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YOU GOTTA CARRY THAT WEIGHT
Jack McCallum
October 27, 2003
Can an 18-year-old shoulder the burden of a league, a city and a few corporations?
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October 27, 2003

You Gotta Carry That Weight

Can an 18-year-old shoulder the burden of a league, a city and a few corporations?

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The popular observation that James's easiest adjustment will be on the court is glib at best. The $90 million he's getting from Nike isn't for being an All-Star someday. It is not enough for him to follow in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, the straight-from-high-school phenoms who needed a few years of seasoning before they sizzled. The standards for James are no less than Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan, all of whom entered the league ready to dominate.

James won't be as good right away as any of them. It's not only his lack of big-time experience ( Duncan had four years of college, Bird and Jordan three, Magic two); it's also that, unlike those four, he doesn't have a position. Silas started James at point guard in the summer league but scrapped that idea because he couldn't shake smaller guards and he was taking too much time getting the Cavs into their half-court sets. James is a classic swingman—which by definition means he's neither a true shooting guard nor a true small forward—who's also big and brawny enough to be a power forward. He will have to find a role, do a little bit from several positions, scratch and claw to find the right path.

At this point James is most like-ready for this?—Bird. A moment from James's first exhibition game: On a fast break the ball flies out of the hands of 6'9" Darius Miles toward James, who immediately one-touches it from the left of the lane to an unguarded Ricky Davis under the basket. Bird was a master of those trigger-quick reaction plays. "You can only call it court sense," says Cleveland power forward Carlos Boozer. "The way he takes advantage of a situation right away can't be taught. He just has it."

His shooting touch is clearly inferior to Bird's, but his athleticism is clearly superior. The Cavaliers rate their players' vertical jump, strength, agility, body fat and speed on a combined scale of 1 to 5; strength and conditioning coach Stan Kellers says, "LeBron's a six." There is no simple scale to rate a player who's built like a fullback, runs like a tailback and thinks like a quarterback.

The best thing about James, though, is that he truly understands what he is and what he can become. The shot-happy Davis wears a GET BUCKETS message on his armband; James says, "I only want to make my teammates better." It sounds rote, of course, but that's the way he has always played, even at St. Vincent-St. Mary High, where he could have averaged 50 points but settled for a modest 30. There are, of course, questions about his game, his outside touch primary among them; in five preseason games through Saturday he had shot 30.8%. And James has yet to show he can blow by defenders the way Jordan did and Bryant does. But barring injury, there is no way James will not become a great player, most likely as a forward who can post up, face up and shoot, score off rebounds, create space for himself, get off his shot against anyone, orchestrate the offense from the frontcourt and defend muscularly and cannily. If James extends his shooting range of 18 feet to beyond the arc—throughout the preseason he stayed after almost every practice to work on his jumper—he will be an immortal.

LEBRON AND THE CITY

Cleveland lies on the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, which on a summer day in 1969 famously burst into flames from an oil slick. Three years later the bushy black hair of Mayor Ralph J. Perk caught on fire when he cut a steel ribbon with a blowtorch. "For a long time," says Nance, a Cleveland native, "we were a Johnny Carson joke."

Certainly the sports history of Cleveland is defined by capitalized failure. The Drive, the Fumble and the Shot are all well-known local shorthand for postseason debacles afflicting the NFL's Browns (the first two) and the Cavs (Jordan's 1989 buzzer-beater). The city's last major pro championship was the Browns' 1964 NFL title, pre-Super Bowl. Let the caterwauling of Boston and Chicago be silenced: Cleveland is the city of true sports suffering.

So when the May draft lottery rolled around and the lowly Cavs had the same odds (22%) as the Denver Nuggets, everyone figured a new painful epithet was coming: the Pick. But lo and behold the Cavaliers won the No. 1 choice, and as general manager Jim Paxson says, "We essentially took LeBron at that moment without a vote."

A downtown renaissance had already started before the Ping-Pong balls bounced Cleveland's way, but the excitement level there now is soaring—and it's not because second-round pick Jason Kapono has a nice jump shot. "What LeBron has done to Cleveland," says Len Komoroski, the Cavs' president, "is to accelerate the positive direction we were already taking." Nance, one of the key figures in bringing the Browns back to Cleveland in 1999, sees James's influence extending further. "All kinds of retail operations are coming in," says Nance. "People expect a much higher activity level downtown because of LeBron and all that he brings."

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