As the lights burned down on him across a long, long NBA regular season, there promised to be this moment when LeBron James exposed himself to be what he had to be allowed on some level, for some moment: Just a kid walking into the most unreal hyperbole machine in the history of sports.
Carmelo Anthony had gone and won a national championship for Syracuse, but he had his momentary meltdown, refusing to go back into a game for Denver. With James, you just waited. And waited. It had to come. Just something, just a moment -- but amazingly, it never did. He kept getting better and better, bigger and bigger, and the kid stayed so cool, so poised, so grown up in a season where too often the superstars, such as Kobe and Shaq and A.I., had moments when they just acted like they had walked out of the state tournament.
Across the season, as remarkable as his talent -- and yes, it was extraordinary -- it was no less impressive that through all the hype, all the pressure, all the eyes on him, James never slipped. He never had that Diva-moment. Never lost his cool. Every day, LeBron was LeBron. He never stepped out of character.
"He's been groomed for this," Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said.
Back in November, LeBron was running around the Cavaliers locker room with Darius Miles, acting silly, drinking out of kids' juice boxes, as I remember. Ricky Davis was sitting beside his locker, alone. And everyone wondered the influence they were going to have on James, if they could lead him down a path of petulance.
Ultimately, general manager Jim Paxson made good basketball moves, trading those soft, young players for tougher, more mature and physical veterans in Eric Williams and Tony Battie. Jeff McInnis turned out to be a good find, too. The thing is, James would've adapted. He would've made his own way.
Silas was right. LeBron was groomed for this. There was nothing in his life that seemed to prepare him to be this way, what with a dysfunctional family life, with the corrupting forces of the sneaker companies getting their hooks into him at such a young age. With the great ones -- the absolute transcendental ones -- there seems to be something born to them, a gene, that allows them to guide themselves.
Wherever he played, or whomever his teammates, James just delivered the sense that he would've fit his greatness to it. Cleveland was cozy for him, perfect in a lot of ways --practically home for an Akron kid who was raised just 40 miles down the road. When it was brought to James that the glare would've been tenfold over Cleveland's had he ended up in, say, New York, he smiled that cool, confident smile of his and countered, "My attention span would've been 10 times more too."
He's right. It wouldn't have made a difference. He made people take a deep breath about this crisis in American basketball. All the reasons that NBA scouts wanted the Europeans over the teenage products of AAU and sneaker companies dissolved with James and Anthony, who didn't just do the spectacular but always made the fundamental play.
Any other year, Anthony should be the landslide Rookie of the Year, but James had to be judged differently this year. Never mind that one made the playoffs, and one didn't -- if James had these teammates now with him from opening night, the Cavaliers would have reached the postseason, too. Just a week into the season, Larry Bird told the New York Times that if anyone didn't believe LeBron James was going to be one of the best players in the NBA by the end of the season, they were kidding themselves.
It turned out to be true, which was extraordinary. And yet, it wasn't as amazing as the idea that he didn't just finish the year as one of the best in the game but one of its most grown up. We could see the talent coming a mile away with his kid, but the rest of it? That was something else. That was something inside LeBron James that only comes with the truly great ones. That only comes with those rare talents who have it all together, and will never let anyone mess with it.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.