SECAUCUS, N.J. - LeBron James won't have to go far to play in the NBA.
The Cavaliers scored perhaps the biggest victory in franchise history Thursday night, winning the lottery and the right to select James, the 18-year-old high school phenom from nearby Akron.
"We don't know who we are going to pick," Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund quipped. He later held up a Cleveland jersey with James' name embroidered on the back and his No. 23.
"I'm very excited for the fans of Cleveland," said Gund, who smiled broadly after NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik announced that the Cavs had won the James sweepstakes. "This is a great day for them and for all of that market, for Akron, for Cleveland, all of northeastern Ohio. I'm tremendously excited about it. It's a big day in Cleveland sports."
The Memphis Grizzlies got the second selection for the June 26 draft, but that pick goes to the Detroit Pistons. The Denver Nuggets will pick third.
James is considered by most experts the kind of rare player who can turn around the fortunes of a franchise.
"I'm staying in Cleveland, and I'm real excited," James said at a news conference, wearing a Nike headband and warmup suit and surrounded by his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School teammates.
The 6-foot-8 swingman, who just signed an endorsement contract with Nike worth more than $90 million and another deal with Upper Deck trading cards for an undisclosed amount of money, averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 steals as a senior.
James will try to lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time since 1997-98, and he's bound to be a big box-office attraction for a team that tied Denver for the worst record in the league this past season at 17-65.
He'll join Juneau-Douglas High School alum Carlos Boozer Jr., who was a second-round draft choice of the Cavaliers last June. Boozer had a strong rookie season for the Cavaliers.
James didn't want to make any predictions about what he'll be able to do for the Cavs.
"I'm not going to guarantee a championship," James said. "But I will guarantee we'll get better every day. We're going to be a lot better than we were last year."
It was the first time since 1990 that the team with the worst record - in this case a tie for the worst record - won the lottery. New Jersey was the last team, selecting Derrick Coleman with the first pick.
Cavaliers general Jim Paxson said his heart was pounding as he sat on a couch at home with his wife watching the lottery.
"I just couldn't believe it when it came up Memphis and knew we had the No. 1 pick," said Paxson, who still has to find a coach.
Gund said that either Jeff Van Gundy or recently fired New Orleans coach Paul Silas are the leading contenders.
Paxson said one of the hardest decision for the new coach would be where to play James.
"I think he's a very versatile player and has the ballhandling ability to be a point guard," Paxson said.
While the Cavaliers won the lottery, the Pistons had to be smiling after winding up with the second overall pick. Detroit, which posted the best record in the Eastern Conference, had the rights to Memphis' first-round pick because of a trade for Otis Thorpe in 1997. The Grizzlies would have been allowed to keep the pick if it had been No. 1.
When the pick was announced, Jerry West, the Grizzlies' president of basketball operations, seemed to sink a little.
"It would have been like Christmas," West said. "But it's like Christmas and Thanksgiving for them."
Denver, which like Cleveland had 225 chances out of 1,000, slipped to No. 3 in the draft order, despite having the same record as the Cavs.
"Regardless, we're going to get a great player no matter what," Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke said.
Toronto got the fourth pick, and it was followed by Miami, the Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago, Milwaukee, the Knicks, Washington, Golden State, Seattle and Memphis.
Milwaukee, which made the playoffs, got Atlanta's pick at No. 8 because of the trade that sent Glenn Robinson to Atlanta last August. The Hawks would have kept the pick had they received one of the top three. Memphis got the 13th pick as part of a trade that sent Steve Francis to Houston in 1999.
For all the teams that didn't get the top pick, the good news is that this is one deepest drafts in years.
Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the national championship this season as a freshman, and Darko Milicic, a left-handed 7-footer from Serbia who turns 18 on June 20, are considered the next-best players available.
Speaking at halftime of Game 3 of the Nets-Pistons Eastern Conference finals, Anthony joked that he knew the Cavs would get the No. 1 pick: "I think they rigged it; don't quote me on that, though," Anthony said.
Toronto Raptors superstar Vince Carter said James will face immense pressure as an NBA rookie.
"Everybody is just speculating on what he could do when he steps on the court, not what he is doing when he is out there," Carter said. "He's stepping into another level. I think he is going to be a great player. I think everybody thinks it, but I think that's what this is all about, his potential."
This is the first time the Cleveland has had the first pick in the draft since 1986, when it took Brad Daugherty.
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