We live in an Age of Hype, and we have become conditioned to expect letdowns.
The Next Great Thing never turns out to be quite that, unless, of course, it does, and then it has a distinct, unforgettable name: LeBron.
"Le" means "the" in French. I'm going to guess that "Bron" is just something that popped into the head of his then 16-year-old mother, Gloria, when he popped out of the womb on Dec. 30, 1984. We don't know whether she had any grand designs for this baby boy, but after watching him play basketball for several years, I hereby declare that "Bron" means "Chosen."
Check out that birth date. LeBron has embedded himself into our consciousness so deeply that we feel as if we've known him for at least a decade. But LeBron James is only 23, and if you'd like to put his accomplishments in perspective, consider that Larry Bird turned 23 a little under two months into his rookie year. And at the end of that season, as great as he was, we knew he had a lot to learn.
LeBron is a different kind of 23, and never mind the face that could pass for 33. At 23, LeBron is a four-time All-Star. He is the leading scorer in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers, doing in 380 games what it took Brad Daugherty to do in 514. He is a member of the Olympic team. He has been to the Finals. If there's an accomplishment with the word "youngest" attached to it, LeBron has done it.
Was it supposed to be this way? Why, yes, it was. LeBron is simply living up to everything that was predicted for him when he was, oh, 14.
He had to have been the toast of Akron youth basketball society at 8, 9, 10, and 11, but let's pick him up at 14, when he became a starter for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He averaged 20 points and 6 rebounds a game, and the team won the Division 3 state title.
That was the first of three state crowns, the only disappointment coming in his junior year, when the team moved up in class and was defeated in the tournament by Cincinnati's Roger Bacon. By that time, LeBron was so far out of his class individually that he very much wanted to forgo his senior year in order to enter the NBA, right then and there.
You needn't ask how David Stern felt about that. Put it down as a "No."
By this time, the 6-foot-7-inch swingkid had already appeared on the covers of Slam, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN The Magazine, and you'd really have to be living in a deep, dark, cable-less cave to be an American sports fan and be unaware of LeBron James.
His senior year was rather eventful. His team became the most sought-after attraction in the history of high school basketball. The team began practicing at the University of Akron and began playing in far-flung time zones. Having some national matchup games televised on ESPN2 was one thing. Having plain ol' ordinary Ohio games televised on regional pay-per-view was quite another.
They won the state championship, naturally, with LeBron averaging 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 3.4 steals per. The only loss was a technicality, a forfeit after LeBron had been suspended for an incident we shall call Jerseygate. It seems that LeBron had accepted a couple of freebie throwback jerseys (Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers). Oh, and let's not forget Hummergate.
Somehow or other, Gloria James was able to leverage her son's name to secure a loan, enabling her to buy an $80,000 Hummer H2 for her son's 18th birthday. So, yes, the Ohio High School Athletic Association had a query or two before the whole thing blew over.
Let's just say that nothing about LeBron's high school career was what you might term "normal."
The same can be said of his game. For LeBron James really is a singular basketball package. His lineage is pure Elgin Baylor, but we are now 50 years on, and the evolutionary process is relentless.
Elgin gave us Doctor J, who gave us Michael, and now we have LeBron, bigger, stronger, and in possession of more technical skills than his predecessors.
Baylor changed the game more than any individual in the last 70 years by making it diagonal, and not merely horizontal, or, occasionally, vertical.
And he did it as a midsized player (6-5). He combined forward and guard skills in a larger physical package than the game had previously known. Julius Erving put his own flourish on it, and then Michael Jordan took it all to another level, combining the physical skills with a will to win and icy bloodlessness that only Bill Russell had ever possessed.
And that, really, is the only question we have concerning LeBron James, who is the most physically gifted player in the history of the game. He is 6-8, 250 or so, very strong and astonishingly quick. He is a better rebounder than Michael. He is a better passer than Michael. But Michael wanted to win badly enough to make himself into the best defensive player in the league as well as the best offensive player. LeBron has improved defensively, but he has yet to make that commitment.
There are no yeah-buts at the offensive end. LeBron's offensive instincts are pure unselfish. Like so many virtuosos we've known, he would have been better off if basketball had become a four-on-four or three-on-three game, rather than five-on-five. (A conspicuous exception: Bird, who would have been a great seven-on-seven or nine-on-nine player.) Then he could simply take over a higher percentage of the time.
But LeBron understands that it's a five-man game, a team game, and he knows how vital it is to have the other four feel sufficiently involved. The only time people criticize him is when they think he passes when he should have shot.
If you're a Celtics fan, this is what you wanted. LeBron will be here either two or three times and at some point he will take your breath away, guaranteed. You will see him do things, and you will say, "Don't tell me he's 23," but he is, and you'd better hope the Celtics can deal with him now because he will get better.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.