The new face of the NBA

Only in his second season, Cleveland's LeBron James is not only the league's top pitchman, but also an MVP candidate.

Pro Basketball

February 16, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - LeBron James was a little under the weather. He had sniffled through a five-point loss at home the night before against the Denver Nuggets and the longest practice of the season Saturday morning in preparation for Sunday's nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Gund Arena.

"I don't want to get anyone sick," James, who had played 43 minutes and scored 35 points against the Nuggets and close friend Carmelo Anthony, said to a reporter, covering his leaky nose and mouth with a sheet of paper.

Are there any old ladies waiting to cross the busy intersection outside the building, on their way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum? Are there any Girl Scouts with cookies to sell, or Boy Scouts needing help building campfires?

One more thing: Was Michael Jordan ever as considerate when he had a cold?

James, the 20-year-old forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has drawn comparisons to Jordan on just about everything since he was a junior in high school in nearby Akron and dubbed "King James," but, these days, there's quite a bit of substance accompanying the hype.

The second-youngest player, behind Kobe Bryant, to be selected an NBA All-Star, James is heading for Sunday's showcase game at Denver's Pepsi Center seventh in the league in scoring (25.3), tied for fourth in assists (7.7) and second in steals (2.3) while leading the Cavaliers to a respectable 29-20 record.

"Just from what I know of LeBron, he's a very hard worker, he's a student of the game, and if you mix that with his size and his ability, you get results," says Bryant, 26, who joined some teammates in a private box to watch Friday's game. "It's not like he's a player who relies on his talent and potential; he actually puts in the work."

The one player in NBA history who achieved more than James at this age was Magic Johnson, who as a 20-year-old rookie was picked to play in the All-Star Game and helped the Los Angeles Lakers - a team with a Hall of Famer in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - to the world championship in 1980.

That likely won't happen for James until the Cavaliers start acquiring some outside shooters to complement him and All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Michael Redd of the Milwaukee Bucks, a free agent after this season, is a likely candidate, but James' performance this season has made him a legitimate MVP contender.

"To me right now, you can put him in as an MVP candidate," said Anthony (Towson Catholic), whose rivalry with James coming into the league last season has faded amid the Baltimorean's struggles this season on and off the court. "He's playing incredible right now."

But don't ask James to assess what he has done.

"I never judge myself," he said, sitting in the corner of the Cavaliers' locker room after the Denver game Friday night. "I just go out and play basketball."

Given Bryant's legal troubles last season, James has also become the NBA's top pitchman, selling everything from bubble gum to his own line of basketball shoes. While James isn't the only recent post-adolescent in Sunday's game - Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, 23, and Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, 22, are playing, as well as Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, 23 - James will be the focal point.

The NBA's ad campaign for the All-Star Game bills it as a battle between James and Western Conference stars Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets and the Lakers' Bryant, with a close-up of James staring at the camera.

"Believe the hype," James says.

Asked about the commercial, James smiles.

"That campaign is just about all the people who doubted me and didn't think I could do the things I've done," said James. "I'm not self-centered in any way, conceited in any way. It's just to let people know I'm going to be here for a while, and I'm going to be playing this game of basketball for a while. It feels good to know that I can go out and play the game of basketball every night at a high level."

Is James surprised at how far he has come so fast?

"I knew that I could be productive," said James, who, as last season's runaway Rookie of the Year, averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists. "I don't worry about statistics or what would be my average. I just knew that I could help this team win. I'm all about the team first."

Though most figured James would someday live up to the hysteria that followed him here from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School as the top pick in the 2003 NBA draft, few thought he would be able to dominate so quickly.

It took Cavaliers coach Paul Silas one game - last season's opener - to see what the future held.

"The first game he played at Sacramento and got 25 points, I said that this guy is for real," said Silas. "Then he just kept going from there, not knowing that much about our pro game, he had to learn all this. He was just playing on instinct and athleticism.

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