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At one point James is isolated on the left wing against Boston swingman Paul Pierce. "My main focus isn't on the guy that's guarding me, it's on the second level of defense because I feel like I can get past the first guy," James says. "But there comes a time when the weak side can double you, they can load the box on you, and right here"-he points to the screen-"I'm not really looking at Paul. I know he's in front of me, but I'm looking at Raef LaFrentz and [Ryan] Gomes and seeing if they see me or if they predetermine my move. Right now [the Celtics] don't really know what they're doing back side, so that gave me a good chance to try to drive baseline before they got there."
It is an exceptionally nuanced perspective for a third-year pro who skipped college. His coaches say that after a play is explained once, James can envision all five Cavs' roles as a series of interlocking pieces. At one point James describes having Cleveland forward Drew Gooden's man "in attendance," saying that he could dribble all the way back to half-court and the defender would follow. At another point he explains how the movement of point guard Delonte West, who is the Celtic farthest from the ball, will affect the type of pass he throws on a pick-and-roll to Eric Snow-whether he should set up Snow to penetrate or shoot. This type of awareness is what makes James such a challenge to contain. Bulls center Tyson Chandler, an excellent help-side defender, says he has to disguise his intentions around James. "A lot of scorers get tunnel vision-you can help and they're just looking at you, waiting for the opportunity to go," Chandler explains. "But with LeBron, you help and he burns you. He hits your man or he makes you think he doesn't know, then he drives at you, makes you come up and kicks it to your man. It's like when you watch Magic back in the day, thinking of plays before they happened."
That's why Miami Heat coach Pat Riley compares James with Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, not Jordan; why one Eastern Conference scout says James ranks behind only Nash and the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd as a playmaker. Unlike Nash and Kidd, however, James is also usually the best scorer on the floor, especially now that he has a more consistent jump shot.
This produces a defensive dilemma: Slack off James, and he'll hit the jumper; crowd him, and he's quick enough to break down his man; double him, and he'll find the open shooter. Complicating matters further, most opposing small forwards are at a disadvantage because they're unaccustomed to guarding a pick-and-roll. And few are as strong as the 240-pound James, who seems to have been born with a dockworker's brawny physique. As Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki puts it, "Once he has you on his shoulder, it's pretty much over." So complete is his offensive game that when a scout is asked for James's weaknesses, he has to think for a moment. "O.K., now I'm really nitpicking," he finally answers. "But he could be a better dribbler with his left hand."
In fact, one of the issues the Cavs' coaches have is that James is too good for practice. "We can't create a matchup that challenges him," says Egan. "We can double him, but we can only do that for so long because we have to run our own stuff." Flummoxed, Brown turned earlier this season to Johnny Bach, a Bulls assistant during the Jordan years. Bach recommended putting James on the reserve team during practice, as Chicago used to do to challenge His Airness. "At first, I don't think he understood what we were doing," says Brown. "Then, since he's so competitive, he'd get into it." And who wins those practice scrimmages? Brown nods. "Usually LeBron's team."
The great hope of a fragile city's athletic fortunes sits on a chair in the basement of the Q, allowing his picture to be taken. Team LeBron has allotted photographer Michael LeBrecht only a few minutes to take a portrait, even though he's known James for six years. Working quickly around James, LeBrecht practically straddles LeBron's knee, snapping away, when he suddenly pulls back and makes a face. "That's not your shoes, is it?" LeBrecht asks. James starts to giggle, then cocks one leg, breaks wind again and giggles some more. The photographer shakes his head, pulls his shirt over his nose and keeps shooting through the olfactory haze.
It is one thing to carry the weight of being a home-state hero. It is another to do so when you're only 21 and fart jokes remain a staple of daily life. And it is still another to juggle all that civic responsibility and the exuberance of youth in a place with a sports inferiority complex like Cleveland, which hasn't won a major title of any sort since 1964. Rarely are a city's prospects so tied to one athlete, and the principals so up-front about it, as with Cleveland and James. "I keep in mind LeBron's impact on our community and our team constantly, because he will make our jobs easier and make us look better," says Ferry. "I'm from the [Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich school of 'I won 500 games because I got [ Duncan],' and I'm very open about that." Gilbert, the owner, has gone to lengths to make the franchise appealing: He's put $12 million into upgrading the arena, signed off on $150 million in new player contracts and has plans for a new $20 million practice facility. His sales pitch to his star player: "LeBron understands we're building a foundation of success."
In August the Cavs can offer James a five-year, maximum contract extension worth about $75 million. He has said repeatedly that he plans on staying, but it's easy to understand why there is speculation that he might leave. If he doesn't sign by Oct. 31, he'll become a restricted free agent after the 2006-07 season. Clevelanders fret about the persistent rumor that has James heading to the Nets, who are part-owned by Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter. The two have known each other since James was in high school, and Carter says, "He's like a family member of mine." This would put James in Brooklyn, the Nets' future home, and make him King of New York. Carter can't help but ponder the possibility. "How amazing would that be?" he says. "I tell people all the time, he's my friend first. If Cleveland is building a championship team around him, then my advice is to stay there. If it's the Nets who are building a championship team that could be around him, then my advice is to come to the Nets."
Still, even in Cleveland, where it is not a stretch to say many deify James, the mood can turn sour. In a February 102-94 home loss to the Washington Wizards, the fans booed when James missed a pair of free throws. Whether the booing was directed at the team or at James was a matter of great debate in northern Ohio. At other times his crunch-time tendency to pass rather than shoot was a source of discontent. James didn't hit the first game-winning basket of his career until March 22. "The team starts winning, but one little slip and then fans start remembering what they've been going through for so long," he says. "I'm not getting mad that they boo the team or boo me, because they've gone through so much, but at the same instance they have to understand that we're out here playing hard and we're trying to turn this thing around too." He pauses, addressing all the shareholders. "We're all in it."
James's mother, Gloria; his girlfriend, Savannah; and the couple's 18-month-old son, LeBron Jr., still live just outside of his hometown of Akron, though they can be seen at every Cavs home game, sitting in baseline seats. It is 40 miles from Cleveland to Akron, but it feels farther. Head south on I-77 until you reach the concrete overpass with the city's name spelled out in iron letters. Exit onto Copley Road, then continue past the lineup of one-story brick buildings, past the kids in baggy pants and baseball hats, past the Walgreens and Miss Pantry and the Laundry King and Queens Beauty, where ALL WIGS ARE $20. BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE. Turn onto Hillwood and go about a mile down the residential street until you reach a two-story house with peeling white paint. This is where James spent a few of his preteen years living with the family of Frank Walker, his youth coach. There is no plaque that reads LEBRON LIVES HERE.