Cleveland celebrates No. 1 selection of James

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2003

CLEVELAND - LeBron James was 500 miles away, resplendent in an all-white suit and flashing a smile as bright as the Manhattan skyline.

He was dressed for a party. Like the one he missed at Gund Arena being thrown in his honor.

Balloons floated down from the ceiling, and confetti showered deprived Cavaliers fans who hugged, high-fived and cheered as if were standing in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

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At 7:37 p.m. Thursday, a new era of pro basketball dawned for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

LeBron James, the high school star from just down Interstate 77 in Akron, was all theirs.

James, the 18-year-old player with the manly body, $90 million Nike contract and all-around game, was selected by Cleveland with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

It didn't matter that his selection had been a foregone conclusion for more than a month or that James wasn't in Cleveland when his name was announced by NBA commissioner David Stern.

The important thing was that he was a Cavalier.

''It was a dream that finally came true,'' James said.

For everyone.

''LeBron is like one in a billion,'' Cavs forward Darius Miles said moments after James became his newest teammate. ''Like there was Magic Johnson, now there's LeBron James. It comes once every couple decades.''

The Cavaliers, who won just 17 games last season, have known since May 22 that they were going to get James. The lucky bounce of four ping-pong balls assured them of having the top pick, and there was never any doubt who the Cavs would take.

''There is no player for whom we would have traded this pick,'' owner Gordon Gund said. ''There isn't a whole team.''

Although the Cavs and their fans have known for five weeks that James would be wearing a wine-and-gold No. 23 jersey next season, there was nothing anticlimactic about the moment Stern announced that James was staying home.

As James confidently strode onto the stage in New York's Madison Square Garden, 10,107 fans celebrated as if the Cavaliers had just won their first NBA title.

With James they may finally get one.

James, the most hyped prep player ever, had always wondered how he would feel when the years of buildup, months of speculation and weeks of coast-to-coast travel ended with Stern calling his name.

It was beyond his wildest dreams.

''To go up there and shake Commissioner Stern's hand was a never-to-forget moment,'' he said. ''I knew what was going to happen this day, I knew where I was going, but I was still excited walking up on that stage.''

Watching him do it from afar was no less special for the Cavaliers.

''For our fans, for our organization, for everyone, it's a terrific time,'' general manager Jim Paxson said. ''We still have a lot of work to do, but this is a great step forward.''

In the second round, Cleveland selected Jason Kapono from UCLA. The Cavs desperately needed an outside shooter and the 6-foot-8 forward has excellent range.

Beyond his shooting stroke, the Cavaliers like Kapono because he's polished.

''We wanted to get a more finished product who had stayed in school,'' Paxson said. ''We knew he could shoot and we just feel is a good fit for us. To add a shooter in the second round was an important piece for us.''

The Cavs had hoped to add a point guard, but Paxson said none of the ones they had in mind were available at No. 31.

Within minutes after Cleveland made its inevitable pick, James, whose imminent arrival has caused a rush for season tickets, was making the Cavaliers more money.

The team immediately put James' No. 23 jerseys on sale in the arena, and the $50 replica jerseys were selling so fast, sales people struggled to keep them on the racks.

In just one hour, one concession stand sold 270 jerseys.

On Friday, James will be back in Cleveland to begin a new chapter in his already well-documented career.

''We'll begin to walk the walk together,'' Paxson said.