INDEPENDENCE // LeBron James keeps his Olympic gold medal in his home office, and from time to time Cleveland's best player takes a peek at it. "It's a pretty sight," he said. James spent a part of his summer helping the US team redeem their global superiority by winning it all at the Beijing Games. At just 23, he was the undisputed leader of that 12-player squad comprised of big talents and supersized egos.
"If you can lead 11 of the best guys in the world, you can lead anybody," James said. "If I can lead [the LA Lakers'] Kobe Bryant and the MVPs, I should be able to lead [his Cavaliers teammate] Daniel Gibson." James has visions of another exquisite, glittering prize - the NBA championship trophy. And he thinks it's within the Cavaliers' reach. "As a leader, I think I can lead these guys to the championship," he said. "We really believe that. It's not about making the play-offs for our team anymore. It's about winning a championship."
The Cavaliers have come close. Two years ago, they made their first trip to the finals before being overwhelmed and swept in four games by the San Antonio Spurs. Last season, they pushed the eventual champions Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. This year, the Cavaliers, who acquired the point guard Mo Williams this summer in a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks, feel they can finish the job.
"We all have one goal, and that's a championship," said Williams, who averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds for the Bucks. "We're not just talk. Every team in the league are saying they are going to win a championship. But we're confident. We know that if we put in the work and focus, we can do it. It's all we talk about." James has a different aura about him as he enters his sixth season as a professional. In many ways, he's still a child. As he sat down to field questions, James tore open a bag of sweets to eat before posing for photographers who politely asked him to smile while demanding he hold a basketball every way it is humanly possible.
At one point, his teammate Anderson Varejao interrupted one session and stood next to James wearing an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt. Williams, who scored a season-high 37 points against the Cavaliers last season, is the best point guard Cleveland have had since James arrived, and with him on the floor, the Cavaliers should be able to play at a faster pace than in previous years. "He can allow me to play off him," James said. "I don't have to bring the ball up as much. I'm going to emphasise on just running the floor a lot. You look at me in the summer time, when I'm playing with the great point guards like Jason Kidd and Deron Williams and Chris Paul.
"For the most part, you just see me run the floor. It's easy for me. Now with Mo Williams here and Delonte [West] and Boobie [Gibson], I can do that. I can get out on the break." James can't seem to get a break from the endless speculation that he intends to leave Cleveland as a free agent when his contract runs out in two years. But he has also fueled that by constantly wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and expressing his loyalty to the Bronx Bombers, as well as the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.
James wishes all the talk would stop. "I've never given an indication I was leaving Cleveland," James said. "I never gave any indication I didn't like being here, every time I'm asked that question. "I love being here. I love playing in front of these fans. My family is here. I grew up 30 miles away from here. I've never given any indication that I did not like playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now I did say I like the Yankees and the Cowboys. It has nothing to do with the Cavaliers."
James smiled as he again explained his allegiance to out-of-town teams, a fact that rubs some Cleveland fans the wrong way. "Am I not allowed to be a fan of what team I want?" he said. "When I grew up watching sports, the Cowboys were the team to love. If I say I like Michael Jordan, is that a problem? If I didn't say [the Cavaliers All-Star] Mark Price, is that a problem? Is it? That's who I grew up watching. These are the teams and people who inspired me when I was growing up.
"I have now broken it down for all of you," he said. * AP