Athens Games is James' second trip abroad
ATHENS, Greece -- LeBron James, the youngest player on a very young U.S. basketball team, pronounced himself a changed man -- more mature, more worldly, more insightful -- during his first appearance on an Olympic stage at the Americans' opening news conference Friday.
"I've changed as a person. I believe I've matured on and off the court in the last three weeks," the 19-year-old said from a stage at the main press center, where he spent 40 minutes talking with reporters during his team's first full day in Athens.
As the session progressed, James grew more comfortable discussing what he's learned during his pre-Olympic travels and over the course of a year in which he progressed from recent high school graduate to NBA Rookie of the Year to a representative of his country.
Even his body language loosened up, as he shifted from a slumped, sitting position, his elbows digging into his knees, to a laid-back posture replete with a smile, a swivel of his chair and a few questions tossed back at his questioners.
It was a side of James he usually keeps hidden behind a sullen mood and a phalanx of short, sound-bite quotes.
"Everything was coming so fast last year. I've slowed everything down now. I see everything before it happens. I was doing that on the court, but I wasn't doing it off the court," he said.
"When you start to slow things down, you can tell you're more mature. You see things so fast when you're younger. I'm still young, but I've learned so much in the 19 years I've been alive. I'm a teenager in age, but I've been a man a long time."
Before joining a U.S. team with an average age of 23.6, James had left the United States only once, spending two weeks in Italy with a high school All-Star team when he was in ninth grade.
"To see other parts of the world matures you. You see so much. You see in different countries how people struggle and how people grow up," he said. "I'm more of a better person and player than I was. It's been such a great experience, fighting for my country and laying it on the line. It's one of the best experiences I've ever had."
The next phase begins Sunday with the U.S. team's opening-round play against Puerto Rico, though James is still not sure what his role will be.
In less than three weeks with the national team he has been both benched and suspended by coach Larry Brown, who is not yet convinced James is smart enough or a complete enough player to be an asset in his system.
Brown plans to shorten his rotation to eight or nine players instead of the 10 he rotated during pre-Olympic games. James could find himself the odd man out, especially if his early Olympic appearances include any of the ill-timed jumpers or missed defensive assignments that infuriated Brown during the lead-up to Athens.
"When you look at his youth, and Carmelo Anthony's youth, we're asking an awful lot of them to understand the importance of the Olympics, how good the other teams are, and to learn a new system instantaneously," assistant coach Gregg Popovich said. "That's a lot for young players to absorb. We've got to be patient to some degree in that regard, but at the same time demand that we get this done."
James said Brown has "punched into my chest" the concept of team basketball, something no other coach had done quite so forcefully. Brown also has humbled James like no one before, even suspending him for the Americans' first exhibition game after he showed up 18 minutes late for a team meeting.
That makes Brown one of the few people who have ever stood up to James, an icon in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and a player whose personal but sometimes unprofessional foibles have been tolerated in Cleveland as part of the price to pay for having a player who's viewed as a franchise savior.
Less than a week ago, James -- who has been joined in Athens by his mother, Gloria -- didn't even know what an Olympic opening ceremony was.
But he's clearly appreciating his growing process while realizing he isn't nearly as smart as he thought he was a year ago.
"Spending time with these guys has really made me appreciate a lot of things."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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