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Beyond His Years and Beyond the Hype

Cleveland star LeBron James, 20, gained valuable knowledge growing up on the streets of Akron.

December 11, 2005|From the Associated Press

CLEVELAND — For an instant, LeBron James again sees life through the frightened eyes of a fatherless 8-year-old boy.

Sitting in the basement conference room of Antioch Baptist Church, James has just finished handing out Thanksgiving groceries to families as needy as his own once was.

A few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, the Cavaliers' superstar is allowing a rare glimpse into his well-guarded privacy during an exclusive interview with the Associated Press. He's upbeat while openly discussing fatherhood, wanting to win an NBA championship in Cleveland, his upcoming contract extension, personal goals and dreams -- but then a question about his past seems to awaken painful memories.

Leaning back in his chair, a flashback momentarily walks James back in time.

An only child -- and not yet a basketball prodigy -- James is being raised in Akron by a strong single mother who has nurtured her son with love but little else. She preaches to him to be fiercely independent, respectful and kind. She tells him to fear no one.

Most importantly, Gloria James teaches young LeBron how to be a man.

Money is tight so the pair move frequently, fleeing tough neighborhoods around the Rubber City where he is exposed to the harsh realities of America's urban decay.

On a chilly November day years later, he remembers it all.

"I've seen a lot of stuff that kids my age just don't see," James says, hinting at a darkness he would prefer stay hidden. "That's where the knowledge comes from. I don't want to go back to what I've seen when I was 7, 8, 9 years old."

Asked for an example, James pauses and shifts in his seat. Staring at the floor, he's unsure how to respond.

Things on the street?

"Everything," he says. "Everything that's not right. I think that's where I got my knowledge."

*

It has happened in the blink of an eye, much faster than anyone thought possible.

In two NBA seasons, James has blossomed into one of the league's premier players -- and perhaps its signature star. Last season, he became the fifth player to average 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for a season, adding his name to the hoops pantheon of Robertson, Havlicek, Bird and Jordan.

At 20.

On a rebuilt and improving Cleveland team, his game has matured. Through this season's first 17 games, he averaged a career-high 28.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

"The difference now is that he keeps his teammates involved," Boston Coach Doc Rivers said after James dropped 36 on the Celtics. "He scored 36 in the flow. The guy's in the third year of his career. To understand the game the way he does, he should coach."

As he approaches his Dec. 30 birthday -- a date he shares with Tiger Woods -- James seems to have exceeded all the impossible expectations that accompanied his leap from high school.

Nothing fits him any longer. Not the gloomy predictions, not the endless skepticism, not any of the labels slapped on him.

He is better than advertised. From day one, James has gone beyond the boundaries.

"You pay for a ticket to see LeBron perform and it's like getting a present," says Minnesota's Kevin Garnett. "I just hope the people of Cleveland understand, realize, what they have. He's like the Beatles."

James has handled his rise to iconic superstardom with grace and a rare ease for someone so young, rich and talented. As the whirlpool of his A-list celebrity life swirls around him, James manages the pressure. He's always in complete control.

"To this day, I don't feel it," he says, asked to recall when he knew greatness was destined. "I hear my friends and my mom tell me I'm special, but honestly, I still don't get it. I just want to be levelheaded about things. I think about the times I had before and I don't want to go back to those times."

Under fame's blinding spotlight, James has matured from teenage talent to proven professional, from playful kid to doting parent, from Nike salesman to corporate heavyweight.

At an age when most people his age are handling adulthood's responsibilities for the first time, James has embraced them with a wisdom beyond his years.

"I don't know where I got it," he says. "I don't read books much. I don't read newspapers that much. It's everything that I went through in my itty bitty life, my little bitty 20 years of life, I've been through so much."

*

An hour before tipoff against the Timberwolves, kids wearing No. 23 jerseys in a rainbow of colors stream into Quicken Loans Arena. Across the street, a larger-than-life billboard of James with the message -- WE ARE ALL WITNESSES -- towers over downtown.

Once inside, Cavs fans of every age jockey for position in an area designated for autographs.

Clutching scraps of paper, magazines, almost anything with James' likeness on it, the youngsters holler for attention. So close to game time, they settle for a wave as James glides by.

One boy, though, gets special attention.

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