AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- When he was 15 years old and his team was trailing at the half of an early-round state high school tournament game in a tiny gym in Wooster, Ohio, LeBron James needed to take over. He scored the first 15 points of the second half and the rest was history.
When he was 18 years old and playing his final high school game, in front of a sellout crowd at Ohio State University, his team was in a dogfight to win the state championship game and a mythical national championship. He scored 25 of his team's 40 points and the rest was history.
When he played his first professional game in a boisterous environment far away from home in Sacramento, Calif., it was in front of millions of skeptic eyes. He scored 25 points, the most ever for a preps-to-pros debut, and the rest was history.
So many gyms, layers of challenges and moments of failure led James to the mind-set he took into the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night. Each had its own significance, one building upon another, that led a 22-year-old freakish body to become matched with a hyper-developed basketball soul that may be just starting to bloom.
Thursday night wasn't just about scoring 48 points in a conference finals game on the road. It wasn't even about scoring his team's last 25 points, including every tally in both overtimes. It was about applying the knowledge acquired over years of demanding and high-profile challenges.
There was the game when he was 17, a Sports Illustrated cover boy who let himself and his teammates get a little ahead of themselves while wallowing in hype. They were upset in the state championship game, ruining the chance at a record-smashing title run. Afterward, he vowed to learn from the lapse.
There was the night in Denver in January of 2006 when he passed off a game-winning shot chance for the second game in a row and the Cavs lost by a single point for the second time on a brutal Western road trip.
Afterward in the locker room he wiped moisture from his eyes as he took the blame.
There was Game 1 of this now hellacious series with the Detroit Pistons, when he had a potential lane to score and tie the game but instead threw the ball to an open teammate. Afterward he swore it was the right play and vowed to live to fight another day.
Perhaps there has never been a basketball player more watched, poked and analyzed by the age of 22 than James. His talent and ability to carry his various teams has provided so many opportunities for smashing success or crushing failure. He has taken all of them in his own personal stride. He almost never admits to making a mistake, he usually downplays the significance of losses by saying he's not disappointed, and he never seems to give himself an ultimatum.
Yet there's no doubt he is learning and growing from each momentous experience. And it too, is happening in front of millions memorized by the general speed and enormity of it all.
"This is the single best game I've ever seen in this atmosphere, hands down," said Cavs coach Mike Brown, who has a championship ring from his days on the Spurs bench tucked away at home. "And I've been around some great players."
"He put on an unbelievable display out there," said Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, whose own mighty clutch plays were swallowed by James' historic run of dominance. "It's probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs."
"I have played with him for four years," Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "This is probably the best I've seen him play in a pressure situation."
Which is now the point that the striking reality comes in and so does the question. The one that has so often gripped James' followers since he first started collecting them as a teenager. They've kept asking it as each new experience rises, thrills and then passes.
If he's doing this now at this age, what comes next?
Quite often the answer has been something even greater.
Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal