It is a cold
Sunday night in March during the NBA's midseason slog, when road games run one
into the next and ice bags linger longer on balky knees. At Quicken Loans Arena
in Cleveland the Cavaliers are hosting the Chicago Bulls and trying to maintain
their playoff position while awaiting the return of shooting guard Larry
Hughes, who is out for another month because of a fractured finger. With the
Cavs losing five of their last six games, the crowds at the Q have grown
nervous. They remember the season-ending slide of last year, when the team
tumbled from the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference to lottery fodder in a
matter of weeks. � The game remains close until midway through the third
quarter-or, to put it another way, until LeBron James decides he's had enough.
Frustrated all night by the Bulls' banging, the 6'8" James snags a rebound,
dribbles the length of the floor and barrels into the lane. Hopping laterally
between two defenders, he rises and dunks the ball with ferocious force, his
right arm parallel with the basket, providing the momentary illusion that his
grasp on the rim is all that's keeping him from sailing up and over the
backboard. It's a sequence that transforms even veteran players into squirming,
rocking children. Cavaliers guard Damon Jones looks up at the Jumbotron,
giggling at the replay in disbelief, while bench players hoot and twirl towels.
It is the type of play Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry is referring to
when he says of James, "He does things that are-how do I put this?-not
into his career, however, the abnormal is the norm for the 21-year-old
coronated as King James. He already ranks among the league's premier talents,
capable of 40-10-10 games (two and counting) and holder of myriad "youngest
ever" designations: to score 50 in a game, to score 6,000 in a career, to
be named All-Star Game MVP. And he may well add another at the end of the
season-MVP. Not since Michael Jordan in 1991-92 has a player averaged 30
points, six rebounds and six assists in a season, as James was doing at week's
end (31.4 points on 48.0% shooting, 7.0 boards, 6.6 assists) in leading his
injury-riddled team to the fourth-best record in the East. This weekend the
Cavs will make their first playoff appearance since 1998, when Ferry and Shawn
Kemp anchored their frontcourt.
James has been
putting up impressive numbers since he was drafted No. 1 in 2003. What is more
noteworthy on this night is what he does without the ball. He exhorts
teammates, calls impromptu huddles, keeps Cleveland on track. During a timeout
in the fourth quarter coach Mike Brown begins drawing up a convoluted offensive
set-he is renowned for intricate plays with names like Elbow 153 Roll 5C
Punch-and works himself into something of an expository corner. As Brown erases
and reerases the whiteboard, the players' attention wanders until LeBron looks
at Brown and calmly says, "Coach, man, we only got five guys and 24
seconds." His teammates crack up, Brown concedes his point, and Cleveland
runs the first element of the play, a dive cut, for a basket.
This is a lesson
James says he learned last season, when he failed to speak up as the Cavaliers
imploded: When necessary, he must take control. Assistant coach Hank Egan
recalls that when 12-year veteran Donyell Marshall wasn't shooting well during
one game earlier this year, James walked up and embraced him. "Didn't say
anything," Egan says, "just gave him a hug." In the first half of
the Bulls game, James took a different approach with the cold-shooting forward.
Cleveland ran a pick-and-roll that called for Marshall to pass the ball to
center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In the process, however, Marshall found himself wide
open at the top of the key.
ball!" demanded James from the wing.
running the play," Marshall countered.
yelled back, "Shoot the f--- ball!"
After the game,
which Cleveland won 91-72, Marshall sat at his locker, describing what it's
like to play with James. "You feel guilty, but he'll say, 'The next time I
pass it to you, shoot it again. If you miss, you miss it. If it's a good shot,
then that's your shot-just shoot it again.'" Marshall chuckled as he looked
over at James. "It's funny because I'm here to teach him and be the leader,
but then there are times when he picks me up. When I was 21, I was the
second-youngest player in the NBA and just learning the game. He's 21, and he's
the third-leading scorer."
In many respects
James stopped being a young man a long time ago, perhaps when the national
media first found its way to Akron, superlatives in tow, to gaze at the
15-year-old with the NBA game. It's as if James decided that there was no time
for youth and its attendant insecurity and impetuosity and recklessness. Too
many supporters are counting on him, from the hopeful (and desperate) people of
Cleveland to league executives eagerly riding his international swell to
basketball fans thirsting for a team-first superstar. As Brown says of NBA
coaches and players, "We all have ownership in LeBron."
It is an
intriguing concept, the superstar athlete as IPO or public trust, and one
wonders how the young James manages such a responsibility-not to mention the
constant scrutiny of his play-with such outward calm. "He doesn't show his
frustration," Cleveland guard Eric Snow says. "He just has ways of
bottling it." Indeed, James rarely displays concern, let alone emotion,
with one notable exception. When he's on the bench, he ritualistically attacks
his fingernails, either biting them or, with the aid of a nail clipper (which
he summons from a Cavaliers ball boy by reaching with his left hand over his
left shoulder), trimming the gnawed edges. In this, at least, James does not
seem beyond his years.