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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Coming of Age

Cavaliers' James, with impressive talent and knowledge for his 21 years, lives up to the hype that welcomed him to NBA

January 12, 2006|Mark Heisler

At last, the all-time great turns 21!

If you want to know how much the world has speeded up, LeBron James celebrated his birthday in a manner worthy of a modern prodigy, dining with 65 friends and relatives in a private room in the House of Blues in downtown Cleveland before going downstairs to rap with Lil Wayne and party with a crowd of 1,000 who paid from $50 to $300 to attend. A part of the proceeds was earmarked for charity; no one said what the other part was earmarked for.

If he became an adult two weeks ago, he grew up long before that. At 21, he was a three-year NBA veteran with 4,649 points, more than twice as much as anyone had ever scored by then (Kobe Bryant had 2,254, Kevin Garnett 2,144.)

At James' current average of 30.6, he'll break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of 38,387 -- at 34. If he were to play to 42 as Kareem did, James would be looking at something around 50,000, even allowing for a decline to a sedate 20 a game after 35.

Of course, we're getting just a tad ahead of ourselves, but no one ever arrived with James' hype, let alone lived up to it. In the NBA, where awe is usually withheld until someone wins something, he's already a folk hero, like Paul Bunyan.

"He's a freak of nature," Boston Celtic Coach Doc Rivers said. "He would be an All-Pro in football. And I don't even know what he plays, but whatever he wants."

At the 2003 pre-draft camp, six months after James' 18th birthday, he was measured in bare feet at 6 feet 7 1/4 inches, 245 pounds. He already was carved like a Greek god and capable of playing three or four positions, or just about anywhere he wanted to in the NBA too.

"If he wasn't born in the United States, I'd say he's 25 or 26," Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "But he's from the United States; he was born in Cleveland [actually in nearby Akron].

"Even if he had parents with great, unbelievable foresight that the guy is going to be a great, superhuman basketball player, they couldn't hide him for more than two years. They couldn't hide him for five. If they said he's 1 and he's really 5, I think you might be able to tell. He's not Baby Huey, you know what I mean?

"The guy's legit.... He's incredible. I mean, his size and that speed and everything that goes with, it just seems like it's almost impossible."

James is the unquestioned leader of a Cavalier team that has the second-best record in the East. Of course, he was their leader from the moment he showed up, at 18.

Not that he ever imagined it any other way.

"Oh yeah, I feel like my teammates look at me as the leader of this team," James said. "And, I mean, that's always what I've been to any team I've been on and that's a leader. Yeah, I do, to answer your question....

"I don't think [it was strange] because I've been doing it so long. I've been a leader of a bunch of basketball teams. Even at a younger age, my teammates looked for me to make plays and looked for me to lead and to help them. And I've been able to do that."

This is your basic James interview, a matter-of-fact statement of supreme confidence. Little personality leaks out, although James has another persona when no one's around and that one, at least, acts 21, as when he plays with the fancy toy cars that zoom around the halls of Quicken Loans Arena.

He has a sense of humor too. In a recent game, he complained about being hacked on a shot to referee Steve Javie, who asked how he even got the ball to the rim. Smiling, James flexed one of his big biceps and pointed to it.

The hard part is figuring out whether he's the Cavaliers' leader, their ward, or both. At Christmas, when everyone wanted the new Xbox, Drew Gooden joked, "LB [James' nickname] has got that but he doesn't play that stuff. He's 40."

"He's wise beyond his age and he understands what it takes to get wins," said 29-year-old Damon Jones, who was the veteran assigned as James' counselor in the 2003 rookie transition program, "and that's all that matters in this game."

Of course, when you come up the way James did, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, you grow up fast. His coach, Dru Joyce, who took the team on a national tour, was vibrating like a tuning fork by the middle of James' senior season, but James loved it.

"Everyone looked at it like it was crazy but I didn't feel it," James said. "I didn't let it bother me. It didn't bother my teammates. I didn't let it bother my teammates because they knew it wasn't just about me and I couldn't do it without them....

"I've never wanted to be isolated from anybody because of my personality. I love being around people. For me to be isolated had never entered my mind."

He's being modest. The hubbub was totally about him and he noticed, occasionally yelling, "King James!" after dunks. Sneaker companies flew his mother, Gloria, around the nation. Magazines vied to tell his story. Cable TV networks showed his games and picked up more when they drew big ratings.

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