Let me see if I can make this clear without getting myself in trouble:
I expected LeBron James, who arrived in the pros as an 18-year-old drawing intense scrutiny and facing extraordinary expectations, to have screwed up by this time. Not a Jeff George-level screwup, i.e., clashing with coaches and consistently underperforming. Not a Michael Phelps-level screwup, i.e., getting photographed with a marijuana pipe. Not necessarily a Kobe Bryant-level screwup, i.e., committing a sexual indiscretion that cost him a reputation that he has only recently begun to salvage.
But some kind of screwup. Show up late or not at all for one game. Miss a practice because of a Nike commitment, then say it doesn't matter all that much. Shove an unruly fan who got in his face in a club. Get frustrated from double- and triple-teaming and lash out at an opponent. Complain about teammates not giving him enough help.
But here we are in the 24-year-old's sixth season, and it's as if he's following a script written by a couple of hip, yet image-conscious screenwriters. Let yourself groove a little, LeBron, but stay within the lines.
And, so, as the Cavaliers' young superstar accepts the MVP hardware that is so deservedly his, I ponder not the specifics of his exquisitely played season or the promise that he will bring the starving city of Cleveland a championship, but the fact that he has yet to make a major false step.
Incredible. Simply incredible.
Now, just because someone lives an Ozzie and Harriet upbringing, as Michael Jordan did, and someone else grows up hard, as James did, does not guarantee a certain life path. But Jordan himself credited his ability to flourish both on and off the court at least partly to a stable, two-parent boyhood, three blissful campus years at Chapel Hill under the tutelage of Dean Smith, and having superagent David Falk to blaze his marketing trail. James' hardscrabble background, in Akron, Ohio, was the polar opposite of Jordan's. He had no college coach to help check his compass. And at the end of the 2004-05 season, James fired his agents, the Goodwin brothers, and hired a group of friends to take over his endorsement career. (He would later select Leon Rose as his new agent.)
Ticket to disaster? Hardly.
James handles everything thrown at him -- criticism, marketing challenges (would anyone deny that he's a more natural performer than Jordan in his ads?), questions about not winning the big one, etc. -- as easily as he handles hounding defenses. When Washington Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson called him overrated, James simply turned it away by comparing himself to Jay-Z and Stevenson to one-hit wonder Soulja Boy. It's got a degree of cockiness, sure, but it was right for the moment. When Charles Barkley criticized James for talking too much about the free-agent summer of 2010, James responded hotly -- "He's stupid. That's all I've got to say about that" -- and moved on. Again, it was exactly right. Say your piece -- where's the law that someone can't come back at Charles? -- and forget about it.
As he thanked the Cavaliers' fans at the team's final regular-season home game last month, LeBron added, "If we win 99-20, don't boo us because you don't get a free chalupa." He had been upset that Cavs fans sometimes booed when the team didn't score 100 points to trigger a fast-food prize. Again, I thought it was the perfect note, a finger-wave at the fans but a gentle one and one James eminently deserved to make.
His play has been both sensational and exemplary. They're not always the same thing. Remember it wasn't too long ago that James' ability to take -- and make -- the big shot was being questioned. Now he's become a doubly clutch player because he may take the shot but he may also find an open teammate. It wasn't too long ago (the summer of 2006) when a lackadaisical performance at summer camp led some to ponder whether he should even be on the Olympic team. He got the message, and two years later LeBron, Bryant and Dwyane Wade carried the majority of the water on the way to the gold medal.
But the fact that James became a superstar in the tradition of Jordan/Bryant -- let's hold those exact comparisons until we see what happens the rest of the way -- is not really a surprise. It's the way he conducts himself on and off the court that has gotten my attention. True, most of the time, James seems to be reading from a teleprompter in his head, and I would prefer the less scripted, more spontaneous James, the James who calls Barkley stupid. But the kid has grown up fast, under a white-hot spotlight, and, man, what a job of growing up he has done.