Now, in less than a decade, he has been transformed, frighteningly, into a villain, the most polarizing, reviled athlete in professional sports, which is no mean feat. Some of it is his doing, and some isn't. Some of it is unreasoning, and unreasonable, and makes for easy, cheap fodder for the parrot heads. But almost never have I seen such vitriol heaped upon one performer without even the pretense of objectivity.
Outside the environs of Miami, it feels as though the rest of the country is rooting for those young and chesty upstarts from Oklahoma City so as to deny James once again the first of what he so rashly and regrettably predicted as seven - count 'em, seven - championships coming the Heat's way.
Perhaps I soften in my dotage, but I can see past the unsavory and to a remarkable similarity to Allen Iverson: It takes a boy to raise a village.
So then, exactly how good is LeBron James? It says here he is the third best player of all time. That's quite a load, and certainly open to debate. Herewith, then, one man's lists of the greatest players of all time, and I have seen them all, which means my birthday cake is a raging bonfire.
No. 1: Wilt Chamberlain. The years pass and one certainty remains - Wilt's name in the record book. Fifty points or more 45 times in one season, a career rebounding average of 22.9, and never a debate about the most dominant player ever. Consider this testimony from Spencer Haywood on defending Wilt for the first time: "So I told myself, Wilt isn't such a tough guy, I can guard him. Well, he backed me down and dunked, and I was so far under the basket and he dunked it so hard that the ball came back up through the net and hit me in the forehead. Twice! Bang! Bang! So I said, you know, I should maybe start practicing ducking."
No. 2: Michael Jordan. He was a tyrant and a bully in practice, never allowing his own teammates to ease off even a little. His ferocity to win was frightening. He would spend the early minutes of a game assessing what the Bulls needed, and then he provided it. A little girl asked him if it was true, could he really walk on air? And he smiled and replied: "Yes, but only for a little while."
No. 3: LeBron James. Like Wilt and like Goliath, he'll be taunted and haunted until he wins a title. Or two. Or . . . . But how you feel about him personally shouldn't color your appreciation of his considerable skills. His genius, both power and finesse, is undeniable. Like Jordan, he plays at both ends of the court, and with equal passion.
No. 4: Kobe Bryant. A thousand jump shots a day for a thousand - no, make it 10,000 days - is an automatic pass into the Hall of Fame.
No. 5: Oscar Robertson. The triple-double is the Big O's creation. In the 1961-62 season he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists. Four other years he barely missed.
No. 6: Bill Russell. Eleven rings. Case closed.
No. 7: Magic Johnson. Could, and did, play all five positions. And sometimes on the same night.
No. 8: Julius Erving. An aviation pioneer. First came the Wright Brothers, then Dr. J.
No. 9: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The ultimate unstoppable weapon - the sky hook.
No. 10: Elgin Baylor. Force him to go to his right, they said. We did and he dropped 40 on us anyway. Career: 27.4 and 13.5.
No. 11: Rick Barry. Thirty a game. Second-best free- throw shooter of all time, and did it two-handed, underhanded.
No. 12: Larry Bird and The Great Psych-Out. In the ready room for an All-Star Game three-point contest, he barged in, surveyed the field, and asked: "OK, which one of you is playing for second?"
No. 13: Shaquille O'Neal: And just think if he had made his free throws. (Oh, wait, that's what we said about Wilt.)
No. 14: Charles Barkley. "Anybody can score," he used to say, "it's rebounding that's hard." And Sir Charles was one hellacious rebounder.
No. 15: JohnStocktonKarlMalone. You can't have one without the other.
Off the Bench
Ten more for your consideration:
Kevin Durant (a promising work in progress).