Signed, sealed and delivered, LeBron is 21
A sweaty Team USA practice has ended inside UNLV's Cox Pavilion, and players are plopping down on chairs, untying laces and toweling off.
LeBron James slips off his signature Nikes and yells, to no one in particular, "I need five bags of ice!"
Three chairs over, Dwyane Wade shoots LeBron a sly look and retorts: "That's because you're 30 years old!"
It's not the first time LeBron's pal Wade has used the joke. Just a month ago, he made similar comments during the NBA Finals when the topic of James' frequent text messages came up.
It seems Wade isn't entirely persuaded that James could be three years his junior.
"No way I buy he's 21," Wade said. "Show me that birth certificate, that's what I want."
Well, Dwyane, you're in luck. ESPN.com has obtained a copy of James' official birth certificate from the State of Ohio Office of Vital Statistics and compared it with records from the City of Akron Department of Public Health.
Sure enough, sealed and certified, LeBron Raymone James was born to Gloria Marie James on Dec. 30, 1984.
He's 21 now and was 18 when he played his first NBA game.
When James debuted in the NBA in 2003, many wondered how his chiseled, highly developed physique could belong to a teenager. Many besides Wade have voiced their suspicions.
• Tracy McGrady: "Damn, man. You sure he is 21? We've got to check his birth certificate."
• Sekou Smith, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Um, can I see LeBron James' birth certificate please?"
• Stephen A. Smith, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Just looking at him makes you want to check his birth certificate."
• Bomani Jones, ESPN.com's Page 2: "I still wonder if there's a little Almonte on his birth certificate."
That would be Danny Almonte, the star pitcher whose parents insisted he was 12 when he pitched his Bronx team into the Little League World Series. When official documents and records showed Almonte was actually 14, his pitching records were removed and his team forfeited its third-place finish.
Besides the Almonte affair, other age scandals in baseball also have helped create the climate of suspicion about other precocious athletes, such as James. When a player like Rafael Furcal turns out to be 22 when he debuted in the big leagues, instead of 19 as originally believed, we might start to wonder what to believe when LeBron does the unbelievable.
On the other hand, it's not clear what opportunity or incentive LeBron James would have to lie about his age. For one thing, his birth is a matter of public record in Ohio. And it seems unlikely that James would need to appear younger than he is, especially when such a maneuver actually would have delayed his entry into the NBA, considering James was ready to make the jump even earlier than he did.
Still, the questions are there, mainly because James simply looks older than he is.
"Everyone knows how old I am, y'all been following me around since I was 15," James said, noting he didn't get carded once while enjoying Vegas' adult offerings. "Some people age and grow differently than others."
As a high school freshman, James was shaving, and he was always tall for his age -- standing nearly 6 feet, 4 inches at age 14. But he didn't look older than his classmates at that stage, and in some ways he was a late bloomer, considering his development now.
"There were several players on our team [for whom] we had to carry their birth certificates around because other teams would want to see them, but LeBron wasn't one of them," said Dru Joyce, who coached James in AAU and in high school. "But you could always tell he was going to grow more because of his long legs and big feet."
When James was a pimple-faced 16-year-old, he started showing muscle definition, and he arrived taller and stronger at his first ABCD Camp in New Jersey and won its Most Valuable Player Award.
But it was later, when James became a regular on local and national television, that questions about his age began to be whispered. When he reported for his first NBA training camp, his squared jaw, broad shoulders and refined muscles further opened eyes.
"It's because he's a once-in-50-year athlete," said Eric Lichter, the well-known personal trainer James worked with starting when he was 17.
Lichter, who is now the strength and conditioning coach for the Ohio State football team, used to operate a private practice in Cleveland where he trained numerous pro athletes, including Nene, Leandro Barbosa and Antonio Gates. Although he didn't usually work with high school athletes, he took on James as a special case after the player's junior year of high school.
At the time, James had done almost no weight training but realized he needed to become stronger, knowing he would be facing a highly competitive senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary and a jump to the NBA shortly thereafter.
"LeBron did sit-ups and push-ups, and he was very faithful to it," Joyce said. "But once he started working with weights, you could just see his body take to the training."
Lichter said he weighed James in at 228 pounds at the start of a 16-week program. By the time they were done, James was 10 pounds heavier, jumping higher and running faster as his arms and legs became stronger and thicker. He has maintained roughly the same weight since, along with his muscle mass in working with the Cavs trainers. He is listed at 6-8, 240 pounds.
"When I first met him, I was amazed at his bone structure and I looked to improve his wing muscle tissue," Lichter said. "He liked to train, and he took an intense approach to it. He didn't just take his talent for granted."
But will the word of his AAU coach and his trainer, combined with legal documents, end the debate?
"No comment," said Wizards star and Team USA teammate Gilbert Arenas when told James' age had been confirmed as 21. "LeBron's my older brother -- he's not a day younger than 30."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.