Reign Man

Michael's gone (finally). Kobe's in limbo. So the ball is in Lebron's hands. Can he deal?

Originally Published: October 24, 2003
By By Cal Fussman | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: The King is dead. Long live The King. Those words, used to signal a royal turnover in old England, seem equally appropriate for the new NBA.

For one thing, Michael Jordan is gone for good (or so it appears). For another, LeBron James arrives with the rather presumptuous nickname of King James, wearing the same number (23) and carrying the same company -- Nike -- as Michael. To crown it off, James is expected to carry the league the way Jordan did, a seemingly impossible task for an 18-year-old kid stuck playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And yet ... he has the body of Karl Malone, the handle of Magic, the magnetism of, yes, Michael Jordan. What he could really use is a little more patience -- on our part. But there's no turning back now. The fanfare has started. This is Year 1 of the reign of King James, and on the eve of his ascension, we sent Cal Fussman to talk with a few of his subjects.

ESPNMag.Com
This story appears in the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, on newstands this week. To get more from The Magazine, check out ESPNMag.com.

  • ESPNMag.com
  • Subscribe to The Mag
  • The Boss
    Paul Silas, Cavaliers coach
    When I was young, I met Muhammad Ali, right before he was going to fight Sonny Liston. I was playing for Creighton, and we were in Miami for a game. Ali and his entourage came to where we were practicing, TV cameras trailing him. We did this little skit where he faked me, went around and scored. Then he invited us over to where he was staying. What I remember most is the charisma and confidence he exuded.

    You see the same intangibles in LeBron. It's in the way he carries himself. Ali knew he was good, knew he had it. This kid has it too. But now we've got to help him understand how hard he has to work to get to the top.

    He was a man-child in high school. Now he's going up against hard-nosed guys who'll be trying to take the food out of his mouth. There is a big difference.

    The bottom line is winning. If he goes out and scores 30 and we lose, it will mean nothing. I've got all these young kids now. LeBron looks up to Darius Miles like an older brother -- and Darius is 22! It's not going to happen overnight. But we'll get there.

    LeBron has to learn how to deal with all the attention and demands. He loves being what he is and where he is, and you don't want to take that away. But basketball got him where he is, and basketball is going to propel him to where he's going. That has to be the primary thing in his life.

    I won three championships as a player. I've been to the playoffs as a head coach. Things didn't work out for me in New Orleans, but I showed I could get the job done, and look what happened. Everything fell into place.

    Now I'm in Cleveland with the knowledge of how to put it all together, and I get to work with this kid, who's already bigger than life. It's a godsend. LeBron has a chance to be special. Really does. Part of my job is to make sure it happens.

    The Beneficiary
    Darius Miles, Cavs guard
    My first year in the NBA with the Clippers, the team was stacked, and I got away with so much stuff. The defenses didn't know me, and it didn't matter -- they were too busy watchin' Lamar Odom, Quentin Richardson, Michael Olowokandi, Corey Maggette. I never took a jump shot. I just went inside and scored.

    LeBron James
    The man-child now faces the grownups in the NBA.
    I made the rookie team. My jersey was selling. I had a great second year, too. But when I came to Cleveland last year, we didn't have many players who could score. All of a sudden I was the one who had to shoot the ball. Defenses focused on me, and if your weakness is shooting, they'll make you shoot all night. I struggled. People in this league smell confidence and they smell when it's not there.

    There was this game where we were playing the Pacers at home. I was on the bench, hurt. We're down by, like, 30 at the beginning of the fourth period. That's when Coach [John] Lucas put me in. Every time I touched the ball the crowd booed. We're at home -- home! -- I'm out there playing hurt and my crowd is booin' me. If I passed the ball, nothin'. But when the ball came back to me, everyone started booin' again.

    After the game, I was furious at Coach for putting me in. He said, "It's a learning experience. Everybody goes through it. You ain't nothin' until you get booed." It may be hard to believe, but before that I thought everybody loved me. I learned that with the love comes the hate. That's the way it is. It hurt me bad, but I'm glad I went through it.

    I told LeBron, "Everywhere we go is gonna be jam-packed, sold-out. There's a lot of people who want LeBron James to be the best player ever. But the same amount want LeBron James to fail. All eyes will be on him.

    'Course when they are, I'm going to be shootin'.

    The Opponent
    Tracy McGrady, Magic guard
    I was in training camp with the Olympic team when I heard about the Christmas matchup on TV. I knew what would happen. It's not gonna be the Magic vs. the Cavs. Everybody's going to see it as Tracy McGrady vs. LeBron James.

    That's just how it is. He's the guy right now. He's hot. And I'm coming off leading the league in scoring. National TV. The game is gonna be big.

    I can remember the first time I played against Michael Jordan. I was intimidated. Here's the greatest player of all time, and I was just a young buck trying to get my feet wet. I really didn't know the game, and Mike could do anything he wanted. Now I'm starting to feel like I can do the things Mike could do. I don't know if LeBron's going to be intimidated. I wasn't in his situation with all the hype. That might give him the confidence to think he can come in right away.

    Wherever he goes, everyone will be watching. And nobody wants to be on the wrong side of his highlight film. Those moments never go away. I think it was my second year, when I was with the Raptors. We were playing the Knicks and I blocked Allan Houston's shot. Then, he came in to dunk on me, and I blocked that, too. Next time down, he made a good move. I went up and it was chest-to-chest.

    But I mistimed it and he dunked -- right on my head. I fell, then ran down the court laughing. I knew what I was in for. It was on SportsCenter all week. I'm screening my calls 'cause all my boys are calling to clown me.

    Everybody's going to be watching Christmas Day. So my A-game will be there. I've got some tricks ready for him, but then, I've got tricks ready for everyone, every night. The way I see it, it's the Tracy McGrady Game.

    The Observer
    Bill Walton, Hall of Famer
    All the players want to show up LeBron, but not, I think, in the same way they tried to stick it to Yao Ming. Yao had the most difficult transition of any player in the history of basketball, because of the cultural differences and the lack of a relationship with any other player.

    LeBron already knows all the players, and I think they will welcome him. He is so gregarious, so likeable -- that will help the transition. There'll be more openness and willingness to encourage him then there was with Yao. That sense of something totally different caught people off guard. Now people understand what a fantastic person Yao is, and he is one of the chosen few.

    If LeBron is healthy and works hard, he'll be an instant sensation. Today's NBA is perfect for a player like him, who is magnificent with the ball. We're not talking about a center who needs someone to pass to him. I fully expect the fans to vote him onto the starting lineup for this year's All-Star Game, and that will be quite a testament, given that the regular Eastern Conference starters at guard are Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson.

    His biggest problem will be his team. Cleveland has been a sinkhole for years, and so much of your success is determined by how good your teammates are. Off the court, LeBron has to choose the right circle of friends, business partners and acquaintances. Everybody is going to want things from him. And they're going to want him to be The Savior. But he just needs to go out there and enjoy the experience.

    The Salesman
    David Stern, NBA commissioner
    When I became commissioner in 1984, we were using a fire extinguisher in one room and a stoker in the next. Yes, there were teams teetering on the brink of economic disaster. Yes, there were people who said our league was too black, that our league was drug-infested, that our players were making too much money. Yes, there were violent incidents.

    But there was also opportunity. The cable industry was about to double. Satellite TV was about to come upon us. New arenas were about to go up all over America. Globality was about to become real. And a gentleman named Michael Jordan was meeting Phil Knight, making sports marketing a new genre.

    Now Michael is gone, and just like after Larry and Magic left the game, people are saying, "It's over!" But the reality is, we're once again dealing with opportunity. The digital revolution. Brand extensions. Globality.

    LeBron is a piece of this. Yes, just a piece. Look, I'm constitutionally devoted to lessening the pressure on him as much as I can. But do you think Cleveland's going to make the playoffs this year? Michael Jordan was great his first few years, he scored lots of points. But he didn't become Michael Jordan until after he won.

    LeBron may be the most gifted 18-year-old basketball player in the history of the world. That's why ESPN covered his high school games to much public debate. That's why Nike picked him. That's why Cleveland made him the No.1 pick.

    Do I see something deeper in LeBron? Yes. But that something deeper is the buildup. I've never seen anything like this. We weren't out there beating the drums for him. This was purely the media, the market and corporate America speaking. We are beneficiaries of an extraordinary hype around an extraordinary talent.

    But to people who think LeBron is the answer, I ask, what's the question?

    The Media
    Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president
    The question is: who is the NBA's next megastar? Since Michael's last championship, we've gone from Grant Hill to Kobe Bryant to Vince Carter. But no one has taken the torch and stood atop the sport.

    LeBron has the best chance to do that. We're ushering in the digital age, and LeBron will ride its crest. Everything is instantaneous, and everything is at your fingertips through your PC, your laptop, your PDA, your phone, your radio, your television, even on a plane. It allows athletes like LeBron to resonate with fans and consumers more immediately than ever before.

    It's fortunate for the league that LeBron will command so much attention. He'll take some of the spotlight off the Kobe Bryant saga. Obviously, we're not looking to exploit Kobe's struggle at the moment. From a network perspective, we want him to continue to ride high, we want him to continue to challenge for championships and set the standard as the best all-around player in the game. If LeBron can become a rival, if LeBron can make the Cavs competitive, if LeBron can materialize into the marketing icon we believe he will be, it will only make the game stronger and the product that much more robust.

    Right now, everyone is gravitating toward LeBron. He's charming, attractive, engaging. As long as he can deliver on every level, we'll keep watching.

    The Streets
    Erik Parker, Vibe music editor
    Black Thought -- from the music group The Roots -- was wearing LeBron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School jersey even before he got drafted. There are mix tapes with a picture of LeBron on the cover. He's generated so much interest in the streets.

    Michael is still tops. But people don't relate to him as much in the inner cities. Michael is known more as a great basketball player. His record label puts out Jill Scott. That's your father's music, to the kids. LeBron doesn't know a time when rap music wasn't on the radio.

    Twenty years is a generation. But in the urban areas, tastes move much quicker. Even after seven years you see a divide. Someone like LeBron represents to younger kids what Allen Iverson did seven years ago. He's hope, he's one of their own. And now that Iverson is a more mature player and person, he might be your uncle's ballplayer or your older brother's ballplayer.

    LeBron James understands the struggle of youth in the 'hood because he's been in it. Hip hop has a huge place in youth culture and a lot of that has to do with aspirational living. LeBron got the Hummer and the $100 million, and he's still the same inside.

    That's why, when he goes to the Rucker tournament in New York, everybody crowds around him. Any 'hood in the nation can claim him as one of its own. At the same time, he's also Middle America. From what I understand, his high school games were among the most watched events in the history of ESPN2.

    That's national.

    For a time, Iverson was respected on the streets, but not by the establishment. LeBron has it both ways. It's very difficult for someone to strike that balance, and LeBron has it before his first NBA game.

    The City
    The barbers at Parker's Barber Shop
    Mr. Parker: I'm 64 years old, and I've been in Cleveland since I was 12. I remember Jim Brown and the Browns winning the NFL championship. This town was crazy! Everybody was having fun. But that was about 40 years ago. Look around this shop. None of these other guys were around back then. They've never experienced a championship.

    D: Only time this town has seen a championship since I was born is the Cleveland Crunch. And that was soccer!

    Marshall: We don't recognize soccer.

    Brandon: Sorry! People look at you funny when you try to count soccer in the barbershop. We got to keep this real.

    Marshall: We just don't understand it. The Browns leave for Baltimore, they become the Ravens, then they win the championship. You hear about a curse with the Red Sox and the Cubs. But look at us? At least those cities have got other teams that are winning.

    Mr. Parker: Thing is, we are the friendliest people. People are the best part of Cleveland. But sports are taken extremely serious here. Cleveland is real hard on its athletes if they're not winners. I worry that the expectations have been set too high. I hope LeBron can live up to them. You don't want to see him run out of town on a rail.

    Brandon: Personally, I didn't think the Cavs were gonna get LeBron because they almost always make crazy-ass draft picks. I thought they might take Carmelo -- just to throw it off. The thing is to build. Man, if we just get to the playoffs!

    D: There'd be some good times in this shop. Starvin' Marvin. Fireplug. Crenshaw. Everybody will be having a good time.

    Brandon: Hell, yeah. That would help not only the city, but this shop a whole lot. The Cavs get to the playoffs, people are going to want to party, and before they do they're going to want to get tightened up right quick. One of these days ...

    This article appears in the Nov. 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

    ALSO SEE