All kneel, the King approaches
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Watching LeBron means watching other people. Heads turn, voices hush and twitter, and eyes search him out. Is it him or is it us? Where does the image end and the young man begin? Ah, but that ship has sailed, friends. Ain't no way to tell which it is now. Now, it just goes like this: Like a Hollywood starlet or a charismatic politician, LeBron's magnetic and we're enthralled, and that's the truth, Ruth.

LeBron James
All heads turn when LeBron shows up.
Watching LeBron means waiting. There's an ESPY party at the Lucky Strikes bowling alley Tuesday night. There are folks milling and drinks flowing, but it isn't really a party yet, because the man-child has not arrived. And you can feel it -- the promise, the possibility of his presence -- hanging in the air like a dream the room shares, like an archetype triggering the collective unconscious. The hero warrior is coming. Ring the bell, scrub the faces of the children, doll up the women, and prepare a great feast. He is coming.

Watching LeBron is like watching a seasoned vet. I'm not talking about the fact that he looks like he's 35, or that there is nothing remotely high school about his 6-foot-8 frame (though, sure, I'm talking about that, too). What I'm really talking about is the fact that there's not a single ruffled, hurried thing about him. He moves in clutches and crushes of fans and media -- everybody wants a piece or a glimpse, everybody just wants to be close, to tug on Superman's cape -- and you figure he'd stumble every once in a while. But no. Nothing awkward. All Krylon, baby: no runs, no drips, no errors. He moves through space with the quiet confidence of someone whose body's been very, very good to him. Where some might hunch self-consciously, James rises up with some deep sort of bedrock self-confidence, like he knows his roots run deep and strong. Serena Williams gets that when she tells you he "seems like an old spirit."

But watching LeBron is like watching a kid, too. He's at the bowling alley with four or five buddies, clowning and rolling on lane one, and you can see the polished, calculated cool fall from his face. He just is, he just relaxes into his home rhythm and the language of his guys. One of them cracks a joke and LeBron busts a gut, Beyonce comes over the PA and he shakes his groove thing, he puts a ball in the gutter and walks back from the line looking sheepish and getting showered with boos from his friends.

Everyone who's met him will tell you how impressed they are with LeBron's maturity. They'll tell you how grown up he is, how sophisticated and composed. All that's true. But if there is a key to his appeal beyond what he does on the floor, it's that there's still so much youngster in him. We look at him and we think there's some way we might care for him, might help him get where we're going. As my friend Heather says after the awards show on Wednesday evening, "I just want things to work out for him. I just want him to be all right."

Watching LeBron is wondering what's really happening beneath the surface.

It's seeing him get steely-eyed serious with a mic in his face.

Allyson Felix, LeBron James
LeBron's too grounded to go "Big Time" on anyone.
It's seeing a quick smile for his mom.

It's seeing eyes that settle on the horizon rather than someone's face.

And it's also seeing his family -- mom, friends, and agent -- surround him most all the time. They're trying to shield him, sure. But it looks like more than that, too. It looks like grounding, like their faces and frames offer something familiar and loving in rooms that might otherwise look too needy or situations that might otherwise be too heady. I see the family comfort and ground him: You're still our LeBron (we're here for You, no matter what) and you're still our LeBron (don't you go getting too high and mighty, you hear?). Dr. J, who knows a thing or too about being scary good, says, "It's a nice time right now to stay close to home, to make some important decisions about who you want to have around during the journey." Watching LeBron at the ESPYs, I see the family staying close to him, I see them coming along for the journey.

Watching LeBron at the Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year ceremony on Wednesday morning, you think about how he doesn't have to play it like this, about how he could easily big-time this thing. But from where you sit, he seems to want to be a part of it. And when you see that, you're charmed.

Watching him flirt with softball athlete of the year Lisa Dodd, you think he looks just like a 19-year-old boy trying to give and get a phone number. Which is what he is. But it isn't all he is. And there she is, a teenage girl trying to read whether she's talking to LeBron the living legend or LeBron the graduating senior. At one point she says he's "totally different than the rest of us," and at another moment she says, "He's different than I expected, very down to earth."

You see him share the spotlight with his fellow nominees, and insist the moment is theirs, too. It's a gesture that shows his class, and at the same time shows he's in a class by himself.

He switches between those kinds of channels constantly. At one point He's a superstar, and at another moment he's regular folks. Bold and humble. Swagger ... and the straight and narrow.

It seems like it would be dizzying for him to play two parts, but his mom says he's "having a ball!" And you hear LeBron tell a reporter he "chose this life," that even if it "seems like it's hard from the outside, it isn't, because it's something I chose."

You fight with yourself, thinking there's no way he can know what that means, and at the same time thinking maybe you should just keep an eye on him, thinking maybe there are things he can show you.

We watch his every move because we want some glimpse of grace and explosiveness that gives us that rush of human potential brought to life.

LeBron James
The NBA is a privilege not a right, and LeBron knows it.
We watch because it's the thing to do.

We watch knowing, without knowing why, that we'd watch this kid even if it weren't.

We watch knowing it's all premature, but thinking, believing, it might all be prescient, too.

He seems to sense all that. And he seems, in some balanced way, to be able to carry it, to be two selves, and to somehow have them both ready for what's next.

On the red carpet Wednesday night before the awards show, first he shows you silver the cross dangling from a chain around his neck -- "I've had this for a long time, it's cheap, it's just something I like."

And then he shows you the suit made special for the carpet stroll, too -- "Don't tell anyone the designer, because then everyone will want one."

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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