Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

More and more, even casual NBA fans are tuning into the LeBron-a-thon as the ready-made star finally takes his game to the hardwood and not just Madison Avenue. Commercially, high-schooler-turned-NBA-star LeBron James has been the closest thing to a slam-dunk in the NBA since Michael Jordan.

After graduating from high school, the 18-year-old inked a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike before ever playing in a professional game. And then there was the summer NBA draft. Though Mr. James's selection at No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers was a sure thing, television ratings shot upward 27 percent from the year before.

Once the self-dubbed "King James" finally hit the regular season, viewership spiked again. Deluged by Mr. James's advertisements, more viewers tuned into ESPN's broadcast of his first game than any other NBA regular season contest since last year's Yao Ming vs. Shaquille O'Neal matchup. For local television, Cleveland games have been a bonanza with ratings 433 percent higher this season than last.

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That's all good news for the NBA, which resides in a sports world increasingly dominated by professional and college football. The new-look NBA may help protect the league from muscling by major-league baseball, which just finished highly successful playoffs, according to television ratings.


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