Friday, August 21, 2009

A Look at LeBron James' 5th NBA Game

Here is my reporting from November 2003, while on assignment as a stringer for Time magazine:

By Matt Baron

LeBron James is listening to rapper Jay-Z in the corner of the visitors’ locker room at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

It’s about one hour to tip-off for James and his Cleveland Cavalier teammates as they face the Indiana Pacers. James is about to engage in this last leg of his pre-game ritual: humor the media horde for five minutes or so, and then take a nap to chill out and temper the adrenaline coursing through his 18-year-old body.

“Once you all leave,” he tells the 10 reporters assembled around him, “I go to sleep.”

At that moment, he has all of four NBA games under his belt, but James has already established his rhythm and the self-assured posture of a league veteran. His demeanor is purposeful, bordering on the grave.

Ever since early in his high school career, he has known that interacting with the media is an integral part of his job. Now, as heir apparent to Michael Jordan as the game’s next Big Draw, he is a portrait of poise.

Someone asks him about Larry Bird, the legendary Boston Celtic who retired from the game when James was 7 and is now the Indiana Pacers’ president of basketball operations. Without skipping a beat, James replies, “He’s a competitor. That’s the thing I respect the most about him. Every time he ran out on the floor, you had a chance to win.”

In that respect, he has much in common with Bird.

James led his high school team, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, to three Ohio state championships. Three times, he was named the state’s Player of the Year. And it has been nearly two years since his precocious talent on the hardwood landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and alerted the general sporting public to his presence.

James’ muscular 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame bears a tattoo on his upper right arm that reads “Gloria,” in honor of his mother. A tattoo on his upper left arm reads “Beast”. He wears wristbands that read “King James”—in his own honor.

What about your defense? James says he working hard on holding his own on that end of the court. He talks about the shot he has blocked, he overstates the number of steals he is averaging (he says four, it’s actually 2.25). He concludes: “Defense always leads to offense.”

A beat reporter for a Cleveland-area newspaper asks James about rumors that there is a rift between him and fellow high-flying guard Ricky Davis. James suddenly feels the urge to look down and tend to the drawstring on his sweatpants. “I don’t know where that s--- came from…ain’t no rift at all.”

Does it bother him that such a rumor has circulated?

“It only bothers you when you know it’s true,” he says. “I just think people need a story, so people just come to me and Ricky.”

James does not feel compelled to stay within the framework of his journalistic interrogators. Someone asks if the team’s 0-4 start has left him frustrated. He shakes his head and chooses another word: “disappointed.”

“Everybody wants to win,” he adds. “They’re (the wins are) going to come for us.”

A win—LeBron’s first as a pro—very nearly happens on this night. Indiana leads for almost the entire game, but is never able to pull away by much. In the fourth quarter, Cleveland ties the score a few times, then goes ahead briefly in the waning moments.

An Indiana score puts Cleveland behind by a point, 91-90, and the Cavaliers have one last bid to come away with a victory. The final play begins with a missed hook shot by DeSagana Diop. After the ball caroms off the rim, James leaps above a sea of bodies and, about six feet away from the basket, manages to redirect the ball toward the hoop. It comes amazingly close to dropping in, but rolls out and the game is over. For the fifth time in as many games, the Cavaliers have lost again.

James ambles off the court, eyes fixed forward as he caresses his head from an apparent elbow in the last-ditch battle for the ball. He removes his headband and tosses a no-look pass into a throng of fans hollering for his attention.

It has been a strong showing for James, marked by some struggle.

Fielding questions after the game, James dons a Nike Air baseball cap and an attitude that refuses to be boxed in. A reporter asks him if the loss is frustrating, and James still won't buy into it.

"It's not frustrating," he insists, then changes gears as he hollers to teammate Darius Miles, who had been seated next to him. "Hey Miles, you got your CD player over here!"

He has played more than anyone else on either team, 44 of the game’s 48 minutes. Cleveland Coach Paul Silas left him in the entire second half—a show of confidence in an 18-year-old that is unprecedented in league history.

Most 18-year-old rookies have been lucky to get 15 minutes of action, let alone be called upon to run a team’s offense, as James has been assigned as the team’s point guard.

“He’s got so much energy,” said Miles, who also jumped from high school to the NBA three years ago. In fact, six players on the Indiana and Cleveland rosters made that high school-to-pro transition. In addition to James, Miles and Diop on the Cavaliers, the Pacers have Jermaine O’Neal, Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington.

The Cavaliers turned the ball over a season-low 10 times, but James was responsible for seven of them. On two occasions, he appeared awkward as he brings the ball past half-court and throws passes to the wing that are intercepted. After the game, he chalked those gaffes up to a "lack of concentration." Another time, he foolishly tried to dribble through a double-team and lost the ball.

But none of the mistakes prompted Silas to pull James, and the rookie hustled back on defense to try to redeem himself as quickly as possible.

“He has so many things to think about. He’s not in his natural rhythm yet,” said Silas.

In some instances, too, James’ passes appeared to catch teammates by surprise—actually reflecting a strength that observers have long attributed to him: an ability to see the flow of activity on the court in a way that others don’t readily see. So until his teammates catch on to James’ uncanny vision and court sense, his strength will be a double-edged sword.

Said Cleveland center Chris Mihm, “That’s what I noticed from the get-go is his passing ability. It’s fun to play with a guy like that. He’s really jumped right in.”

Cleveland guard Ricky Davis called the miscues “hard, aggressive turnovers.”

James scored 23 points, but none over the final 7 minutes. His 8-of-18 shooting includes one three-point bomb over Indiana defensive specialist Ron Artest, a resounding slam-dunk on an alley-oop and at least four airballs and outright bricks.

For significant portions of the game, James and Indiana’s Reggie Miller—who at 38 is more than twice James’ age—guard each other.

After the game, Miller said he was impressed with James’ “overall knowledge” of the game. “He’s capable of playing in this league. He’s talented. He has a great future,” said Miller. “He works hard and that’s all you can ask of in a rookie.”

During one lull in the second-quarter, James chats up veteran referee Joe Crawford and punctuates his comments with a huge pearly-white smiling display.

Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, called James “one of the better passers in the game. In time, the game for him will be easy. I’m impressed with the kid. He’ll get better and better in time.”

Of James’ extensive playing time, and whether it would burn him out, Bird said, “The great players have got to stay on the court.”

Craig Neal, formerly an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and currently a scout for the team, watched James play the Pacers.

“He’s not afraid to be great,” said Neal, who played briefly in the NBA about 15 years ago. “A lot of kids don’t want to be that great because they’re afraid of what comes behind it” in terms of off-the-court pressures and generally lofty expectations. “There’s no fear in him.”

Neal has followed James since early in his high school career, and has admired his well-rounded skills. “He was always head and shoulders above everybody because he did every aspect of the game,” said Neal.

While James needs to work on his shooting touch, Neal is confident he will improve in that respect—“he’ll get better because (great players) always do. He does all the little things that all the stars do,” such as anticipating a play before it happens and helping out on defense in ways that don’t always appear on the stat sheet.

The only other player to whom Neal compares James, at this point in his development, is Tracy McGrady, the Orlando Magic forward who led the NBA in scoring last season.

Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Paul Silas played in the NBA for 16 years and was a member of three championship teams. He is in his ninth year of head coaching in the NBA. Silas said he has never coached a player who was as fast a learner as James. “It’s God-given,” said Silas. “God gives people certain gifts. You tell him once, and he’s got it.”

Baron Davis, the star guard for the New Orleans Hornets who played for Silas the past few years, is also a quick study. “Guys like that get kind of bored with a lot of structure,” said Silas. “They want you to move on to the next thing.”

Silas said he did not detect any resentment among James’ teammates over the acclaim he has received. “He handles it so well. If he was gloating, that would be a major problem…but he’s fun-loving. And he’s a rookie. He carries the bags when necessary.”

On a breakaway against Sacramento in the season opener, with a golden opportunity to showcase his leaping ability, James opted to pass to Davis instead of dunking the ball himself. It was a gesture that spoke volumes to his team and to anyone watching that James is interested in sharing the spotlight.

“That was huge,” said Silas. “That just shows his thought process in the game. I guarantee no other rookie in the world would have done that. That showed great foresight.”

“This kid really understands the game and understands how to play,” Silas added. Once James improves his shooting, “the sky’s the limit for the kid. That’ll come. Most players who come in to the league are not as good as they are one, two, three years down the line.”

Silas said James “hates to lose”—another trait that great athletes have in common.

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