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Every player requires a position, if only to fill out the lineup card. LeBron James is a small forward by default, because whoever heard of a 6'8" center or a 250-pound point guard? Never mind that there is nothing small about him and leaving him in the corner is a waste. The keepers of basketball tradition, unable to conceive of such a dynamo, failed to coin a term that accounts for his varied gifts. In game accounts he is "small forward LeBron James," and in box scores, he is "LeBron James SF." Twenty-nine other teams wish it were that simple.
From Larry Bird to Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor to John Havlicek, the three man is often the most versatile player on the floor. James performs all the job's diverse duties: slashing inside for layups and stepping out for three-pointers, handling the ball and hitting the glass, accepting the toughest defensive assignments and smothering them. He may eventually go down as the premier small forward in NBA history, ironic given that he fulfilled his boundless potential only after it became obvious that he is so much more.
In the summer of 2010, the Heat's higher-ups made the mistake of thinking they had acquired the best player at his position, instead of realizing they had acquired the best player in the world. "He was just the small forward and that was it," says one of their coaches. Miami fell in the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks, with James marooned on the wing, clanking midrange jumpers. Regardless of what the box score still indicates, that was his last experience at small forward. "We went from plugging him into a system," the coach says, "to molding a system around him." The Heat wised up and handed LeBron the ball. Location wasn't all that important.
The public address announcer at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena used to introduce James as "a forward from St. Vincent--St. Mary High School," even though his former coach at St. V never viewed him that way. "I'd start him on the wing, then put him down low, then let him bring up the ball," says Keith Dambrot, now the coach at Akron. "I don't remember if he was first on the lineup card or last. I don't really care. It's semantics. Traditionalists may consider him a small forward, but how can you do that if he creates every opportunity for everyone?"
Now the P.A. announcer just bellows, "Number 6, LeBron James." That's it. James transcends type. Calling him a small forward is like calling Jay-Z a rapper, neither a lie nor the whole truth. If he really needs a capital letter after his name, as though "LeBron James" is not enough to identity him, then it should be E: Everything. You should be able to play him one through five on your fantasy team, because that's what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra does with his.
Basketball can be a breeding ground for stereotypes, some based on race, more based on size. In Miami's starting lineup, 6'4" Dwyane Wade has to be the shooting guard and 6'2" Mario Chalmers the point. At 6'8", Udonis Haslem can't sink threes, so he's the power forward, and 6'11" Chris Bosh has three inches on everybody, so he's the center. Then the game tips and James dribbles the ball, passes it, posts up, passes it again, drifts to the arc, fires a three, snags his own rebound and dunks hard enough to rupture the rim.
He started at small forward. He wound up in a place all his own.