- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

The NBA season is in the throes of an uneven “Premiere Week,” not counting the jaw-dropping debut of LeBron James in Sacramento.

James walked into one of the noisiest arenas in the NBA and refused to acquiesce to the environment and the most ludicrous burden ever imposed on an athlete so tender.

James, No.23, set those at courtside on a quest to find new superlatives after finishing with 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals.

James is being labeled the next Jordan — Michael, not Eddie — while the old next Jordan endeavors to improve his interpersonal skills with Shaquille O’Neal.

The Turner Sports studio crew broke down Kobe Bryant’s body language after the Lakers broke down the perpetually suspect interior defense of the Mavericks.

Magic Johnson, to name one member of the Turner think tank, liked what he saw, in both spirit and execution.

Johnson, who wears the NBA’s “I Love This Game” slogan on his face, saw the first signs of a healing process between Bryant and O’Neal, each of whom convicted the other of being selfish, plus fat in O’Neal’s case. Bryant did find the bench in time to celebrate the fourth quarter with the Lakers.

By the way, Bryon Russell hit a few shots for the Lakers, which leads to an obvious lament: Now he hits them after missing most of them in Washington last season.

Mark Cuban, the mercurial owner who favors T-shirts, has retooled the Mavericks, though to no significant effect unless you believe in the power of Danny Fortson to bump bodies with the leading big men in the Western Conference. The Mavericks, entertaining or not, are stuck as the third- or fourth-best team in the NBA.

Meanwhile, they put on a quite an exhibition in New York, the Knicks and Magic did, as in the preseason sense. The players from both teams appeared to be in need of another month of training camp, Tracy McGrady as much as everyone else.

ESPN had the temerity to televise the Knicks-Magic game as the lead-in to the traveling “Carnivale” in Sacramento, perhaps with a hidden justification. With so many mass marketing initiatives riding on James, he was bound to look better than the Knicks and Magic, even if he merely demonstrated the capacity to breathe under his own power.

James was better than that, of course, a whole lot better, which undoubtedly is causing personnel gurus to reconsider their discomfort around those readying to attend the high school prom. The rush to discover the next James is apt to trickle down to the junior high level.

So how about those Wizards?

The Wizards defeated a bad team on the road by 25 points, which is what modestly reasonable teams are obligated to do. This is not to imply the Wizards are a modestly reasonable team just yet, but the opening display was encouraging.

Kwame Brown resisted the urge to deliver flowers to the altar of Jordan’s statue outside United Center and instead delivered a sturdy effort, if between fits of confusion. He was two points and two rebounds shy of a double-double in 31 minutes, no small measure of hope if the Wizards are destined to disprove the deluge of doom from NBA prognosticators.

Brown is the long-term necessity of the Wizards, the wild card in the operation who must rise in support of Gilbert Arenas and the shelved beachcomber, Jerry Stackhouse.

Another good indicator: Ernie Grunfeld was on the job in Chicago, in full view of the peasantry, with no golf bag at his side, no bodyguards and no mystifying messages to decode. It was basketball for basketball’s sake, a novel approach following the franchise’s experiment with the deification process.

Doug Collins, who led the process in Washington and lost the locker room, has resurfaced on television, talking a good game, as is his wont.

Elsewhere, Mr. Freeze’s intriguing coaching debut with the Pacers almost went unnoticed, except in Detroit, from whence he was banished because of a lack of an inner Alan Alda.

It was Mr. Freeze’s fate to open against his previous employers, stand through the raising of his former team’s Central Division championship banner, and then preside over a two-point victory against the best coach never to have won an NBA championship.

“It’s not about me, and it never will be,” Mr. Freeze said.

Good old Mr. Freeze.

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