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"I've been wondering what was going to happen after LeBron James," says Gibbons. "The question has been answered with SheBron. It seemed unimaginable to me that there could be any person who could come anywhere near him, and then, suddenly, here comes a girl who's twelve years old, who may defy all odds, totally revolutionizing the sport by becoming the first girl to skip high school and go straight to the WNBA. There've been guys who've skipped college, obviously, but no one has gone pro without attending high school."
Moreover, Sheila may be in the ideal position to do it. She is being home-schooled by her mother and expects to earn her high-school equivalency by age fourteen, if not sooner. Citing her daughter's height and intellect as compelling factors, Terry has also petitioned Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who oversees the state's driver-services department, to grant SheBron an age exemption so that she can earn her driver's license at age thirteen. After all, she'll need to transport herself when she reaches the pro circuit.
Both mother and daughter say Sheila intends to declare herself eligible for the WNBA draft at age fourteen.
Gibbons knows how tough it will be for her to make that leap. On the other side of the gender line, for every Amare Stoudemire and Kobe Bryant, there are two dozen Bill Willoughbys -- high-school studs whose surefire-star labels gave way to underdeveloped fundamentals and brash immaturity by the time they reach the pros, if they're even lucky enough to get there.
At the MLK tourney, Gibbons watched East St. Louis' Liddell nearly outscore perennial Missouri power Vashon's entire team in a braggin'-rights rout. The wiry six-foot-five Liddell, with his point-guard floor vision and wombatlike defense, was everything Gibbons had heard about and more.
Yet Gibbons' gut gives him cause for pessimism.
"Tommie's got enough talent to be a fine college player, but he's got to hit the weights if he wants to play in the league [the NBA]," says Gibbons. "Nowadays, it's not enough to just be able to play. You have to have pipes. LeBron James has pipes."
He has no such reservations about Sheila Bronson and the WNBA.
"SheBron has pipes," he says. "With her intensity, I could see her developing into a female Tracy McGrady, only with Ben Wallace's physicality. Think about it: She's twelve, she's already six-foot-two and she's still extraordinarily agile. The genetic possibilities are limitless."
Two other scouts -- Cutting Edge Recruiting's Mark Melvin and Gold Chip Prepster's Dave Telep -- take Gibbons' enthusiasm a step further. They think Bronson could be the first woman to play in the NBA.
"It is clear that she has athletic ability that no female athlete before her has ever approached," says Melvin, a former Alton resident whose service focuses on Illinois prep talent. "I am convinced that with the proper coaching and work ethic on her part, we are looking at the first crossover athlete. If she continues to work and learn the game, this young lady will be more dominant in women's basketball than Venus and Serena Williams are today in women's tennis -- although I believe her ceiling could well be the NBA."
Telep, who's based in Durham, North Carolina, concurs: "She'll be a max-contract player in the WNBA by the time she's eighteen. There's no question she could play in the NBA. They say Europeans are soft. Well, she's no European."
Not unexpectedly, shoe and apparel companies have already begun lining up to throw money at the twelve-year-old revolutionary.
"Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods will always be amazing pitchmen, but SheBron is the real deal -- a marketer's dream come true," says John Lundquist of Double Team Sports Marketing in Chicago. "She takes girl power to levels I don't think any of us thought possible."
Like LeBron James, with his infamous Hummer, the Bronsons have a nice car in their driveway -- a gift from SheBron's wealthy uncle Alton Lister, the seven-foot former NBA center who, while serving as one-third of the Milwaukee Bucks' three-headed pivot with Paul Mokeski and Randy Breuer in the mid-'80s, was dubbed "Alton Listless." Terry Bronson is Lister's sister.
But it is unwise to suggest that Lister's unfulfilled promise will provide a cautionary tale for Sheila. The Bronsons construe any criticism of Lister's career as a slight against the family's reputation. It also fuels SheBron's competitive drive.
SheBron has a similarly unflattering impression of Leslie, the WNBA's reigning MVP.
"She's tall and is a pretty good shooter, but she doesn't have many muscles and doesn't dunk a lot," says SheBron quietly. "What I'd really like is to play against Ben Wallace. Maybe one day I'll be able to jump over his huge Afro."
Superscout Gibbons isn't counting it out:
"If her growth pattern reaches six-foot-ten, which is what doctors are predicting, and her body continues to have muscle definition, then the unimaginable will truly happen -- a woman in the NBA. As Paul Harvey would say, 'Stay tuned, America.'"