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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Updated: December 30, 11:52 AM ET
Birthday gifts from King James

By Eric Neel
Page 2

Dear LeBron,

I hear it's your birthday. Happy 20th.

Let's see, at 20 I was a skinny, self-conscious sophomore English major working at a record store and playing pick-up ball in the afternoons. My idea of pressure was filling a midterm blue book, recommending the right Art Ensemble of Chicago record to a choosy jazz fan, and winning the first game at the gym so I could run again in the second.

Can't quite imagine your world, Mr. James. Can't quite understand how you do what you do night in and night out.

But I can appreciate it.

So, before you get to work on the roaring twenties, I just wanted to take a quick timeout to say thanks for the sensational teens.

Thanks for bringing the pass back, Man -- for knowing the pass, the giving-up-to-get-back, is the essence of the game -- and for understanding that it's the pass that raises hoops from prose to poetry. You're changing highlight culture, as we speak, making little touches and kick-backs the stuff of modern-day ooohs and aaahs. And more than that, you're trickling down. There are kids on the playground in my neighborhood working on that sweeping cuff pass you throw on the run and into the post. Your style is spreading, like "memes." Like a healthy virus, your passes are passing from one young player's hands to another.

Thanks for the full line most every night. Thanks for making me feel like maybe I have some idea now of what it was like to see the young Oscar lace 'em up.

LeBron James
LeBron already has provided us with plenty of highlights, and he just turned 20.
Thanks for sending me back through the tapes and pages of my Magic Johnson archive. I saw you the other night on the receiving end of a McInnis lob, and you rose up to it, but instead of dunking you tipped it back. The defender dislocated three vertebra, and that was before McInnis went poster all over him. I looked at that, and the athleticism of it was all you. But the idea of it, the way it turned a known play into something new, reminded me of three-card-monty tricks Magic played on Fat Lever once upon a time. I don't know if you've studied him, or if he's just in you, like a ghost of fastbreaks past, or if maybe you're an avatar, like he was, of some high form of generosity, vision, and pure fun. But I know you echo him, and better yet, I know you're taking his game as a jumping off point, as just a hint of where we could be headed.

Thanks for keeping quiet about Larry and the lost summer in Athens, and for driving that story and that feeling down deep into the rock with a 25.2/7.3/7.1 hammer. You took it personal, which is good, but you didn't make it individual, which is brilliant. You took that hit (to the ego and the rep) and you came back from it on fire, but you didn't go Stallone in "Cobra," or even "Rocky," so much as Stallone in "F.I.S.T," the leader of a troupe, one big middle finger on the hand that smacks Brown and his "veteran leadership is key" approach back into the dark ages.

Too Young to be This Good
With LeBron leaving his teenage years, we'd thought find out who have been the best 20-year-old athletes of all time. There's a reason they called Wayne Gretzky the "Great One."

Thanks for the ups, the way ups, the "Honey, come here, look at this, you have to see this guy jump ... right ... here ... aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh! Isn't that amazing? You have to admit that's pretty freaking amazing!" ups.

Thanks for the smiling.

Thanks for the Slick Watts chic.

Thanks for bringing Cleveland back. Drew Carey thanks you. Foots Walker thanks you. Ozzie Newsome thanks you. Lou Boudreau thanks you. Mouse McFadden thanks you. And Nigel Tufnel thanks you, too.

Thanks for unearthing the Drew Gooden that Jerry West must have thought he was drafting.

Thanks for letting a bit of your spotlight fall on Zydrunas, too. We had no idea.

Thanks for closing out the game against the Nets earlier this month by holding up and dribbling out the clock when you could have gone in for a gratuitous dunk in a 103-97 win.

LeBron James
Sure, LeBron can score -- but many of his most exciting plays are assists.
Thanks for the rock-em-sock-em-robots clash with KG last week. A year ago, maybe he takes that game away from you. A year ago, maybe you don't come in with about two minutes to go and hit a floater and a fade and go on a little run that cements the thing. But this year you do, and you do it in a legitimacy game, in a game that says, "y'all better take us seriously now." I confess, at the start of the season, I had some doubts about exactly how much of a difference you could make this year, but after the Wolves game, I'm thinking differently. Thanks for straightening me out.

And most of all, thanks for doing what you do, for being as good, and as uniquely styled (somehow both old school and new), as you are, so soon. We had expectations. We had hopes. But they weren't reasonable. They were anxious and they seemed unrealistic. But you've met and exceeded most every one of them, which has been this great basketball gift, right, because not only have you given us some genuine Jack Buck ("I do not believe what I just saw") hoops, but you've also given us this sense, the way Magic, Larry, and MJ did, that we're here for the start of something, for the start of a thing with legs, for the start of an era, a time.

I don't know if you'll be able to sustain it, and like I wrote earlier this season, I don't know what obstacles and weirdnesses might jam you up along the way, but in the meantime, thanks for the feeling. It's a galvanizing thing. It makes us all excited about NBA basketball. It pulls us in, makes us gather 'round. We've been without for a while. It's good to have it back.

Thanks for that.

And happy birthday.

Hope you get as good as you give.

Your friend in hoops,
Basketball Jones

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His Basketball Jones column will appear each Wednesday during the NBA season.