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Original Issue

LeBron Act II

He's the Cavaliers' leader and an MVP candidate--and deep down, at 21, still a kid. LeBron James charges into the second phase of his unparalleled career with his playoff debut this weekend

It is a cold Sunday night in March during the NBA's midseason slog, when road games run one into the next and ice bags linger longer on balky knees. At Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland the Cavaliers are hosting the Chicago Bulls and trying to maintain their playoff position while awaiting the return of shooting guard Larry Hughes, who is out for another month because of a fractured finger. With the Cavs losing five of their last six games, the crowds at the Q have grown nervous. They remember the season-ending slide of last year, when the team tumbled from the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference to lottery fodder in a matter of weeks.

The game remains close until midway through the third quarter--or, to put it another way, until LeBron James decides he's had enough. Frustrated all night by the Bulls' banging, the 6'8" James snags a rebound,dribbles the length of the floor and barrels into the lane. Hopping laterally between two defenders, he rises and dunks the ball with ferocious force, his right arm parallel with the basket, providing the momentary illusion that his grasp on the rim is all that's keeping him from sailing up and over the backboard. It's a sequence that transforms even veteran players into squirming,rocking children. Cavaliers guard Damon Jones looks up at the Jumbotron, giggling at the replay in disbelief, while bench players hoot and twirl towels.It is the type of play Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry is referring to when he says of James, "He does things that are-how do I put this?--not normal."

Three seasons into his career, however, the abnormal is the norm for the 21-year-old coronated as King James. He already ranks among the league's premier talents,capable of 40-10-10 games (two and counting) and holder of myriad "youngest ever" designations: to score 50 in a game, to score 6,000 in a career, to be named All-Star Game MVP. And he may well add another at the end of the season--MVP. Not since Michael Jordan in 1991-92 has a player averaged 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in a season, as James was doing at week's end (31.4 points on 48.0% shooting, 7.0 boards, 6.6 assists) in leading his injury-riddled team to the fourth-best record in the East. This weekend the Cavs will make their first playoff appearance since 1998, when Ferry and Shawn Kemp anchored their frontcourt.

James has been putting up impressive numbers since he was drafted No. 1 in 2003. What is more noteworthy on this night is what he does without the ball. He exhorts teammates, calls impromptu huddles, keeps Cleveland on track. During a timeout in the fourth quarter coach Mike Brown begins drawing up a convoluted offensive set--he is renowned for intricate plays with names like Elbow 153 Roll 5C Punch--and works himself into something of an expository corner. As Brown erases and re-erases the whiteboard, the players' attention wanders until LeBron looks at Brown and calmly says, "Coach, man, we only got five guys and 24 seconds." His teammates crack up, Brown concedes his point, and Cleveland runs the first element of the play, a dive cut, for a basket.

This is a lesson James says he learned last season, when he failed to speak up as the Cavaliers imploded: When necessary, he must take control. Assistant coach Hank Egan recalls that when 12-year veteran Donyell Marshall wasn't shooting well during one game earlier this year, James walked up and embraced him. "Didn't say anything," Egan says, "just gave him a hug." In the first half of the Bulls game, James took a different approach with the cold-shooting forward.Cleveland ran a pick-and-roll that called for Marshall to pass the ball to center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In the process, however, Marshall found himself wide open at the top of the key.

"Shoot the ball!" demanded James from the wing.

"But I'm running the play," Marshall countered.

James, adamant,yelled back, "Shoot the f--- ball!"

After the game,which Cleveland won 91-72, Marshall sat at his locker, describing what it's like to play with James. "You feel guilty, but he'll say, 'The next time I pass it to you, shoot it again. If you miss, you miss it. If it's a good shot,then that's your shot-just shoot it again.'" Marshall chuckled as he looked over at James. "It's funny because I'm here to teach him and be the leader,but then there are times when he picks me up. When I was 21, I was the second-youngest player in the NBA and just learning the game. He's 21, and he's the third-leading scorer."

In many respects James stopped being a young man a long time ago, perhaps when the national media first found its way to Akron, superlatives in tow, to gaze at the 15-year-old with the NBA game. It's as if James decided that there was no time for youth and its attendant insecurity and impetuosity and recklessness. Too many supporters are counting on him, from the hopeful (and desperate) people of Cleveland to league executives eagerly riding his international swell to basketball fans thirsting for a team-first superstar. As Brown says of NBA coaches and players, "We all have ownership in LeBron."

It is an intriguing concept, the superstar athlete as IPO or public trust, and one wonders how the young James manages such a responsibility-not to mention the constant scrutiny of his play-with such outward calm. "He doesn't show his frustration," Cleveland guard Eric Snow says. "He just has ways of bottling it." Indeed, James rarely displays concern, let alone emotion,with one notable exception. When he's on the bench, he ritualistically attack shis fingernails, either biting them or, with the aid of a nail clipper (which he summons from a Cavaliers ball boy by reaching with his left hand over his left shoulder), trimming the gnawed edges. In this, at least, James does not seem beyond his years.

If James's basketball life has three acts, he is already at the beginning of the second--the segue from his arrival as an NBA prodigy to the realization of his potential and simultaneous emergence as a leader. (The third act, one imagines,will be marked by a championship ring.) As evolved as he is as a player, though, he may be even further along in his quest to become, in his words,"a global brand." To reach this goal, he is following the Michael Jordan playbook on public interaction to a T: Talk often but say little, soften self-promotion with a smile, brand thyself but bland thyself. The aim is to become, in the words of James's media guru, Keith Estabrook, "all things to all people." A perfect example is the set of Nike commercials in which James dances to Rick James (well, in fact) and portrays four characters, from a little kid to a grandfather. The spots are funny and endearing, but they reveal little about James himself, other than to suggest that like a child's toy, he can be anything you imagine him to be. (Not surprisingly, the four "LeBrons" were made into action figures by Upper Deck; the first run sold out immediately.)

In all public interactions James maintains an even keel. He is smooth, self-assured and has the long-practiced smile of a child actor-a thin, cheeky grin that makes him look innocent and slightly self-conscious, as if he's hiding a mouthful of braces. He is charming and polite, if rarely forthcoming. "He doesn't necessarily like the attention," says Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. "But you watch him talking to the media after games, and it's almost like you couldn't script the answers better than what he says." His comments are efficient and declarative, more often than not two sentences delivered in the following structure: statement of fact followed by interpretation or elaboration. For example, on his stellar performance in the Cavs' win against Chicago, James said, "I used the whole court tonight. My teammates did a great job of putting me in different spots where [the Bulls] couldn't double-team or they didn't know where I was going to be."

His voice and cadence sound eerily like Jordan's: clipped, definitive, rising at the end to signal a finality of discussion. Like Jordan, James also peppers his speech with references to his endorsers (or knocks on the competition) that are nearly too perfect, as if written by an ad exec. Before a game he was told that Sacramento Kings forward Francisco Garcia had sprained his ankle in trying to retrieve a ball stuck next to the rim. James's response: "Oh, no. Oh, wow.That's not good at all." (Pause for comic effect, smile.) "It was probably those Reeboks he had on." (Cue media laughter.)

All of James's group interviews are overseen and digitally recorded by the team's media relations department. Rarely do they last more than seven or eight questions.For longer interviews, members of the press must go through Estabrook, whom James hired last summer after hearing about him from good friend Jay-Z. A former head of corporate communications at Hachette Filipacchi Media, Estabrook helped John F. Kennedy Jr. launch George magazine in 1995 before moving into representation. He is relentless in managing his client's image, even flying from New York City to Cleveland solely to monitor a 45-minute interview with James for this story, though three Cavs p.r. members were present.

Estabrook is only one facet of Team LeBron, which also includes his financial manager, Kurt Schoeppler; the head of his James Family Foundation, Chris Dennis; his lawyer,Fred Nance; his agent, Leon Rose; and a trio of friends, Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims. (Mims also travels with the Cavs and is on the team payroll as a player liaison.) Along with James, the friends call themselves the Four Horsemen. Last summer James fired agent Aaron Goodwin and installed the three other Horsemen, none of whom graduated from college, as his primary management group, a move some criticized as foolhardy but about which James expresses no reservations.

But then, nothing inspires shareholder confidence like a self-assured CEO. "You never need to reinforce LeBron," says Rachel Johnson, his personal stylist, who outfits James for all his appearances. "He always thinks he looks good." Ask him about his goals, and they are not so much goals as inevitabilities.Business? "I don't want to get into dollar amounts," James says,"but I do want to become one of the wealthiest men in the world." A championship in Cleveland? "Of course I feel like I can bring a championship to Cleveland, or why would I be here?" Egan, a former assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, says that James reminds him of Tim Duncan in his self-assuredness. "If you tell Tim something, he's not going to run out and do it just because you told him to," says Egan. "LeBron's the same way. He'll absorb it and think about it, but he'll only do it if he believes in it."

And what if he doesn't believe in it?

Egan chuckles."Then he'll ignore it."

As measured and politic as James is most of the time, he is quite passionate in discussing the intricacies of the game. It's the one area of his life in which he doesn't need to control the message, and, as a result, he can sound as enthusiastic as,well, someone not far removed from his teens. When asked about learning to jump stop, for example, James's answer is extensive (10 sentences), specific (he mentions a coach he had as a child), emotional (it was "frustrating at first") and acted out. Here is how it ends: "It was hard for me to go whoooosh," he says, pantomiming hurtling through the air, "and then--choo--come to a stop. Once I got [the move], it really helped, because then I knew I could alter the pace of a defender. It put some control into my game."

As James says this, he is watching tape from a recent Cavs-Celtics game in a windowless room in the Q's basement. As the game unfolds, two things become clear. First, James has impressive recall. Even though it's been nearly a month since the game, he says things like "I'm about to get my second foul here-it was a good call" and "Watch this, Z [Ilgauskas] is going to tip this ball."Second, he tends to talk more like a coach than a player.

At one point James is isolated on the left wing against Boston swingman Paul Pierce. "My main focus isn't on the guy that's guarding me, it's on the second level of defense because I feel like I can get past the first guy," James says."But there comes a time when the weak side can double you, they can load the box on you, and right here"-he points to the screen-"I'm not really looking at Paul. I know he's in front of me, but I'm looking at Raef LaFrentz and [Ryan] Gomes and seeing if they see me or if they predetermine my move.Right now [the Celtics] don't really know what they're doing back side, so that gave me a good chance to try to drive baseline before they got there."

It is an exceptionally nuanced perspective for a third-year pro who skipped college. His coaches say that after a play is explained once, James can envision all five Cavs' roles as a series of interlocking pieces. At one point James describes having Cleveland forward Drew Gooden's man "in attendance," saying that he could dribble all the way back to half-court and the defender would follow. At another point he explains how the movement of point guard Delonte West, who is the Celtic farthest from the ball, will affect the type of pass he throws ona pick-and-roll to Eric Snow-whether he should set up Snow to penetrate or shoot. This type of awareness is what makes James such a challenge to contain. Bulls center Tyson Chandler, an excellent help-side defender, says he has to disguise his intentions around James. "A lot of scorers get tunnel vision--you can help and they're just looking at you, waiting for the opportunity to go," Chandler explains. "But with LeBron, you help and he burns you. He hits your man or he makes you think he doesn't know, then he drives at you, makes you come up and kicks it to your man. It's like when you watch Magic back in the day, thinking of plays before they happened."

That's why Miami Heat coach Pat Riley compares James with Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash,not Jordan; why one Eastern Conference scout says James ranks behind only Nash and the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd as a playmaker. Unlike Nash and Kidd,however, James is also usually the best scorer on the floor, especially now that he has a more consistent jump shot.

This produces a defensive dilemma: Slack off James, and he'll hit the jumper; crowd him, and he's quick enough to break down his man; double him, and he'll find the open shooter. Complicating matters further, most opposing small forwards are at a disadvantage because they're unaccustomed to guarding a pick-and-roll. And few are as strong as the 240-pound James, who seems to have been born with a dockworker's brawny physique. As Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki puts it, "Once he has you on his shoulder, it's pretty much over." So complete is his offensive game that when a scout is asked for James's weaknesses, he has to think for a moment. "O.K., now I'm really nitpicking," he finally answers. "But he could be a better dribbler with his left hand."

In fact, one of the issues the Cavs' coaches have is that James is too good for practice."We can't create a matchup that challenges him," says Egan. "We can double him, but we can only do that for so long because we have to run our own stuff." Flummoxed, Brown turned earlier this season to Johnny Bach, a Bulls assistant during the Jordan years. Bach recommended putting James on the reserve team during practice, as Chicago used to do to challenge His Airness."At first, I don't think he understood what we were doing," says Brown."Then, since he's so competitive, he'd get into it." And who wins those practice scrimmages? Brown nods. "Usually LeBron's team."

The great hope of a fragile city's athletic fortunes sits on a chair in the basement of the Q,allowing his picture to be taken. Team LeBron has allotted photographer Michael LeBrecht only a few minutes to take a portrait, even though he's known James for six years. Working quickly around James, LeBrecht practically straddles LeBron's knee, snapping away, when he suddenly pulls back and makes a face."That's not your shoes, is it?" LeBrecht asks. James starts to giggle,then cocks one leg, breaks wind again and giggles some more. The photographer shakes his head, pulls his shirt over his nose and keeps shooting through the olfactory haze.

It is one thing to carry the weight of being a home-state hero. It is another to do so when you're only 21 and fart jokes remain a staple of daily life. And it is still another to juggle all that civic responsibility and the exuberance of youth in a place with a sports inferiority complex like Cleveland, which hasn't won a major title of any sort since 1964. Rarely are a city's prospects so tied to one athlete, and the principals so up-front about it, as with Cleveland and James. "I keep in mind LeBron's impact on our community and our team constantly, because he will make our jobs easier and make us look better," says Ferry. "I'm from the [Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich school of 'I won 500 games because I got [Duncan],' and I'm very open about that." Gilbert, the owner, has gone to lengths to make the franchise appealing: He's put $12 million into upgrading the arena, signed off on $150 million in new player contracts and has plans for a new $20 million practice facility. His sales pitch to his star player: "LeBron understands we're building a foundation of success."

In August the Cavs can offer James a five-year, maximum contract extension worth about $75 million. He has said repeatedly that he plans on staying, but it's easy to understand why there is speculation that he might leave. If he doesn't sign by Oct. 31, he'll become a restricted free agent after the 2006-07 season. Clevelanders fret about the persistent rumor that has James heading to the Nets, who are part-owned by Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter. The two have known each other since James was in high school, and Carter says,"He's like a family member of mine." This would put James in Brooklyn, the Nets' future home, and make him King of New York. Carter can't help but ponder the possibility. "How amazing would that be?" he says. "I tell people all the time, he's my friend first. If Cleveland is building a championship team around him, then my advice is to stay there. If it's the Nets who are building a championship team that could be around him, then my advice is to come to the Nets."

Still, even in Cleveland, where it is not a stretch to say many deify James, the mood can turn sour. In a February 102-94 home loss to the Washington Wizards, the fans booed when James missed a pair of free throws. Whether the booing was directed at the team or at James was a matter of great debate in northern Ohio. At other times his crunch-time tendency to pass rather than shoot was a source of discontent.James didn't hit the first game-winning basket of his career until March 22."The team starts winning, but one little slip and then fans start remembering what they've been going through for so long," he says. "I'm not getting mad that they boo the team or boo me, because they've gone through so much, but at the same instance they have to understand that we're out here playing hard and we're trying to turn this thing around too." He pauses,addressing all the shareholders. "We're all in it."

James's mother,Gloria; his girlfriend, Savannah; and the couple's 18-month-old son, LeBron Jr., still live just outside of his hometown of Akron, though they can be seen at every Cavs home game, sitting in baseline seats. It is 40 miles from Cleveland to Akron, but it feels farther. Head south on I-77 until you reach the concrete overpass with the city's name spelled out in iron letters. Exit onto Copley Road, then continue past the lineup of one-story brick buildings,past the kids in baggy pants and baseball hats, past the Walgreens and Miss Pantry and the Laundry King and Queens Beauty, where ALL WIGS ARE $20. BUY ONE,GET ONE FREE. Turn onto Hillwood and go about a mile down the residential street until you reach a two-story house with peeling white paint. This is where James spent a few of his preteen years living with the family of Frank Walker, his youth coach. There is no plaque that reads LEBRON LIVES HERE.

A knock on the door produces the current tenant, Gregory Clark, who lives there with his wife and son, renting the house from the Walkers. It is a frigid winter day, but the 45-year-old Clark stands on the porch and talks for a while, the front door open. The winter chill seeps in, the sound of an NBA game and the heat leak out. Clark talks of how he first met LeBron, when the boy was eight years old and Clark, Walker's brother-in-law, was active in youth sports; he used to drive LeBron to basketball practice if the Walkers could not. "I was a very, very small part of his success," Clark says. He points to the front yard. "This is where he used to play catch, throwing the football,"Clark says. "And they'd dribble the ball up and down the street."

A boy emerges and glances up at the reporter. "Tell him, son," Clark says to 13-year-old Gerald. "Tell him how you started playing basketball because of LeBron." Gerald nods shyly. LeBron still comes around when he can, Clark says, drives down the street, and all the kids run out to follow him. But not as often as he used to. "So many demands, so many endorsements, so much TV," Clark adds, "but we understand."

He pauses, looks out at the street. A car drives by, the radio playing so loudly that the bass thumps out tinny and full of static. "A lot of people say, 'Man, I wish I was LeBron.'" Clark shakes his head, stuffs his hands into his jeans."Man, I wouldn't want to be him. Honestly, I wouldn't. His life keeps him away from his family, his son. So many demands."

He lets the thought linger in the winter air, then heads back inside. The Cavs are on TV in a few hours, and Clark will be watching, as he always does. Like so many others, he has ownership in LeBron, an investment in the promise of a talented young man who really isn't so young after all.