Sunday, June 3, 2007

LeBron Comes of Age

Remember this?

I first started hearing about LeBron James five or six years ago. He was still underground at this point, the hype machine just starting to gain steam. I remember two moments, specifically, where I was first recall hearing about him: listening to Stephen A. Smith talking excitedly about him on the Best Damn Sports Show Period, back when it still consisted of it's original method; and one night during an FSN news update (this may have been a report on when he broke his wrist that one time his junior year, it was a long time ago, I'm not sure). I don't remember which occured first or even if these really were the first instances I had heard of him, but these moments definitely stand out in my memory; I just know that after hearing Stephen A. sound so impressed by him, I officially became LeBron-crazy.

I have a prized artifact that centers around him: the first SLAM cover he did with Sebastian Telfair in identical poses to the one's Starbury and KG had done years back. Looked through some older SLAM's and noticed that he was the Diary Keeper his sophomore and junior years. Somehow, this went completely over my head. When it came to my realization, I tore through those diary entries, trying to soak up everything I could about this kid. Also in SLAM's pages I found a recap of the 2001 ABCD camp, the summer before his junior year, which had a short account of his legendary domination of senior-to-be Lenny Cooke, the number one ranked guy in his class.

Shortly thereafter, LeBron became mainstream. Sports Illustrated famously put him on the cover of their magazine in February of his junior year, dubbing him The Chosen One. Sadly, I don't have that classic (I think I might've read it at Lenscrafters one day before I knew who he was, I don't really remember; boy, my memory is bad). In December of 2002, ESPN the Magazine had him on the cover of that year's NEXT issue. All of it was justified: At 17, he was a 6-7, 235, chiseled guard/forward who combined the best traits of Magic (surreal passing sense and point guard skills at a size abnormal for the position) and Michael (explosive first step and unreal athleticism and scoring ability). Advanced well beyond his years, former SLAM editor-in-chief Russ Bengston wrote: "Akron's finest would be a top-five NBA pick right now - maybe even No. 1 - and we don't just mean on potential. Yes, he is that good." His senior season, ESPN showed a couple of his regular season games on the Deuce, the first a home-game in Ohio against Oak Hill in which he went for 31, 13, and 6 and a highlight-reel worthy no-look behind the back bounce pass that had Dick Vitale screaming at the top of his lungs. And then a game at Pauley Pavillion against D.J. Strawberry and Mater Dei (which my dad and I had tickets too, but I pulled out at the last second and he ended up taking his girlfriend instead. After what LeBron's done in the last week, I think I'll regret my decision to stay home that night for the rest of my life) in which he finished with a lackluster 21, 9, and 7.

The media circus peaked when he was unfairly suspended for accepting those free throwbacks. The ban was lifted after one game, and in his comeback at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, New Jersey, he dropped a spectacular 52 on Trevor Ariza and Westchester. In March he was named MVP of the 2003 McDonald's All-American Game, capping off a year in which he won his second consecutive Player of the Year award and his team won a mythical national championship.

Four years later, and here we are. Stephen A. works for The Worldwide Leader now, and he's one of the most well-known (and disliked, though I've always liked him) sports personalities around. BDSSP has been relegated to an hour-long nightly sports list countdown. Sadly, SLAM ain't what it used to be; they lost Scoop to ESPN and made too many changes to the format of the magazine. Sebastian is more well-known for his run-ins with the law than anything he's done with the Blazers or Celtics. And Lenny Cooke went undrafted out of high school and has never played in an NBA game.

This LeBron guy, on the other hand...he turned out alright.

He's all grown-up now, 22, bearded, playing for the hometown Cavs. Got $100 mil from Nike before he played a game in the league and he's been worth every penny. He's a three-time All-Star, a perennial MVP candidate, and one of the five best players in the league, a true franchise guy. 27, 7, and 6 over his first four years. He's turned Cleveland into a 50-win team with very little help. He's their coach and their emotional leader.

And last night, he led the Cavs in defeating the Pistons in Game 6 of the East Finals to advance to their first NBA Finals appearance in the team's 37-year history. After a 48-point performance in Game 5, he switched it up and took what Detroit gave him in Game 6, inviting the double-teams and setting up his teammates, especially Daniel Gibson, en-route to a 20, 14, and 8. This postseason, he's throwing up a 26, 8, and 8 in 45 minutes a game. LeBron James has not only exceeded the hype, he's made it obvious that he never got enough of it in the first place.

Personally, I think Cleveland's gonna get beat like a drum against the balanced, veteran, been-there-before Spurs, but you never know. After last night's game, I told my Dad, "A one-man team shouldn't beat Detroit," and his response summed up the whole LeBron Experience perfectly: "Well, when your one man is LeBron James, anything can happen."

1 comment:

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