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LeBron at 24: Calm, cool and at the top of his game

By Art Garcia,
Posted Dec 29 2008 3:13PM

The moments come for the rest of us with delicious regularity. But for LeBron James, every ferocious tomahawk jam he throws down or nonchalant two-handed flip pass he zips downcourt has been repeated a thousand times before in practice or in some pickup game where cameras don't venture.

Yet the moments still amaze. They still enthrall. And every now and again, even the one christened King James -- a young man who has given basketball cool a new face -- can't help but jump out of his throne witnessing his own impossible talent.

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"Sometimes I do, honestly," the Cleveland Cavaliers' star said during a recent interview with "I couldn't sit here and say I don't. Some of the plays I make on the court and some of the decisions I make off the court, I do.

"I go back and watch a lot of film and I go back and read a lot about what I've done. And sometimes I do amaze myself. But at the same time, I'm humbled. The Man above has given me a gift and I've taken advantage of it."

James' stature in the game, both literally and figuratively, never has been bigger. His size (6-foot-8, 250 pounds) is imposing enough. Starting with shoulders that could double for a grill on a Hummer, it's almost as if he's too big for the game. On the dribble, he mixes raw power with grace. And once James elevates ... well, Kevin Garnett isn't the only future Hall of Famer who's ducked for his life.

Still, the NBA has been littered with athletic wunderkinds that haven't come close to approaching what James has been able to do with his talent. Olympic teammate Jason Kidd recently tried to put a finger on how James has harnessed his physical tools.

"He's just never in a hurry," Kidd said. "He's always polite to people. He's a guy who cares about the game and his work ethic. He works extremely hard. As much as people think that it's given to him, he works hard."

Close friend Carmelo Anthony, selected two spots behind James in the celebrated 2003 Draft, explained it as an ability to pick apart what's happening on the court before it happens. The Denver All-Star described the elusive quality as equal parts maturity and knowledge of the game. "He's been like that since high school," Anthony said.

So how does one so young -- after more than five years in the NBA, James turns 24 next Tuesday -- have such awareness? The Chosen One projected an almost otherworldly air of self-confidence as a 17-year-old phenom on the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 2002. James gives much of the credit for that to Gloria James.

"Growing up the way I did with just my mother being around gave me a sense of calmness in knowing that you can't just fly through things," LeBron said. "You've got to take your time. In certain situations, you've got to get through it by thinking things through."

Thanks in large part to the NBA's growing presence in Europe and Asia, and to America's basketball gold at the Beijing Olympics, James is now known the world over. His celebrity has opened countless doors outside of the sport. He's held court with everyone from president-elect Barack Obama to billionaire businessman Warren Buffett. "I've always been a student of the game or a student of life and just wanting to learn," he said.

James has talked about a 20-year playing career, but his to-do list isn't limited to basketball. It extends into the world of entertainment, management and marketing. One of his newest projects is Spring Hill Productions, named for James' childhood neighborhood in Akron. Spring Hill has partnered with actor/rapper Ice Cube to develop a TV series loosely based on James' life.

Jason Kidd (right), who teamed with James on the Redeem Team, has been impressed with LeBron's ability to play under control.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

He has absorbed his share of criticism for firing his first agent (Aaron Goodwin) and placing several longtime friends in position to steer his financial future. A high-profile deal with Microsoft dissolved after less than two years without much payoff. Yet James remains undaunted.

"I have a good supporting cast," James said. "The one thing I don't have is a bunch of yes men around me. My business is going in the right direction. You've got to trust the people around you, but you have to want to trust people. That's the only way you can go."

James' list of accomplishments, back on the basketball court, is almost absurd. He's the youngest in league history to hit every significant scoring plateau, up to 11,000 points. (He's closing in on 11,500.) He led the Redeem Team to gold, hosted Saturday Night Live and graced the cover of Vogue.

"My next thing is to win an NBA championship," James said. "Winning a gold medal, winning a scoring title and I've do so many things -- I've broken franchise records and things like that -- as an individual. But the ultimate team goal that ranks right up there with a gold medal is winning an NBA championship. That's high on my list."

The perception is that everything was given to James before he stepped on NBA hardwood. There's some logic to that argument, at least on the financial side. James had $100 million coming his way before he ever scored a point in the league.

But respect, especially from peers, doesn't come with an endorsement deal. James didn't shortcut that process.

"He's changed like any other normal person," said Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James' longest-tenured teammate. "He's more mature now, he has kids now, responsibilities, the way he treats basketball.

"Things come easy to him, but he also works hard and he knows what works for him and what doesn't. He has become a leader. He had to earn it. It was not given to him."

Leadership may be the word most associated with James these days. He's not playing as much or scoring or rebounding or racking up assists as in seasons past. The Cavs, though, are running away in the Central Division and challenging defending champion Boston for the best record in the league.

"He wants his teammates to be successful and he's a leader," Kidd said. "That comes in time and I think he's ready for that."

Zydrunas Ilgauskas (top) and the Cavs have steadily helped take the do-it-all burden off LeBron James.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

James' future in Cleveland is not guaranteed. When the questions about 2010 are posed -- that's the first year he'll be eligible for free agency -- No. 23 answers honestly. It would be foolish, he admitted, not to think about the future and the possibilities that will be available.

Yet James also is savvy enough to leave open all of his options. In a conversation last weekend with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and, the Cavs' all-time leading scorer and Akron native broached the possibility of signing an extension with Cleveland, a team that has patiently built a contender around James since his 35-47 rookie campaign.

"He went through some growing pains," Ilgauskas said. "The team wasn't doing as well as it is now, but we stuck with it and we stuck with him and finally we put a cast around him that allows him to be successful.

"He doesn't have to do it all by himself."

Next Tuesday, as he turns 24, James will be in Miami for a game against the Heat. He has been around the league for so long, and in America's sporting consciousness for even longer, that he is completely at ease with his place in the pop culture pantheon. He approaches the day with the same cool that he has carried throughout his life.

"The years go by so fast," he said. "I have a good sense of my life and I have a good sense of my family's life and what direction we want to head in. It keeps me calm knowing that the security of my life and my family's life is under control."

Yes, he's only turning 24. Sometimes it's easy to forget how young he actually is.

"I'm young," James said. "But I've got an old soul."

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