Before the game earned him millions and made him a global icon, it was the focus of LeBron James' pride and the source of his joy. He loved Basketball the way the city and its suburbs have embraced him and his Cavaliers team. On the night when he received his Most Valuable Player trophy, there was no way James was going to disappoint his fans at The Q or dishonor the game to which he has devoted so much.
"I know you've been tired of wondering who we're going to play and tired of waiting around, because I'm ready to get back on the court too," he said, his words tinny sounding and faintly heard in the bedlam after NBA Commissioner David Stern handed him the MVP trophy in a pregame ceremony Tuesday night.
Back on the court, James scored 34 points on only 20 shots with 10 rebounds in the Cavs' 99-72 rout of Atlanta in the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Most of the fans were clad in complimentary black T-shirts that were draped on every seat before the game, proclaiming in white letters "Witness" with "MVP" in gold. It was stark proof, in black and white, of the love affair between a city and a team in a glittering season.
James usually involves his teammates in the early going, but he had to score quickly because the Cavs fell behind quicker, 11-4. He scored 16 points on only six shots in the opening quarter. He dunked his first shot, drove and laid in his second, and hit a 3-pointer. He seemingly got to every loose ball. When the leader goes down, scrambling after the ball, how can his supporting cast not ask the same effort of themselves?
In the third quarter, when Atlanta had a two-on-one fast break, James, the lone defender, let Atlanta's Joe Johnson feed his knees into his chest, taking a charge to negate a sure Hawks' basket. "They had a high flier, Josh Smith, on the wing, and Joe Johnson is a ballhandler," James said. "It looked like Joe was going to be aggressive and not slow down, so I stepped in. It was a good momentum play for us."
On the next possession, James drove the baseline and whipped the ball to Mo Williams, whose 3-pointer hit nothing but net. The Cavs led, 59-48. The Hawks could not waste such chances.
The assists were overdue. James had none at the half, partly because Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a tough night shooting the pick-and-pop jumper and partly because James had to carry so much of the scoring burden himself. Passing is so much a part of what makes him special - the court vision, ambidexterity and buggy-whip wrists -and it is the very emblem of his concept of how to play the game.
In the Cavs' long-delayed return to the court, everyone saw exactly what Atlanta coach Mike Woodson had said James was before the game - a combination of youth, strength, fundamentals and skill the likes of which he had never seen, particularly at James' age of 24.
James came here as a shy teenager, with a different body and a game that had not blown up into an offense-defense / inside-outside / scoring-passing monster. Even then, his reach stretched across oceans.
"Thanks to this guy, you can go anywhere in the world and if you mention Cleveland, they know LeBron and they know the Cavaliers ," said Z, who has known him longer than any teammate.
"These fans have seen me grow from an 18-year-old kid to a 24-year-old man," James said. "It was great to have an opportunity to showcase my talents for these fans, my teammates and my family."
Recently, Z remembered the first steps of the long journey toward the top. "He would always become happier once he stepped on the floor," Ilgauskas said of James' rookie year. "He might be tired or this or that or had a bad day, but once he stepped on the floor, you could see he was happy playing Basketball."
There are more witnesses now. There is more happiness, too.
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