Mariotti: The King and The Heir

Love? You can't say America ever has felt extreme, unbridled affection for LeBron James. There can be no adorability factor when we watch a 6-8, 260-pound, slab-muscled chassis rumble in hightops as the most unstoppable load in basketball history, to the point of wondering if he should be steroid-tested. First known as The Chosen One, then as the clumsy author of The Decision, James was sport's most polarizing figure — an entitled mercenary — until he figured out how to win titles in Miami, then returned to northeast Ohio in a convenient image-buffering when, in truth, he headed home only because the window to more trophies was closed in South Beach.

His legacy is too complex, too calculated, too tormented, too big, too unrelatable to the common dude. When someone compared James to a cyborg, the Warriors' Draymond Green turned serious and said, “He is not God.” Sometimes, we're not so sure, knowing this composite of brute force, high intellect and one-man-gangdom is unprecedented in an NBA Finals.

“If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game. If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I've been,” said James, showing no reluctance to recognize his feral dominance this postseason. “I think now with my whole body of work, as far as how I approach the game mentally as well as my game, I'm very, very confident in my ability to be able to see the game even before the game is played.”

All of which makes him sound like a machine, in direct contrast to Stephen Curry. He is so adorable, I'm surprised there aren't talking-string Steph dolls in toy stores throughout the land, with an accompanying Riley doll and replicas of other family members available in boxed sets. Kids love him because he looks like one of them. Women love him because he's a humble, huggable family man. Men love him because he's a wispy 6-3 and is adept not at bull rushes through the lane but the game we all played in our youth: long, fun, crazy jumpshooting. Hell, we all love Steph Curry because he was the smallest guy on his youth teams, because he was told he'd never be remotely as good as his sharp-shooting dad, because he wasn't recruited by Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams in his North Carolina backyard, because he heard during his delightful NCAA tournament run at Davidson that he was merely a college star, because he had to wait on NBA draft night for the Minnesota Timberwolves to choose not one but two point guards before the Warriors grabbed him with the No. 7 pick in 2009. When asked how he improved his game from an All-Star level to his current Most Valuable Player plateau, Curry couldn't have been less self-aggrandizing.

“God,” he said, “and a lot of coaches that have inspired me along the way. It's all part of the process of taking bits and pieces from different personalities and characters you come across. You learn every day, be coachable, and find different ways to challenge yourself and get better.”

Love? It's definitely a fair assessment of America's relationship with Curry. True to form, he showed up Wednesday for his global media session and announced he was getting a haircut, then heading to his backyard pool in Orinda for some sun and Riley Time. “When I get home, that kind of makes everything alright,” he said of his famous two-year-old daughter. “I rarely ever have a bad day regardless of what happens on the court. It just gives you something more than basketball to play and live for. It's pretty special.” He spoke of trying to keep his life as normal as possible, and, later in the day, his wife proved it with a tweet.

“Would just like to clarify that my 2 year old does not have a Twitter or Instagram account… At all,'' Ayesha Curry wrote.

So what's at stake these next two weeks? There's the matter of the Larry O'Brien Jug, in what well could be a seven-game classic between Curry's Warriors and James' Cleveland Cavaliers, but there's also a compelling personal battle: Who's the face of basketball? Who's the greatest showman and shotmaker? Is it still James, the four-time MVP and two-time champion, who has owned a substantial place in the spotlight since his high-school games were televised nationally in the early 2000s? Or is it the newbie sensation, Curry, who doesn't have to be a cyborg to create an electric way of taking over a game, a regular season, an All-Star weekend, a postseason and, from the looks of his non-stop reel of TV ads, the consciousness of sports? All you have to know about the raging Curry Flurry is that his biggest fan — someone who doesn't make a habit of gushing about celebrated rivals, someone who has declared more than once that he wants to be the greatest player of all time — is LeBron James.

“Steph is great for our league, the way he approaches not only everything on the floor, but off the floor,” James said. “He's got a beautiful family and everything, so, I mean, it wouldn't be bad for our league at all if they want to model it behind him.”

It was James, remember, who took a keen interest in Curry during March Madness seven years ago. He actually drove from Cleveland to Detroit and sat behind Davidson's bench. “I saw a kid who didn't care how big someone was, how fast someone else was, how strong someone else was. He just went out and played,” James said. “He wasn't going to let anything — as far as the analytics when it comes to size, power, strength, speed — stop him. It was great to see someone not get caught up in people going after guys who can jump higher and run faster and run through a wall harder and things like that. He was just out there playing free and loving the game.”

And now? “I think a lot of people don't understand how great his motor is. He never stops moving,” James said. “His ballhandling, his ability to shoot the ball off the dribble and off the catch. It's uncanny. I don't think there's ever been a guy in our league to shoot the ball the way he does off the dribble or off the catch, off the ball. He just creates so many matchup problems for your defense.”

It's almost outlandish to say this could be the most dynamic Finals matchup of epic players since Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Perhaps it's a stretch because (1) James and Curry never will defend each other, unless James guards him in a last-shot scenario; and (2) James, with Kyrie Irving hobbling and Kevin Love out, is pulling off a near-solo miracle while Curry, who has had his share of singlehanded brilliance, is part of a larger team paradigm. Still, think about it: James vs. Kevin Durant was a five-game dud; James' battles with the Spurs were more about dueling the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan empire; Shaquille O'Neal never was threatened; and neither Karl Malone nor Charles Barkley seriously challenged Michael Jordan.

Where these Finals become James vs. Curry is in shotmaking sequences near game's end, as we saw early in the Houston series between Curry and James Harden, with Curry winning both battles. And Curry can make his hay against Cleveland if Irving, his All-Star counterpart, continues to struggle with knee tendinitis. Barkley, who continues his anti-Warriors stance by picking the Cavs in six games, says Irving and other defenders must beat up Curry. But so far, Def Steph has held steady against intimidation tactics, physical play and, of course, his dangerous, head-first spill last week. He says he's ready for the Finals, but it's fair to wonder about eventual fatigue. With Klay Thompson fighting the aftereffects of a concussion, Curry must be at his best from Game 1 tipoff to the final buzzer of Game 7. Is it too much to ask when this is his first Finals?

And when James, never looking more comfortable in his skin, sounded as relaxed as we've seen him during his six Finals? “I've been in front of this since I was a 15-year-old kid,” he said. “So it's something I've been dealing with for half of my life. I think I've done a pretty cool job.

“You don't put too much more pressure on it. It's a court and it's basketball, and it's ten guys on the court, it's three referees, and it's 20,000-plus fans. It doesn't change. These fans (at Oracle Arena) are amazing. But I've been in so many loud arenas. I've played in [Oklahoma City] in the Finals. I've played in Boston. I've played in Detroit when they were in their heyday. I've played in Chicago in 2011. I've played in San Antonio. You just go out and play. You've got to command. Sometimes you've got to have some hand signals depending on how loud they get. But for the most part, you just trust what you've been able to do.”

And why not? James is averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists in what is becoming one of the magnificent individual postseasons ever. He's four victories from another triumph that would further elevate his legacy: bringing Cleveland its first sports title in 51 years. “I understand the drought our city has been in as far as a championship, so it's a huge motivation inside me,” he said. “And it's helped me get to this point, but I'm not done. I've still got a lot left in me this season, and I'm going to command a lot out of my guys. I'm going to command a lot out of myself.”

He is so at ease that he headed to North Beach after the team's arrival Tuesday night and ate in a VIP area at Park Tavern. He claims to do “normal stuff” all the time, contrary to a picture coach David Blatt painted about a scene at the team hotel, something about a woman “forearm-shivering” a man to get close to James. “I went to the movies last week at a regular movie theater,” LeBron reported. “What is the movie with the girls and they're singing? Pitch Perfect 2, which is unbelievable. Fat Amy is awesome. Last night I went out and had a great dinner. I do normal stuff. I think I do.”

Alas, he is not a normal guy, and never has been. Curry is a normal guy, and always has been. ABC is expecting close to 18 million viewers a night, which would top the seven-game average for the James-Spurs series in 2013. If the Cavs win, LeBron will be remembered forevermore as The King who went home and saved Cleveland from itself.

And if the Warriors win? The heir, Stephen Curry, ascends to the throne, 2-year-old daughter surely by his side as America coos.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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