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LEBRON HAS LIVED UP TO THE HYPE

Nancy Armour
Cleveland, U.S. (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 are 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."

And then some.

Only four years removed from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, James has the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the first time in their 37 years. For the first time in a decade, an end to Cleveland's title drought is tantalizingly real, not the blind optimism fans cling to when there's nothing else.

Sure, Daniel Gibson came up big and the Cavs played the annoying, smothering defense that's usually Detroit's trademark. But make no mistake, this series _ indeed, these entire playoffs _ were all about James.

"This is special. This is special, man," James said, unable to stop smiling after Cleveland's 98-82 victory Saturday night and not even bothering to try.

"Really special."

In the evolution of every NBA great, there's a time when he goes from superb to sublime. For Johnson, it was Game 6 of the NBA Finals his rookie year, when he stepped up for the hobbled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and led the Lakers to the title. For Jordan, it was "The Shot," made right here in Cleveland in 1989.

Now it's James' turn. After being criticized for not being aggressive enough in Game 1 of this series, James grew up before our eyes. He single-handedly won Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals for the Cavs on Thursday night, scoring 48 points, including 29 of Cleveland's last 30.

Gibson might have had the edge on points Saturday, but no one had a better all-around game than James. When he stepped in front of Rasheed Wallace to intercept a soft pass by Lindsey Hunter, taking it in for a layup and drawing a foul, the Pistons were done.

It didn't matter that there were still 10 minutes left. As James thumped his chest and screamed at the fans, Pistons coach Flip Saunders stood helplessly, hands on his head.

James would finish with 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, and it was only fitting that the ball was in his hands as the game ended. He heaved it into the stands and, as it disappeared, so did the anguish of an entire city.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to me, man," he said. "But look here, look here. It doesn't stop."

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.

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," Tony Timko, a lifelong Cleveland fan, said before Gam 6. "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.

Tiger Woods might be the only other athlete who's 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 Eastern Conference champs.

To truly appreciate him, 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.

Other players _ Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry, to name two _ have gone home, only to find that that old neighborhood is more claustrophobic than comforting.

"The city's just waiting to see how far he can carry us, and he's starting to do it," Timko said. "It's amazing, to pretty much take the city on his shoulders and say, `I'm going to bring you there.'"

For James, though, this is personal. He revels in being Cleveland's booster, giving the city a badly needed ego lift and making the rest of the country rethink all those nasty things it said about the "Mistake by the Lake."

And he won't have kids growing up like he did. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. Art Modell _ the sports scene here was so woeful that James looked elsewhere, adopting the Cowboys and Bulls and Yankees as his teams.

"If I could put into words what's going on in my head right now, man, we would be up here for another three hours," James said.

He could have taken all the time he wanted, and the city wouldn't have cared. While James and his teammates celebrated with their shiny new trophy, the streets surrounding the arena were one big party.

Fans young and old danced, cheered and waved white towels in the air. They hugged and cried, elated to have something to celebrate.

"I've always believed in us. From day one," James said. "... It was just our time, and we're here now."

Finally, Cleveland has found someone who can deliver. AP

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