Kevin Ding, Register columnist for the NBA writes:
The globe is ready. Wouldn’t it be great if the icon is, too?
LeBron James’ goal is to become a “global icon.” With 205 countries watching live on TV and Nike geared up with its reverential “We Are All Witnesses” ad campaign, James takes his first explosive step in the NBA Finals tonight. Time in this special spotlight â€” reflecting off the gold glow of that huggable, kissable, magical trophy â€” is what so many basketball players before him have used to elevate mere fame into mortal greatness.
No one ever has been so well positioned as James, whose court vision and world vision are as wide as the Web that Michael Jordan never got to utilize fully.
To start next season, James will play two exhibition games in China â€” which is so big that NBA commissioner David Stern is quick to offer the context that America has 300 million people and China has 300 million who are just basketball players. That will be a mere prelude to what James’ marketers are truly targeting: 2008, when he’ll return to China for the Olympics.
Next month, James will cross over and share ESPY Awards hosting duty with comedian Jimmy Kimmel. And James already is prepping to succeed Jordan and Larry Bird in the fan-friendly McDonald’s “Nothin’ but Net” commercials, going against last year’s NBA Finals hero Dwyane Wade.
The tracks are perfectly greased, even better than the pigs they let loose in contests in these here parts. Standing in the way is a barn full of Texans with “Go Spurs Go” on white T-shirts and in their twangs, about the only people on the globe who’ll be backing this businesslike, foreign-based, small-town team.
The Spurs would drop Bruce Bowen in front of that greased pig, train the rest of their fast-acting defense to help at the first oink and soon have everyone bored and moving right along to the pie-eating contest. No one does buzzkill like Tim Duncan’s crew.
The crowning of King James will have to wait, because his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates â€” especially with Larry Hughes on a liquid diet of Novocain and cortisone for his bum left foot â€” can’t compete with the Spurs. And the shame of it all is that â€” to answer the initial question â€” James is indeed ready.
At 22, he has developed a winning mindset to go with that freakish 6-foot-8, 240-pound basketball body he already had in high school. His brilliant play to lead the upset victory over the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals was a product of an improved focus that should be acknowledged.
James started so slowly this season that he wound up not even making the All-NBA first team â€” cruising through the early months in a way that surely made Shaquille O’Neal proud. (James and O’Neal celebrated their lack of accomplishment with a memorable dance-off at an All-Star Game “practice.”) What was accomplished, though: James’ teammates figured some stuff out in Cleveland’s new less-LeBron motion offense, and James stayed fresh.
Starting with the last game before the All-Star break, when he brought the perfect blend of control and aggression in beating the Lakers at Staples Center, James ramped up his game. O’Neal’s patented format of saving it for the playoffs â€” insert Shaq comment heavy with sexual innuendo here about how he never wants to peak too soon â€” did result in another NBA championship last year, after all.
“Once the playoffs started, he has been a different player,” Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said of James. “He’s more determined. He took the early bus to the games. All the film sessions he’s sitting in the front row instead of the back”
Whether James is as good an all-around player as Kobe Bryant is or Jordan was, that’s not the point. James is good enough now to be the game’s flag-bearer.
And that’s an amazing thing at 22. Wade, it should be noted, came in the same draft class as James, but is three years older.
Wade and the Heat broke down this season while O’Neal enjoyed more extended foreplay. That set the Pistons up to win the East again, but they underestimated James’ focus â€” and his ability to learn from late-game adversity early in the series.
Detroit’s Chauncey Billups, who still was resting on that 2004 NBA Finals MVP trophy instead of leaning on it to push forward, usually rules in assist-to-turnover ratio. But Billups had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 21-23 in the series; James’ was 51-19.
Winning that series after losing to Detroit a year ago in James’ first postseason was such an achievement that the Cavaliers can’t resist some sense of satisfaction now. Even James was so “zoned out” that he “forgot” a question directed to him in his first post-series interview.
San Antonio, meanwhile, has the talent, depth, experience and motivation to add a 2007 title to those from ’05 and ’03. And if the Spurs aren’t going to sit idly by, we are not all witnesses, are we?
We’ll all just have to wait. And even though we live in a world where losing 30 pounds is supposed to happen in 30 days, even though James has been on our radar since age 14, we can wait.
Jordan didn’t reach his first NBA Finals until 28. And his global-icon thing seemed to go just fine.