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LeBron James Era Begins in Cleveland

June 27, 2003

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Balloons floated down from the Gund Arena ceiling, and confetti showered deprived Cavaliers fans who cheered like they were standing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

At 7:37 p.m. Thursday night, 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.

``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 were going to 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 NBA commissioner David Stern announced that James was staying close to home.

As James confidently strode onto the stage in New York’s Madison Square Garden, flashing a wide smile and wearing a fashionable whiter-than-white suit, 10,107 Cleveland fans celebrated as if the Cavaliers had just won their first NBA title.

It’s a feeling that has eluded the franchise for 33 years, but now that James has arrived, it’s one they can hope to have.

Five hundred miles away, James knew there was quite a party going on in his honor.

``I heard about it,″ he said over the phone. ``I wish I was there.″

James, the most hyped prep player ever, had wondered how he would feel when Stern called 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.

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.

Kapono had declared himself eligible for the draft following his freshman year with the Bruins, but withdrew and finished as the school’s third leading career scorer behind Don MacLean and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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.

Fans began lining up outside the arena for the team’s draft party more than three hours before James was picked. Last year, the Cavaliers canceled the party, and in past seasons the team was booed for some unpopular picks.

It was a most unusual sight, folks waiting to get inside the Gund, which in the past few seasons has become one of the quietest and emptiest buildings in the NBA.

But before his first dunk as a pro, James has sparked this sports-crazed and championship-starved city. Since the moment the Cavs won the lottery, the team has been besieged by requests for tickets.

Gund would not reveal how many have been sold for 2003-04 other than to say it’s been ``very significant.″

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