Here we go again. ??Before the last shot of Michael Jordan's final game with the Chicago Bulls, he left behind a moment that will hang in the minds of sports fans the way he did in the air. His quick crossover dribble, with the help of a tiny shove, sent Utah Jazz defender Byron Russell to the floor. Wide open, Jordan nailed the game-winning jump shot, and he and the Bulls clinched their sixth--and Jordan's last--NBA title.
At the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Ore., last Wednesday, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, 20, became the youngest player to reach one of the toughest performance milestones in basketball, the "triple double" (double digits in points, rebounds and assists in a single game--he did it again three nights later). During one play, his quick crossover dribble, sans shove, sent a Portland defender veering to the sideline. Wide open, James shot a three pointer. Swish. Nothing but Mike.
Ever since Jordan's first retirement a dozen years ago, the NBA has searched from Chi-town to China for a star as dominant and marketable as His Airness. The contenders have bounced off magazine covers and TV commercials: Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant. Some got hurt, others committed off-court fouls. Or they were simply overrated.
The race to replace Jordan may end without a winner, but LeBron James, in just his second year out of St. Vincent--St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, is already far ahead of the pretenders. The physical package is awesome: 6 ft. 8 in., 240 lbs., with the speed of a guard and the strength of a power forward. His game is spectacular. James combines Jordan's ease at filling up the box score (and the stands) with a ruthless instinct to win, a trait that Hill, a gentleman, and Carter, a diffident performer, surely lack. And like Jordan, James knows he can't do it alone. In fact, he is a complete team player who loves to pass the ball and make his teammates better: Iverson and Bryant can't claim much there. Despite securing a $90 million contract from Nike before his high school graduation, James has retained some Midwestern humility (Iverson and Bryant, take heed).
The biggest shock of all: the most hyped teen athlete of this century, who singlehandedly put high school basketball on national television, has actually exceeded the ungodly expectations set before him. He has resurrected the moribund Cavaliers and, in a season marred by an ugly melee in neighboring Michigan, perhaps the NBA as well. "The King James era is here," says Milwaukee Bucks head coach Terry Porter, who played against Jordan for much of his 17-year pro career. "You could argue that LeBron is kind of carrying the league right now."