Cleveland. The company also flew James to its company headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where he and his mother met with CEO Phil Knight. The coordinator of its grassroots program, George Raveling, has attended games at James' high school.
Since neither company can sign James -- he would lose his high school and college eligibility -- they Only can play all of the angles. And wait.
"It's like finding Britney Spears and saying, 'This kid will sell 20 million records, but we can't sign her for 15 months,'" Wetzel said. "He has $40 million in deals waiting for him and he can't take it.
"Nobody has ever been this big."
If it all seems like too much to throw at a teenager, don't waste your breath expressing outrage. It has become the norm in amateur basketball in this country, where the best players become targets before they hit high school.
The companies outfit amateur and high school teams with their gear, believing that if they develop relationships with enough young players, they will have a shot at the handful who become NBA All-Stars. Those coaches often benefit the most. When McGrady signed his six-year, $12 million contract with Adidas, his high school coach received more than $300,000.
The players begin identifying themselves as an "Adidas guy" or a "Nike guy," attending Only the tournaments sponsored by that shoe company. Nike and Adidas hold their All-America camps during the same week each year, further forcing the players to make a choice. Whenever one player "defects" from one camp to the other -- which is what Chicago prep star Eddy Curry, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2001 draft, did last summer -- it becomes News. That and this report from The Newark Star Ledger's Steve Politi
"Growing up, I was always Nike. Always Nike," said Kareem Rush, a former Missouri player and a first-round draft pick this year. "I never went to any Adidas tournaments. It's crazy these days how people fight for kids at such a young age, trying to get an edge when so much can happen five or six years down the road. But it's part of the Business now."
Melvin Ely, another first-round pick who attended Fresno State, said he "did everything Adidas," mostly because of his friendship with Sonny Vaccaro, the man who operates the Adidas grassroots program. Vaccaro is a controversial figure in college basketball because of the relationships he creates with young players -- but those relationships make him Adidas' chief asset in its rivalry with Nike.
"It comes down to millions of corporate dollars versus Sonny Vaccaro," said Tom Konchalski, a recruit analyst based in Forest Hills, N.Y. "If a sequel to Donald Trump's 'Art of the Deal' is ever written, it should be written by John Paul Vaccaro. He has a lot of charm and gets close with a lot of kids. That's Adidas' major sell, because they can't match Nike dollar for dollar."
Konchalski said Vaccaro lured Kendrick Perkins, a 6-10 center from Beaumont, Texas, out of Nike's camp and to Adidas by inviting several other members of his high school team as well. Perkins, a projected NBA lottery pick should he make the jump after high school, will be at the Rothman Center this week.
Vaccaro does not win every battle, however. High school star Amare Stoudemire, the ninth pick in the 2002 draft, announced he would switch from the Nike camp to Adidas before last spring. But he ended up back with Nike -- after his mother, in an Interview with HBO, said Raveling gave her gifts and cash. Raveling did not respond to an Interview request for this story.
"It's hilarious," said Jared Jeffries, another first-round pick who played at Indiana. "They fight over guys. They'll do anything to get certain guys. But it's big money, especially someday down the road if somebody pans out."
Few fear that James will not pan out. He is a special talent -- which is why his mother said Nike and Adidas would have to pull out all the stops to get him.
"He's one of the best players in the country. You want the best, you have to work hard for the best," Gloria James said. "LeBron is going to make a difference for anybody associated with him." That and this report from The Newark Star Ledger's Steve Politi