The kid is standing 20 feet behind the basket, at the top of a series of steps that lead from the lower seating bowl to the court. His mother is standing next to him.
They are looking out toward a court that is a Where’s Waldo sketch. Security guards, cameramen, headset-wearing 20-somethings, stern-faced men in solid-colored suits who have no obvious role but still look vaguely official. Just past halfcourt, Allen Iverson’s eans and neck are sparkling from the center of a portable television set.
In the midst of the throng, the King stands alone. His feet are centered inside the circle at the top of the key, toes touching the foul line, eyes staring at a rim 15 feet away.
The mother nudges the kid, who raises a homemade sign above his head.
Gold lettering: My one wish is to meet LeBron.
The King blows on his hand. He bounces the ball. He lofts a shot toward the rim.
The mother urges the kid to move down a step, trying to align him in the center of the King’s vision.
Again, the King blows on his hand. Again, he bounces the ball. Again, he lofts a shot toward the rim. Then he does it again. And again. And again. You can see it in the eyes of the greatest ones. He is both oblivious to the noise and at home within it.
The true test of a life, of a career, is not the peaks or the troughs, but the terrain in between. It is in these spaces where the ground that LeBron James occupies is higher than the rest. The consistency. That is the key.
“Just as a fan, you step back and you just watch his body of work, no matter where he goes, and it is just off-the-charts unique,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “And he does it with class. He really, amongst all his successes, and the attention that he receives on a daily basis, and the content need that your job [in the media] requires, he doesn’t seem to blink.”
On Saturday, James made his annual return to an arena that is one of the many that he has made his own. In his wake was the traveling circus that has followed him since he entered the league as a 19-year-old from Akron.
Half of Bristol, Conn., was in town for a nationally televised game between James’ Lakers and a Sixers team playing without two of its starters. James was 18 points away from passing Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The reporters, the hot-takers, the documentarians -- all of them were there.
At 35 years old, he is averaging a career-high 10.8 assists per game, a statement every bit as loud as the one that he made at 21.
Back then, he was a third-year pro who averaged 31.4 points and 42.5 minutes per game while carrying the other four members of the Cavaliers to Game 7 of the conference semifinals. On Saturday, he was a man who seemed content to both carry and share his load. More than anything, though, James was the same as he has always been.
The historic bucket came midway through the third quarter, on a running layup that the NBA has seen hundreds of times over the last 16 years. There was little pomp, and little circumstance. James turned upcourt and jogged down the sideline and prepared for defense.
During the timeout that followed, the sellout crowd gave him a well-deserved ovation, but then it was back to the grind, and a 20-point deficit that the Lakers would steadily erode.
If it felt a bit anti-climactic —James now stands behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Karl Malone on the all-time list, having passed Bryant in 104 fewer games — perhaps that is the real lesson that these Sixers can take away.
For all of the talk of the trade deadline and the deficiencies and the questionable fits, the one thing that separates this team and its young centerpieces is a consistency of the sort that will ultimately define James’ career.
He has failed to reach double figures in scoring only eight times in his career. Ben Simmons has five such games this season alone.
Yet it should not come easily for anyone who is not LeBron, and while it certainly hasn’t for Simmons, it is the moments of progress that shine brightest. And as the quarterback of an injury-ravaged lineup, you saw plenty of them Saturday night.
There he was in the first quarter, weaving his way to the bucket and throwing down a one-hand slam. There he was a few possessions later, plucking an errant pass from mid-air before it had even begun its journey to its intended target. And, then, there he was in the fourth quarter, desperately trying to keep the Lakers at arm’s length as they clawed their way back into the game,
The final line: 41 minutes, 28 points, 12-for-15 shooting, and, most notable, a 108-91 win.
It was one of those nights that Sixers watchers should remember whenever their hands begin to ache from all the wringing. The external world is a lot more difficult now than it was when James entered the league. There was no Twitter, no Instagram, no perpetual drip feed of noise like that which exists in this new information age.
We watch our sports with a microscope, and react to them with a megaphone, and it takes a strong constitution not to drown in that sound.
Simmons? He has it. You can hear it in his voice, and you can see it in his eyes, and you can feel it in the energy that he brings to the court in games like Saturday night’s.
If he maintains his current pace, he will become just the third player in NBA history to finish multiple seasons with averages of 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists per 100 possessions, joining James (three times) and Russell Westbrook (five times).
After it was over, after the Sixers had picked themselves off the mat and caused you to question every conclusion you thought you’d reached about him, Simmons met James at midcourt and exchanged a hand slap and some words.