by Brett Klein

LeBron James made his first appearance in an NBA regular season game on Oct. 29, 2003 as a Cleveland Cavalier and took the floor in the NBA season opener this year on the tenth anniversary of his debut.

As he begins the 2013-2014 campaign, James will go to battle for the Miami Heat in his fourth season with the team, and he remains the consensus top dog in the league.

How did we get from Cleveland to Miami? From zero championships to two? From zero points to 21,081? From the most hyped high school talent in history to the best player in a currently talent-laden league and vying for greatest of all time status?

Fans often don’t appreciate greatness until it’s gone, but it is the time to recognize, that as NBA fans, we could be watching the greatest player the league has seen since Michael Jordan.

That is a startling statement considering the fact that James is also primed to surpass some of the game’s greats, in terms of rank, in the coming years.

James’ rise to prominence began when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s with the headline “The Chosen One” sprawled across the page.

If it was possible to live up to such steep expectations, James did it by scoring 25 points and doling out nine assists in his debut against the Sacramento Kings.

In his first game, when jitters and mistakes should have ruled the day, James sank several off-balance jumpers and attacked the rim with reckless abandon while shooting 12 for 20.

James finished his rookie season averaging 20.9 points per game, the lowest season average of his career, for an abysmal Cavaliers squad that missed the playoffs.

James would finally reach the playoffs in his third season in Cleveland, where he once again exceeded expectations in his first postseason appearance.

In Game 1 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, James tallied 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, recording a triple-double in his first playoff game.

James has endured more criticism over the course of his 10-year career than any other player of superstar caliber. Much of this criticism though, is undeserved. James’ field goal percentage has increased steadily every season with the exception of the 2005-2006 season to 2006-2007, when it dropped .004 percent.

Additionally, James reached the 20,000 point plateau in just 726 games, the eighth fastest in NBA history behind some of the greatest to ever play the game, such as Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The biggest knock on James was and continues to be his failure to win a championship with the Cavaliers, despite the fact that he led the team to the best record in the Eastern Conference in each of his final two seasons despite a supporting cast headed by Mo Williams, an aging Antawn Jamison and a nearly-retired, barely-mobile Shaquille O’Neal in 2010.

After Cleveland’s second round loss to the Boston Celtics in 2010, all hell broke loose for James as he entered free agency. That infamous summer of 2010 spawned most of the negativity that has surrounded his career since.

James was courted and very literally romanced by the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Clippers, Heat and Cavaliers during the offseason when several marquee free agents hit the open market.

In “The Decision,” an hour-long and mostly unnecessary television special in which he announced his intention to sign with the Heat, James turned 49 of the 50 U.S. states against him, most notably his home state of Ohio.

This seemingly unfortunate decision to broadcast his free agency decision at a pivotal point in his career was not as selfish and self-centered as it appeared.

The special, which was broadcast from the Boys & Girls club in Greenwich, Conn., raised $3 million for charity, according to ESPN.com. In other words, James’ biggest mistake was assigning higher importance to charity than to the hearts of Cavaliers fans.

James didn’t do his image any favors by participating in the Heat’s “Welcome Party” thrown for James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh during which James informed the nation that he intended to win “…not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” championships before he had even practiced with his new teammates.

In James’ three seasons in Miami, the Heat have made three finals appearances and secured two rings in the process after James faltered in the 2011 Finals against Dallas. James deservedly won both Finals Most Valuable Player awards to go along with his four regular season MVP’s.

By comparison, Michael Jordan won five MVP awards during his career in which he claimed the symbolic throne as the “greatest player of all time.”

At the pace that James is winning games, championships and awards, it isn’t completely absurd for Michael Jordan to grasp his G.O.A.T. crown and scepter a little tighter because he knows James is after it, which James has plainly stated on numerous occasions.

James is a rare talent. He combines skill, strength and grace in a way that few players in the history of the game did. He scores, assists, rebounds and defends.

Naysayers complain that LeBron lacks a consistent outside jump shot, yet James shot nearly 41 percent from three-point range a season ago.

Others declare that James folds in the clutch when his team needs him the most, but then again he took and made the game-winning layup in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 to beat the Pacers.

The evidence in James’ statistics tends to win out when his game is criticized.

James struggled during the 2010-2011 season when he tried to play the role of the villain against all those who said he was a coward for leaving Cleveland.

James is not a villain by nature, which is the reason he abandoned that persona the next season and has succeeded since doing so.

James has matured immeasurably during his career into a grown-man who ignores the outside criticism and truly knows that his success depends on no one but himself. When it’s all said and done, it will be standard to tell your kids “I wish you could have seen LeBron James,” similar to the way Jordan is revered today.

But for now, let’s just sit back, relax and enjoy the privilege of watching King James’ greatness unfold.


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