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Friday, July 11, 2003
Updated: July 18, 8:57 PM ET
The mad game of King James

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Can't exactly say when it first hit me, that LeBron James actually had two games he was playing, and at the world's highest level, right away. It didn't dawn right away that he was already winning both. Big.

I didn't realize his two total games were this total, or this tight.

Clues were around. They just weren't around me. Or so I didn't think.

LeBron James
A lot of youngsters believe those LeBron jerseys possess magical powers.
For the past few months, I'd seen James' Sign, here and there, even around my primary post, in northeastern Orlando, Florida. So I guess this diary is a little like Lt. John Dunbar's diary in "Dances With Wolves," only not as long, hopefully. We'll see where it goes. Anyway, the sign of LeBron's First Game was just down the street from the RDV Sportsplex, where the Orlando Magic nest; where the Heat, the Wolves, the Bucks, the Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James played Pepsi summer league games this week, off a nondescript stretch of Florida state highway. Someone -- undoubtedly some young kid -- had tagged an electric traffic signal relay box with black spray paint, way, way back in April sometimes. I didn't get it, at first.

The tag was a six-foot high diamond shape, with a "23" inside it.

No name. No other identifying marks.

Took me a few weeks to figure it out. But then, I'm not 18.

Then, last Tuesday, during the day before that night's first Pepsi summer league game, to be held at the T.D. Waterhouse Center, the former O-rena, the first game LeBron James was to play under the auspices of the league, I saw this pudgy little kid, no more than eight, racially nondescript, hurling himself around at a summer basketball camp at RDV Sportsplex. He wore a small LeBron Cavs 23 replica jersey, possibly bootlegged -- white jersey, maroon trim. Not the kind that sold out in a half-hour at $75 a whop at the game later that night. So I looked at this eight-year-old kid and said, "Look at Shorty, got on his LeBron hook-up." I thought he might blush, or smile and beam proudly, or laugh, or do something otherwise predictable.

This pudgy little kid didn't smile, he didn't frown, he looked at me straight up and down, confidently, the way LeBron looks at everybody, even though, as LeBron says, he knows, "I'm going to be challenged by everything and everybody, on and off the court." It was weird. I probably should say it was weird to me. The kid looked like one of the "Children of the Corn" or something. It was as if the jersey -- and the 18-year-old who inspired it -- had liberated him, the way gamma rays freed Dr. Bruce Banner. This kid looked at me as if to imply, "You don't know me, or what I can do. You can't know. But I know. He's us. We're him. Yeah, you showed me your Michael Jordan. I see the clips of Michael Jordan. You say Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, but he's not mine. This is mine."

Such kids caused their families to drive from Miami, or Tampa, or just from down the block, for the chance to see LeBron James play in a game where five bucks could get them in, if they got there in time. So they did.

And it wasn't just the kids getting caught up, or the adults who consider themselves fans of hoop. It was NBA scouts, who had appeared like so many mushroom caps after rain. There was Paul Silas, coach of the Cavs.

"He's ... unworried," said Paul Silas, shaking his head. Silas went to high school at McClymonds High in West Oakland, good old Mack, where it seems everybody athletic and from Oakland went to school sometimes. Sometimes people even say I went to Mack. I don't correct them, either, although I went to Memphis Melrose, but that's another story.

Paul Silas played for the legendary Paul Harless, who taught him many things about the two games -- the game of basketball and of life. Silas moved on into Celtic lore. I can still see him, moving so lightly for a man so wide, carving out space with that barrel chest and those tiny ankles, never scoring much, never needing to score much, because winning is about so much more than scoring. "After watching him, I could see -- this kid can play. Really play," he says of LeBron. Now Silas is a man who hadn't decided if half of the roster he coached into the playoffs for the fourth straight year with the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets could play, before he was fired after last season. He knew he'd done a good job. He kept his poise, praised his ex-employer, and moved on. Then this comes along. Coaching LeBron James is like Paul Silas's Irving Thalberg, his Lifetime Achievement Award.

LeBron James
James' game scores with Old Schoolers and New Schoolers alike, giving him Total Cred.
I tell him I'm glad the Gunds had sense enough to hire him.

"So, I decided to put him at point. We didn't have one. I saw immediately he could bring it up, and get us into our stuff, and how the other guys loved playing with him. And with his ability to see the court, and pass the ball, with his length, what he'll be able to do for a player like (Darius) Miles ..."

Silas' voice trailed off and he looked away, probably to keep from giggling like a schoolgirl. "... and I'm sure for Ricky Davis too ... and I think I can do something with Desagana (Diop, a 7-0, 300 pound 21-year-old). All he lacks is confidence. LeBron has no lack of that. He's so quick..."Plus, he and his game are old school ... you'll see."

Yes. That became the operative word of the first Pepsi summer league game, that was played in front of more than 15,000, including many kids like that eight-year-old who had looked at me like he invented the game of basketball. Entire families came. Entire youth teams -- girls and boys -- came. Ought to have a $5 summer league Come Get Some LeBron tour for all the people who can't afford regular season and playoff tickets in every NBA city. Maybe next year.

The first thing I saw in his basketball game, his First Game, once in action, was that he is quick -- abominably, tuning-fork quick. After he'd gotten knocked on his can in the lane by 280-pound Alton Ford on a cross-screen against the Magic scrubbinis, he bounced up like he was made of rubber, which he appeared to be most of the time, and went to work. Went back into in the lane, setting up a pop-out move from behind a Boozer screen. Feinted the out cut, went back door. Most 6-8 guys, they have some plod to them, a degree of mechanical movement. James faked out and back cut at the same speed as, say, Calvin Murphy or Isiah Thomas might have done it; like a blur, and there was no way possible for the defender to stick. His name was Derrick Dial, and he was busy trying to climb over Boozer to get outside to LeBron, while LeBron was laying the ball into the basket. Sheesh!

By the end of the quarter, the score was 31-16 Cavs and LeBron had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists. True, he was playing with D. Miles, Diop, Dajuan Wagner and Boozer, while the Magic countered with slag and two nice rookies in backcourt, No. 1 pick Reece Gaines and Keith Bogans. Those noble (and broke) four-year college seniors were both older than all four Cavs, even though three are regular-season starters. Boozer and Miles, at 21, are the eldest of them by far. I've heard of youth movements, and am currently writing about one, but this is absurd. James' core teammates are quite young. And his constituency is young. The 8-to-18 market is his. It's not a matter of street cred. It's a matter of Total Cred. And he has it.

I began to see what Silas meant by "old school," in terms of his total hoop game. See, we live in a Quick Clip culture, a SportsCenter highlight culture; it's not just the players, it's the commentators, the writers, the broadcasters, and the fans -- it's everybody. It's life. A single I-dunked-on-you-with-the-hammer-of-Thor move and replayed highlight -- like the one 6-10 Utah alum Britton Johnsen got over LeBron in the second half -- is worth a thousand words, and a memory, maybe a lifetime memory, and maybe even a 10-day contract later. People jump out of their seats and talk about it afterward and wait for the replay on SportsCenter. And when a player like T-Mac or Kobe takes over an NBA game, he doesn't do it with the pass, the essential move in hoop, if that pass leads to a basket. He does it with the score, preferably via the twisted tomahawking throw-down dunk. Because that causes the arena to explode in sound. That invigorates his teammates. That's what moves the people so their eyes shine. Because that's what they show on SportsCenter. Because that ... is life.

Right away, I can see that somehow LeBron's game is different. The passes he threw out of the called sets were crisp, straight, had pace, were on a string, or were drop-passes bounced inside. He sees so well you want him with the ball. In the open court. he came down on a 3-on-2, then on a 2-on-1, then on a 2-on-2. He ball-faked left and passed right for a score on the first sortie, then looked-away left and no-look passed right on the second run, and then pulled up for a j on the 2-on-2. Like it is.

DeSagana Diop
The Cavs hope DeSagana Diop and the rest of their kids grow up as quickly as LeBron does.
You know how you can watch a game, especially a summer league game, or a regular season NBA game, or a D-1 game, if you can stand it, and end up saying, during the flow of play, "No ... no ... aw, no, that's no good, naw, that ain't it ... Man, if I was only 20 again ..." Well, as I watched James play his first quasi-NBA action, I found myself thinking, "Yes ... yes ... yes ... OhmiGod! ... Yes ... yes ... incredible ... Yes."

I saw what Paul Silas meant about old school.

So the hoop game, the First Game of LeBron James, is pretty tight.

The Second Game of King James, the human personal interaction game, the cultural phenomenon of LeBron, might be even tighter. There's basketball, then there's beyond basketball, to celebrity, the game of the curious hope that celebrities bring to peoples' lives, the game of that tagged electric relay box, the game of a confident 8-year-old who had something that is his now, the game of human connection, especially youthful human connection.

LeBron actually started skipping when he came out on the court for the pre-game warmups for his first quasi-NBA action, the game between the Cavs young NBA players and the Orlando Magic's true summer leaguers. Oklahoma's former point guard, Hollis Price, and UCLA gunner Jason Kapono were also dressed out for the Cavs summer team. So with Gaines and Bogans, you had four high-quality NCAA performers, All-American candidates, all four-year men, every one of them older than all four of the Cavs' Sweet Baby James crew of Boozer, Miles, Wagner and LeBron. None of them was as fully developed as a basketball player, neither physically nor mentally, as LeBron. I mean, it wasn't close.

He skipped out there. That's how happy he was to be out in front of a crowd like this, playing. His agent Aaron Goodwin was more worried about this sort of impromptu performance. LeBron was "unworried." The crowd was glad to see him. It was like the George Bellows painting, "Both members of this Club," of two fighters engaged. The revealing beauty of it is in the various faces Bellows rendered of the people watching at ringside.

LeBron skipped over to the layup line -- over to the rebounding side of the line. Now what does this tell you? Nothing, maybe. It was 50-50 he be on either side, one or the other. But maybe he chose to go to the rebounding and passing side first. What was it Silas had said about old school -- he would rather give the ball up. His shot is the breakdown option, the last option. The other players sense it; so no problem at all with him running point, even though sure, right now, he might be pressable, for a minute, until he adjusts to the pace of the game, the size and strength of the participants. Actually, he can finally let loose; he is in his element now.

Looking at his rack, the unbroken ridges of muscle run up one arm, across his back and the base of his neck, then down the other arm, he already has all of the physical armor and armaments that will be necessary to protect his old school mentality from being worn down by getting knocked on its ass occasionally.

"A pass, a rebound, a block, some D, maybe a couple of shots, whatever I have to do to help the team," he'd say later.

He and D-Miles put on couple of pre-game showcase dunks, then D-Miles keeps it going. They are like two frisky puppies. And Miles has been very willing to go along for this ride, in both games, of hoop and the coinage of the pop cultural icon, astutely comparing James to Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, saying, "Players like that make other players get max contracts." Hanging out with his boy, too. Silas had half-turned away to make his point when I asked him about LeBron's impact on Miles, and Miles' game of hoop. I didn't ask about the second game. LeBron impacts the other, too; there's a new life and energy in Miles, who suffered in his banishment from L.A. to Cleveland because nobody paid any attention to the Cavs, and he couldn't really get his game off. He could attack, but he couldn't get it into the attack zone himself, and no one else required the D to move their way, then looked at him. The old Cavs, the light blue Cavs, as bad as they were, had given the fans good reason not to care or show up.

But now ... Miles does another freak show dunk. Here comes LeBron. The crowd buzzes with a building roar. A hoop crowd is a live thing at a game when they are truly engaged, in its reaction to a monster dunk over someone, or some other wildly athletic culmination to a play. The fans are new school, too. There is something about living in the moment. So the crowd itself also reflects the new school -- that collective roar, shout, affirmation, whatever it is, draws the human attention as much as the play itself. Old school begats new school.

So. LeBron just flips it up there instead of dunking, doesn't even jump. The crowd says, "Awww," about being teased, but LeBron smiles and everybody smiles, or very nearly, because everybody gets it at once: It's a lover's tease. They love him. The scattered good-natured boos are also a tease. He smiles again, there is chuckling and laughter, a low hum throughout. Get this guy.

LeBron James
LeBron James may have a tough time finding shots this season.
The moves, the quickness. That's the key. No, a key. He has several. The strength. The awareness. If he can't get you one way, he'll get you another. It is astounding to see an 18-year-old look like not just a man, be physically outfitted like a man, and not just a man, but as a man among men. Total body control, then to add a grasp of the game that goes far beyond the heads of men 10 years older? It is true, he needs to work on his handle, his D, his shot, especially the deep shot, the 3-ball, but the point is, all that is already there to be improved upon. It's not like he doesn't have it, and in NBA All-Star starter proportion. Yes, there will be games when he goes 2-for-9 and scores nine and gets busted by somebody like Stef or J-Kidd. But then, there won't be that many of those nights, and there aren't that many of those guys, and what few there are, they'll be gone in a few years, and he'll have grown by then anyway, and ... but there are many crowd affirmations, shout-outs, passes, turnovers and fly-by dunks to go, between now and then.

Forget the destination. It's the journey.

Totals. 14-7-6. 107-80, Cavs.

Press conference.

"Stamina," he said, when asked what stood out to him about what was needed.

Then he came in and did 30 minutes for the choked media room with ease, and could've done 30 more. D-Miles joined him on the platform. I've never seen more people stuffed into it, even for a NBA playoff game.

It's a summer league game!

That part of the LeBron craze is about the Second Game of King James.

When Jackie MacMullen of the Boston Globe, considering LeBron's tweaked right calf muscle, asks if he thinks he will play in the summer league up Boston way next week, and in which games (the games are held at U-Mass-Amherst, I think -- the on-campus gymnasium was sold out in like 45 minutes, they say -- all four days of it), LeBron answers that he just knows he'll play there. He knows he has a family wedding to go to this weekend, and somebody like ESPN has been known to try and bust a move and get a LeBron James to next week's ESPYs too, still not really realizing what we have yet. The down-on-the-ground movement toward LeBron James is such that when he is around, you can sense the floor moving toward him, sort of like a black hole effect or something, only in a good way. You hope you're being drawn into something good, but you know that's entirely up to him.

"I'll be there," he says, "and maybe we'll have a tea party." He smiles at Jackie and at the room. Now, they'll write what they have to write, but they can't deny the magnetism. Yet he is not really theirs, like he is to the young ones, like the 8-year-old, that little punk. I'm smiling as I write that.

When LeBron wheeled in an equipment foot locker before the game, doing his rookie duty and being neither surly nor obsequious about it, he had said, "This? Nah. This is for my jewelry," immediately trumping and topping any line about whether the footlocker held his wallet. He just has it, and what he has, you can't teach it. In that way, he has more Ali in him than Jordan.

"We were going to give him media training sessions, had them already set up," said Aaron Goodwin, who fretted about LeBron playing so fast in front of so many, among other things. "He said, 'I don't need that. I already know what to say.' "

LeBron James
King James' first edict is to make his teammates better.
"He has been groomed for this since he was in the ninth grade. Even before," said Branson Wright, the Cavs beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Wright has been on the Cavs' beat for a couple years, has seen his face at the bottom of the well. Now he will see the complete 180 -- he's going from covering pure NBA desolation in winter for a populace that had disengaged, to traveling with the world greatest band -- and reporting on it to a populace that is, if not hanging on your every word, at least reading them regularly. Tends to perk you up.

The second day of the Orlando Pepsi summer league was pretty perky.

Coming to the Magic's RDV small practice gym: Danny Ainge, J-Will White Chocolate Jason Williams, Warren Sapp (since Daunte Culpepper and his guy Mason Ashe had been there the night before), Lynn Merritt of Nike, Aaron Goodwin (his brother Edwin was in L.A.), Larry Brown, Joe Dumars, Pat Riley, Jim Paxson, many members of the media, particularly the writing corps, including by my count five from the greater Cleveland area, including the estimable Terry Pluto, Tree Rollins, Pete Myers, Pat Williams, Johnny Davis, etc., etc., that's not to mention Tony Ronzone, the best international scout out there, and Darko, mighty Darko, all 7-feet-1 3/4 of Darko, sitting pensively, waiting for his overseas contract to be ameliorated, with a frosted blonde tip dye job. Darko wants to stand up and kiss you on both cheeks even if you are just giving him a fist bump or five on the black hand side -- if not for LeBron James, he's a dream No. 1 pick in the draft -- and that's not even to mention Tyronn Lue, and more scouts, and even more scouts, and that's not to mention ESPN crews, and local TV, including Ryan Baker, who made a connection with LeBron, and got the first one-on-one with him when the Cavs hit town, just the kind of thing that is vitally important in a who's-got-the-best-bite-and-quick-visual school. That's the new school we're in now.

So far, you'd have to say LeBron fits into it all rather well, and without having to try to fit in, or resenting it much, but representing plenty, without getting caught up in his own Me-ness. The game's come to him, big-time.

So far he brings an old school vibe into a quick-hit world.

Sharp kid. Hope this sticks. Because the train's already left the station. Or, to be slightly more apt, the starship's already left the launching pad.

Get ready, Boston.

Heads, New York and L.A.

Better bow up, Indiana.

Cleveland's got your Big Shoulders right here, Chicago.

Two Games of King James. They're coming. They're real.

And it's happening right now.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."