In basketball, the intrigue with the physical has always been devoted to the extremes of height — the very tall and the very short — say, Yao Ming at 7 foot 6, or Nate Robinson at 5 foot 9.
That makes the fascination with LeBron James' body all the more unusual. In NBA terms, James is, at 6 foot 8, an everyday size. But what he achieves with his body has made him a specimen like no other in the sport.
First of all, while he is listed at 250 pounds, nobody much believes that. The educated guess is that this coordinate of fluid, controlled muscle probably weighs in upwards of 265. He is, simply, the ideal human confluence of agility and power, and to boot, he is virtually ambidextrous — an especially important ingredient in basketball.
I'm always reluctant to play the game of who's the best athlete, because different sports require such different physical talents. Sitting down while driving a race car at 200 mph or standing still while hitting a baseball at 100 mph demands singular athleticism, but I would venture to suggest that in all sports that feature strength and motion alike, there may never have been any athlete so packaged as No. 23 on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And can you believe that he's just barely 24 years old? Good grief, LeBron seems to be ageless, just suddenly materialized before us, full grown, like Athena bursting forth from the brow of Zeus. He looks wise for his years, as indeed he appears to be. Above all, especially for one so young, one so fussed over from such a callow age, he always seems to have a sense of who he is — the anti-A-Rod, if you will.
James will become a free agent on July 1, 2010 — a day, in basketball anyway, that has taken on mystical qualities not attributed to any other date since the millennium. And the New York Knicks in particular are merely marking time until that come-to-glory day when they can try to spirit James away from modest little Cleveland to the great and glorious Gotham.
Yes, to be sure, every athlete in New York is a little bigger, more exposed. But basketball, as a team sport, is the best showcase for individual stars, so I have to wonder if LeBron can really be that much larger in Manhattan. He is, after all, only the third man ever to appear on the cover of Vogue in 117 years. What more can the Knicks do? Get him on the cover of Foreign Affairs?
Besides, James comes from just down the road from Cleveland, in Akron, and he has seen all along that nobody has any trouble finding him wherever he is. This is one time, I suspect, when New York will discover that the mountain must come to Muhammad.
In fact, more and more, LeBron James appears to be the magnetic north of the game he bestrides.
Commentator Frank Deford reports from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.