CLEVELAND (AP) -Imagine being 22, and having to carry a franchise.
Now imagine being 22, and having to carry the hopes and dreams of an entire city. A city that's known nothing in sports but heartbreak for two generations. A city so starved for something good its most memorable events were somebody else's triumphs.
A city just up the highway from where you grew up, making those disappointments all the more personal.
Imagine that kind of pressure. Most athletes would crumble under a fraction of the weight.
LeBron James, though, isn't most athletes. Isn't like anybody else, to be honest. All those comparisons to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson? They don't do justice for what this kid from Akron has done for Cleveland and the Cavaliers.
``There's been so much hype about him,'' Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. ``And he's lived up to every ounce of it.''
That James was going to be a spectacular player was never in question. He was schooling guys twice his age back when he was in high school, and he does things on the court that James Naismith never envisioned. He single-handedly won Game 5 of the Eastern Confernce finals for the Cavs on Thursday night, scoring 48 points, including 29 of Cleveland's last 30.
But it's one thing to be a special talent. It's quite another to be the savior of a city.
``We've been waiting so long,'' said Tony Timko, a lifelong Cleveland fan. ``The city's just waiting to see how far he can carry us, and he's starting to do it. It's amazing, to pretty much take the city on his shoulders and say, `I'm going to bring you there.'''
No, James hasn't led the Cavaliers to an NBA title yet. That really isn't the point, though.
While James is most often likened to Jordan and sometimes Johnson, a more appropriate comparison is Tiger Woods. Only Woods has faced this kind of hype, scrutiny and expectations from the time he came into his game.
James, remember, was playing on national TV before he went to the prom. While his buddies were stockpiling supplies for their dorm rooms the summer after they graduated from high school, he was picking up a multimillion dollar check from Nike.
Yet James has not only met the expectations, he's surpassed them.
In four years, he's transformed the perennial bottom-feeding Cavaliers into an Eastern Conference power. To sum up just how far he's taken Cleveland, consider this: When the Cavs stepped on the floor Saturday night, it was the first time they'd played a game in June.
Not a home game, not a conference finals game, not even a summer league game. Any game.
``Our fans deserve it more than any fans in the United States of America right now,'' James said Saturday night.
To truly appreciate James, though, realize he's done this a 40-minute drive from where he grew up, so close that everybody not only knew his home address but could give detailed directions to the house.
And James is all too familiar with Cleveland's history of hurts. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. Art Modell. The sports scene here was so woeful when James was growing up that he looked elsewhere, adopting the Cowboys and Bulls and Yankees as his teams.
Other stars - Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Jeff George - have tried to go home, only to discover that friendly old neighborhood is mighty claustrophobic.
Not James. He revels in his role as Cleveland's publicist, giving his the city a badly needed ego boost and making the rest of the country rethink all those nasty things it said about the ``Mistake by the Lake.''
``It seems like everyone is coming together, bonding,'' said Vanita Oliver, a lifelong Cavs fan. ``You walk by people and everybody says, `Hi. How are you doing?'
``We're coming alive, and I love it.''
With tipoff still more than four hours away Saturday, Cavs fans were already beginning to take over the downtown streets. And with the first-place Cleveland Indians at home, too, the city had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere in the sun-splashed afternoon.
Fans who didn't have tickets to the Cavaliers game were already staking out spots in front of the Jumbotrons on the plaza separating the arena and Jacobs Field. The team shop in the arena was doing brisk business, and a steady stream of fans popped in simply to pick up the black ``Witness'' posters that pay homage to James.
Brokers paced the sidewalk offering tickets at the bargain price of $200 a piece - and those were for nosebleed seats. With the first-place Indians at home, too, parking at many lots had jumped from the regular $15 to $25. Restaurants were already filling, with the busiest night of the year still to come.
At Harry Buffalo, about a block away from the arena, manager Robert Valore had scheduled three times the number of staff he normally would.
``It'll be pandemonium,'' Valore said. ``Cleveland deserves this. We need this.''
In James, Cleveland has finally found someone who can deliver.
---
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmourap.org

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