When Jordan was 20, he was fighting Matt Doherty for shots at North Carolina. Then, two years into his NBA career, he was as big a star as James is now--but he was also regularly getting bumped off his shots. James is 6'8" and 240 pounds, almost burly in comparison with other swingmen. His size has enabled him to survive the pounding of the 82-game NBA season. "Mike learned he had to get in the weight room and get bigger," Karl says. "LeBron didn't have to do that."
He also plays a generous game, which secured his standing with his teammates almost from the day he came into the league. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers remembers a game early this season in which James drove the lane and dropped the ball off to center Zydrunas Ilgauskas for what would prove to be the game-winning shot, then blocked a shot by Paul Pierce at the other end to seal the victory.
"Forget the talent and the athletic ability, it's his maturity that's light-years ahead," Rivers says. "He keeps his teammates involved. That he's willing to drive it at the end of a game and kick it to a teammate, well, that's not like a second-year player."
And that competitive personality provided a useful armor against the inevitable carping that came when the world seemed to be handing him the keys to the kingdom--to say nothing of the keys to that Hummer--while he was a senior at St. Vincent--St. Mary's. James could have entered the NBA a diva. Indeed, the embarrassing idolatry heaped on him as an adolescent made that likely. If he had, we might still be picking pieces of him from between Shaquille O'Neal's teeth. Instead, on the court, his faith in the concept of being a teammate has been absolute.
"Every night surprises me," he says. "The way we've come together as a family, that surprises me."
"People like him, like Jason Kidd, it's part of them to make their teammates better," says forward Drew Gooden, who has replaced Boozer in the Cleveland lineup. "Guys like to play with someone like that."
Moreover, James is at the center of something of a revival of the NBA itself, which finally may be emerging from its post-Jordan lassitude. Beginning with James, and running through players like Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire, the league seems suddenly bursting with telegenic young talent--not to mention old fogies like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Scoring is up, and so are the ratings, despite the reenactment of Little Round Top that the Indiana Pacers staged in Detroit in November.
"There's a ton of talent now, maybe more than we've ever had," says Rivers. "If you look at Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, those are the middle-aged guys now. The league is set up nicely for the future."
James doesn't concern himself with that. "I hear talk," he says, "but I don't buy into it too much. I got one thing to take care of, and that's the Cleveland Cavaliers. I try not to get caught up in the league aspect of things."
The eyes are almost shuttered. The smile is small and triangular and brief, as though it might offer too much of a window into lives past and other times, which now seem dim and ancient.