HE HAD chicken in one hand, crab fries in the other, an array of sauces at his feet. A little more than an hour before game time, LeBron James already was looking to share the wealth.
"Take some,'' he urged a locker room attendant. "All I wanted was one. Or a couple. You know I can't eat fattening foods. I've got a game to play.''
These are the moments that remind you of the obvious. That
LeBron James is just 23 years of age, just the age of a recent college graduate. Moments before, James had laid across three towels on the floor of the visitors' locker room and reeled off about 100 situps. Now he was snacking.
"Just a 23-year-old kid loving the game of basketball,'' said teammate Delonte West, the former St. Joe's star who is 25 years old.
And one with an iron stomach.
Situps one minute, crab fries the next, 29 points in last night's 101-93 victory over the Sixers, the Cavaliers' 10th in a row and 18th in their last 19 games. The hottest player on the hottest team in all of pro sports. LeBron came into the Wachovia Center last night among the league leaders in the half-dozen most prominent offensive statistics - and preaching defensive principles as if he were a college coach.
"We're taking responsibility on the defensive end to guard our man first and then rely on help second,'' he said. "Everybody has a chip on their shoulders about not letting their man score. And they get mad when they let their man score. Defensively, we're taking responsibility.''
He says his Olympic experience has induced a new-found intensity, but he was getting there on his own. The kid disappears on the court, morphs into a polished and punishing beast, a beast with an imaginative mind.
"It's impressive,'' said West, "to see how he goes from a joking manner before the game to a serious one once he's in it.''
It's the essence of his popularity, why he is already one of the world's most marketable athletes, why he's an event to be watched. Jimmy Rollins, Brian Westbrook, Mike Richards, Bernard Hopkins all were part of the 15,550 who came to watch. As it is in every arena but Boston or Detroit, there were tons of LeBron fans, or at least people appreciative of him in a way fans weren't of Kobe Bryant, not to this extent, not at age 23.
There was too much baggage back then, comparisons to Michael Jordan that were both unfair and premature, a singular game that was, in those days, more Iverson than Magic. Kobe wore that baggage in his uneasy smile, in guarded words, and added to it with feuds with his coach and one huge teammate, and with the fallout from that very public episode in Colorado.
Bryant has outlasted it all, reworked himself even, grown up before our eyes. As his stellar behavior in Beijing underlined, he is a finished product these days, and much easier to embrace. He even heard some love here when the Lakers played a couple of weeks ago.
James has felt that here, and elsewhere, from his first day as a pro. "I've definitely been well received here since high school,'' he said of Philadelphia. "I think because people respect the way I play the game of basketball. I've always been a team-first guy and I just want to win and do whatever it takes to win.''
A first impression: James played a game in Trenton his senior year, went against a Los Angeles team filled with Division I players. There were two, sometimes three, guys chasing him, and for a long while he was held to single digits. But his team never trailed and he quickly reached double digits in assists. And when it was over, he had the quietest 50 points in high school basketball history.
People got to know him back then, as if he was playing for their high school.
"I think so,'' he said. "You know there's not much business that goes into high school basketball. It's more about just the love of the game. Of course, I haven't lost that. And people recognize that.''
There were points last night when that was clearly evident. Late in the second quarter, as LeBron drove to the basket, you could hear the buzz of those anticipating one of his signature dunks. But James took the safer approach, laying it in for a nine-point lead, and the moan of disappointed voices was even more audible.
The Sixers made a game of it in the fourth quarter, cutting a 21-point deficit to six with just over 2 minutes left. The Cavaliers scored the next two baskets and the rally evaporated. There were no big heroics from James, just some smart passes and hard-edged defense, and that trademark smile at the end.
"Everyone in here treats him like a guy who you're playing pickup basketball with down the street,'' West said. "I think he appreciates that.'' *