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Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Which future icon would you rather be?

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Who are you? Are you the cool craft and sharp tongue of Ali, or the deliberate piston-punch and fierce scowl of Joe Frazier? Who are you? The swagger and gun of Bradshaw or the on-the-fly composure of Staubach? Who are you? Andre's grit or Pete's efficiency? And most important of all, who are you? Are you Magic's smile or Larry's stare?

Carmelo Anothony & LeBron James
Carmelo's in the foreground of this picture -- but who'll be in the foreground in their first matchup?
When we're talking icons, we're not talking about who you like or who you root for. We're talking about who you want to be, who you see yourself in, who you want others to see in you, who gets hold of your imagination and takes over the way you think, move, and feel.

And yeah, it's early, and yeah, there's a hype machine like no hype machine we've ever seen before running mad in the streets; but make no mistake, when we're talking LeBron and Carmelo, we're talking icons in the making.

So with one short week in the '03 books, and with their first showdown underway (ESPN, 8 p.m EST), it's time to start asking yourself: Who you gonna be? Bron-Bron or Melo?

Reasons to be LeBron after Week One:

-- Some men are born great, some men become great, and some men have greatness thrust upon them. And then there's these other men, these men who rise up, all supernatural-like, out of the dad-gummest swamp of expectations and pressure the basketball world has ever known, and shake off the mud like it was never even there, drop in 25 of the cleanest points you'd ever want to see, and kick in nine shiny assists and six squeaky boards just for good measure.

-- The only thing harder than meeting (I mean blowing the doors off of) expectations the first night is sustaining them (I mean pumping them up) the second night. And 18.0, 7.3, and 7.7 after three? In the words of the immortal James Cromwell, "That'll do, pig. That'll do."

-- Vets like Bobby Jackson, who you know wanted nothing more than to D him up and shut him down, coming off the court saying stuff like, I can see why people are so high on him. A little thing called instant credibility. A little thing called in-with-the-in-crowd.

LeBron James
LeBron has been impressive, particularly when dropping dimes.
-- The Nike spot. When he freezes with the ball and the arena comes to a standstill, the kid isn't just saying, "I'm bearing up." He's saying, "I'm bigger than this." It's a bold statement, and some will say he has to back it up on the floor (so far, so good); but forget the numbers, because the spot isn't about him, it's about us, about how we've lost our ever-lovin' minds thinking this is all such a big deal. He scores 20 a night, or two a night, and he's got that right.

-- People, fans steeped deep in the rhythms and soul of Dr. Naismith's game, want this time to be an exciting time in the hoops historical record. They believe in LeBron. More than that, they hope for him. That's got to feel good.

-- The unselfish leave for Ricky Davis on the breakaway. (I'd say something about why this was such a good thing, but I don't want to muck it up. I just want to see it on tape another two dozen times.)

-- Alley-oops.

-- His style: It's a strong man's style. His muscles are squared, unhurried, and efficient. He gets to space, he creates space, like it's always already there for him. Defenders are nowhere near him. He's in the game, but not exactly of it, the way Bunyan was in the woods, flicking aside trunks like they were toothpicks.

Reasons not to be:

-- The Cavs are 0-3, which means, you know, he clearly doesn't know how to win.

-- The new shoes, which were apparently hatched in some super-secret laboratory in the Arctic Circle, and which come ready-made with the Hummer in-joke that's also a corporate tie-in, are, um, how to say this? Pretty ugly.

-- Everybody's doing it. And you don't want to be like everybody else. You want to be your own man. You want to be, like, Dwyane Wade or somebody.

Reasons to be Carmelo after Week One:

-- Come on in the slipstream, the water is nice. Mick has the lips and the hips, but Keith has the licks, you know what I'm saying? Sometimes second ain't second, it's 1A. Sometimes second comes with less of the glitz, but it comes with less of the pressure, too. Sometimes it's the heart of the matter off in a little pocket of not-quite-spotlight, stage-right. Twenty-three, six, and five against the Kings? That's some of that tasty, uh-uh-uh guitar-work out of Keith, baby.

-- 17.7, 7.3, and 3.3 after three. Cue the dueling banjos.

Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony has been flying pretty high in his first few NBA games.
-- The blur. Just about every Anthony highlight this week features him on the run. The basketball gods made him fast; and when he runs, he can feel their pleasure. The game is its best, its most divine self, at high speed and in constant motion. Melo picks 'em up and puts 'em down and the game flows through him when he does. If LeBron's style is composed, even in its most loosey-goosey, up-and-under, dipsy-do moments, Carmelo's is relentless; it comes rushing like water through a hole in the side of the ship.

-- Everyone wears long shorts, and everyone's long shorts sway, but Carmelo's sway just a little bit more freely. Is it the thin air of Denver? Is it the silky new Nugget uniforms? No sir, it's just plain, old-fashioned, there's-a-new-sheriff-in-town swagger, is what it is. You can see it in his shorts, you can see it in his smile, you can see it in the way he goes right at guys who've been at this for years.

-- Mid-range jumpers.

-- Two wins (and one of them against the defending champs, if you please). Gaudy stats are nice; dazzling passes are good; dunks, we like those, too. But nothing compares to the sweet nectar of victory, the decanted blood of your enemy set before you in a glistening silver chalice awaiting your giddy, trembling lips. Alas, poor LeBron, it's a Carmelo thing, you wouldn't understand ...

-- That first step in the post. There are analogs for this kind of quick -- Rickey on his way to first, circa 1989; Sheffield's bat through the zone; Walt Frazier catching flies on the fly (look it up), Kenneth Lay out the backdoor at Enron -- but not many.

-- Right now, all over America, kids on playgrounds, guys waiting for buses, and old women in quilting circles are saying exactly the same thing: "LeBron, yes, LeBron is great; but I'll tell you that Anthony kid impressed me this week, too. He's special." LeBron's a known story from the get. Carmelo's got buzz.

Reasons not to be:

-- That 1-for-13 on Tuesday night, which was, someone has to say it ... painful on a Starksian scale.

-- You gotta factor in some serious time in your schedule to get the braids just right.

-- This one will be true this week and every week: the words "Western Conference" up above where it says "Midwest Division" in the newspaper. Because that's Western Conference as in Spurs, Lakers, Mavs and Kings, which makes it Western Conference as in wins, they don't come easy, and the playoffs, they might never come at all ...

At the end of the first go-round, and just before the first tete-a-tete, it's tight, it's a push.

I couldn't blame you if you wanted to wait a while to decide who your guy is, but I think your better bet is just to pick one, be one.

It's only one week. But from the looks of things, you can't go wrong.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.