Sports Nut

The Dawn of LeBron

Cleveland’s new phenom, glimpsed in midflight.

Headband and shoulders above the rest

Unlike baseball, on which maundering aphorisms hang like the gravid blossoms of eternal springtime—oops, there goes one now—there are only two quotes worth remembering about basketball. This is the first one. Jim Carroll once said that, in basketball, you can correct your mistakes immediately and beautifully, and in midair. So, with that thought in mind, about midway through the second quarter of a game the other night between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, I was convinced.

The Cavaliers, a hopeless collection of NBA debris with one startling exception, managed to shake loose a fast break. LeBron James broke out down the right lane, two steps ahead of every defender except one—an earnest Boston center named Tony Battie, who has a lot of pop in his legs and very little else. James got the ball and swung toward the basket, obviously intending to dunk his way onto the 2,467thSportsCenter highlight of his barely postnatal professional career. Battie went up to meet him, and he had the dunk blocked cold.

Except that, somewhere around Battie’s sternum, James found a second stage. He rose just a little more—or maybe he just stayed aloft a splinter of time longer, it was hard to tell—and the dunk turned into a feathery, flossy finger roll that drifted over Battie’s hand and through the hoop. Immediately. Beautifully. And in midair.

LeBron James did nothing the rest of the night. Watching him learn the game amid the sad flotsam of the Cavs is like watching someone do Shakespeare with the Ritz Brothers. But that moment was enough. In over 30 years of watching basketball, I’ve seen three players capable of making that adjustment and that shot: Julius Erving, David Thompson, and Michael Jordan—three players who succeeded each other into uncharted aerial regions the way that the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects did.

It was a liberating moment. There was an awful lot of commercial dross and promotional foofaraw for LeBron to leave back there on the ground. I already knew about the $90 million he’d made from Nike before he’d even played a game for the Cavaliers, who will be paying him a mere $10.8 million over the next three seasons. I already knew about the muddled home life and the Hummer that he drove to high school. I watched him as he became a wholly owned subsidiary of ESPN—or was it the other way around?—over last season, and how that horrified the academic sensibilities of my more delicate colleagues, many of whom affected great horror that LeBron declined to serve an unpaid apprenticeship on behalf of some overpaid bully of a college coach.

I already knew that he was being touted as the NBA’s new transcendent star, that, somehow, his arrival had rendered passé the careers of such marvelous old geezers as, say, Orlando’s Tracy McGrady or Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, or those of such fossils as Allen Iverson in Philadelphia or The Big Aristotle His Big Old Self in Los Angeles. At which point, I found myself meditating on Karl Malone and pondering the utility of carbon-14 dating.

I hadn’t even turned a hair when, before the game, the courtside seats at the FleetCenter in Boston suddenly became awash in suburban tots wearing his jersey. I’d been seeing that on the streets of every city I’d visited for the past eight months. I swore I even saw his shirt on an Airedale in Louisville last week.

I knew everything about him, it seemed, except how he could play.

Hence, when the game actually started, and the dreadful Cavaliers threw it up against the mediocre Boston Celtics, there was something quite pure and basic about considering LeBron James in the context of one forgettable basketball game on one forgettable night. After all, this is the grist of his career—another city on another road trip, half the team hacking and coughing and giving the flu to the other half, cold buses and chilly arenas, with the hockey ice exhaling a frost up through the spaces in the floorboards.

“This was the first time we played in a place with the ice underneath,” he said later. “It was really cold when we came out to warm up.”

His game is modest. That’s the first thing you notice about him. He doesn’t force anything, unlike his teammate Darius Miles, the up-from-high-school sensation of a couple of years back who looks as though he’ll never learn that simplest of all rookie lessons. James’ jump shot is still an inconsistent jumble of mismatched motions, but he doesn’t press it, either. His vision and his sense of the game’s rhythms, however, are exquisitely mature and damned near flawless. If some of the Cavaliers don’t get accustomed to that part of his game, James is going to kill one of them some night with a pass.

This modesty puts him in a strange position. In keeping faith with himself as a player, he betrays himself as an event. Nobody came to the arena that night to watch LeBron James fit into the flow of the flotsam around him, modestly finding shots for Ricky Davis, Cleveland’s other putative star, a gunner whose compatibility with James cannot possibly last much past Valentine’s Day. And there is some indication that James’ reluctance to step forward is going to be allowed only the briefest of shelf lives.

“We’re still looking for someone to step up and make plays when we need them,” said Cleveland coach Paul Silas, and it was quite plain that he probably wasn’t referring to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, or Miles, or Ricky Davis.

“I don’t mind the attention,” LeBron says, for what is plainly not the first time, or even the hundredth one. “It means that my teammates get the spotlight, too.” That is the right and good thing for him to say, even if his teammates wait on the bus while he works the barriers, signing the last 50 autographs of the evening. And anyone who has a problem with that didn’t see him come off the baseline that way, and didn’t see that second stage ignite, and has a problem with the only other basketball quote that matters.

“Basketball cannot be coached. It can only be played.”

Dr. James Naismith said it. Print that on your throwback jersey.