He gets up and walks off the floor, half limping and half swaggering, the way he used to leave the smoky arenas when the arenas were still allowed to be smoky. This is the way generations used to pass, slowly, with time enough to catch your breath and time enough to see the next generation coming, far down the line.
Al Jefferson is a big, flat-faced rookie from Monticello, Miss. A year ago he was one of 250 students at Prentiss High. Now, he's a forward for the Celtics, sitting in an arena that holds three times the number of people who live in his hometown, and he's talking about LeBron James as though James were someone who fought for Joffre at Verdun--or at least, for the Fort Wayne Pistons in Rochester.
"You look at the NBA," Jefferson says, "and all the stars came right out of high school--Kobe, Kevin and LeBron. LeBron came in and took it right over, like somebody who's been knowing the game for 10 years at least."
It is as though James's talent has made him older. It's as though his dues were paid in full and instantly, the way that billions of dollars now flash around the world with a single keystroke. He feels the speed of it. He's come to understand the furious momentum that has carried him along since he turned 16.
"We want to lay the stones," James says. "Amare and Kevin and Kobe and Tracy and Jermaine did it for us. I don't want to say the older generation, because they're not that old, but the guys who came before us, they laid the stones, and now we have to lay the stones for O.J. Mayo and all the others who are supposed to be coming out."
He sounds like some talking head on the History Channel, and it's a moment before you realize that he hasn't yet named a player who is 30 years old. Back in the day?
Hell, yesterday was the day.
Soon, today will be the day.
The Nuggets have come to Cleveland, and James is matched up once again with Anthony, who was drafted two picks after LeBron. Since then they both played on the dreary 2004 U.S. Olympic team, but Anthony went into a deep sulk in Athens from which he has yet to emerge. In addition, Anthony made an appearance in a bizarre obverse to all those NBA antidrug PSAs; he popped up in an antisnitching DVD featuring some drug dealers back in his neighborhood in Baltimore. How far James has moved beyond Anthony becomes clear when Denver's coach suggests that Anthony use James, who is seven months younger, as an inspiration. "It's good that LeBron is there to push Carmelo to be better," Karl says before the game. "[Carmelo's] being compared to a great player, and that's good for him."
Both teams start fast but come out of the locker room as though they are desperate for the All-Star break to begin immediately. James scores 14 points in the first quarter alone, and 20 by halftime. He muscles past Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin for layups and leads the Cleveland break--once faking a shot from the top of the circle only to rifle a pass to Robert Traylor for a layup. However, by the third quarter the Cavaliers have blown an 11-point lead, and James has begun to force three-point shots.