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Walk it back. � Walk it back the way archaeologists do, one level at a time, from the newest city on top to the ancient ones below. Read the history, end to beginning. Follow the line of it. Only then does what's happening now seem so inevitable. � Walk it back to the fatherless boy with burgeoning talent. Of course, it makes sense that his high school was charging $120 for season tickets and that Dick Vitale was sitting courtside, slobbering. That his mother got that $80,000 loan to buy him a Hummer. That, at 17, he was on the cover of this very magazine, which proclaimed him THE CHOSEN ONE and wondered if he was the next Michael Jordan. � Walk it back through all the debates. Was his life a triumph of excess? Was he a bad example to people stuck in the worst parts of American society? Walk it back and he's a cautionary tale, representing the strange ways America creates celebrities. Did it all come too fast for someone all too young? � The answers are there in the different layers--from the middle school mythology and from the strange Persian bazaar that was his high school years. Look at the shards and fragments and you see how he's come to be where he is. Evolution only makes sense in retrospect.
And now, just now, he's building something new and gleaming that fits delicately atop everything that preceded it. He makes all the tiny calibrations--how much attention does he want, how much time should he make for himself?--so that the edifice he's building doesn't overwhelm its bedrock and collapse around him. He has passed into a period of becoming the best in the world at what he does. Only when you walk it back does the story seem to be a straight line.
"I just do what I got to do and go out and be myself, on and off the court, and take care of my obligations," he says, his eyes wary and guarded. "That's generally your own destiny--knowing what you have to take care of.
"You can't let nobody run your train. I want to run everybody, and that doesn't mean I want to be hard on people. That's just saying I want to be in control of things because, in my eyes, that's when things run smoothest. But I'm going to hold something to myself, and that's the game of basketball. That's the one part I don't want anyone to get a piece of."
The big American lives don't have acts. They have epochs, each forming the foundation for the next. LeBron James is 20 years old. Only when you walk it back can you see the inexorable logic of him. Only when you walk it back does he make any kind of sense at all.
The producers of The Simpsons wanted him. They needed well-known athletes for an episode in which Homer gives a lesson in victory dances. James has loved the show since before he was famous, a time so long ago he barely remembers it. He could play himself for laughs, and without a couple of million bucks riding on it. So, in the proud tradition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Roger Murdock in Airplane! and Xavier McDaniel's turn as Campbell Scott's imaginary sexologist in Cameron Crowe's Singles, off he went to Springfield.
"When they asked me to do it, I said, 'Of course, anytime I can fit it in, we'll get it done,'" James explains. "It went pretty smooth. I just used my regular voice, you know?"
Last season he was the NBA's Rookie of the Year, better by far than all the skeptics thought he would be. Now he is on the brink of much more. "It's weird talking about a 20-year-old kid being a great player, but he is a great player, and he could be the best ever," says Denver Nuggets coach George Karl. "He's the exception to almost every rule. His maturity is the thing that's the most startling about him. His basketball sense has gotten him to where he is."
James enters this week's All-Star hoop-a-palooza as the league's signature star. Through Sunday he was averaging 25.3 points (as opposed to 20.9 last season), 7.7 rebounds (up from 5.5) and 7.2 assists (up from 5.9). Only four players in NBA history have averaged 25, seven and seven: Oscar Robertson (six times), John Havlicek (twice), Jordan (once) and Larry Bird (once). His shooting percentage has gone from .417 to .489. The Cleveland Cavaliers improved by 18 wins last year after making James the No. 1 pick in the draft out of St. Mary--St. Vincent High in nearby Akron. This season, despite power forward Carlos Boozer's defection over the summer to the Utah Jazz, Cleveland has ridden James to a 29-20 record, the fifth best in the Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers have a dismal history, going back to owner Ted Stepien, who once replaced the team's fight song with a polka. Almost by himself James made the Cavs a hot property. Attendance went up by an average of 6,791 from the season before he arrived. In 1983, Gordon Gund bought the franchise from Stepien for $20 million. In December he sold it to Michigan businessman Dan Gilbert for an estimated $375 million.