CLEVELAND – On the court where he burst onto the national scene as a high school phenom, LeBron James lived out a childhood All-Star dream.
The skinny 12-year-old kid, who longed to make the short trip from Akron to Cleveland the last time the world's best basketball players visited Ohio 25 years ago, had a moment as precious as any MVP trophy on Saturday.
Back at Wolstein Center, James found himself surrounded by his best friends, the high school teammates, the ones who have been there for every step of his amazing journey.
“A remarkable thing," James said. “It's pretty cool.”
As practice began for Team LeBron, the handpicked squad for his 18th All-Star Game, James left Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and others behind on the floor so he could be with his teammates for life.
He spotted Romeo Travis, now a coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary and Willie McGee, the athletic director at their alma mater. There was Dru Joyce Jr., following his dad's coaching footsteps as an assistant at Cleveland State and Sian Cotton, coaching football back at St. V., as it's known, and Frankie Walker Jr.
James hugged each of them tightly. He posed for pictures while holding their kids, remarking how some of them had grown since he last saw them.
“My guys,” he said later. “I speak to them almost every day. We have that connection and that friendship that’s been going on since we were 9. This is the first time we’ve all spent the All-Star weekend together. So it makes it even more special.”
James recalled how he and his friends felt back in 1997, when the NBA dropped into Cleveland and celebrated its 50th anniversary.
That year, he watched in awe as rookie Kobe Bryant won the dunk contest “doing the East Bay dunk” and a young James dreamed of one day seeing any All-Star — never mind soaring like Michael Jordan.
“I wished I had the means and the ability to come up to Cleveland and just feel that energy and hopefully bump into one of those guys,” James said. “To sit here 25 years later doing what I love to do, dreaming about what I love to do, believing in what I wanted to be, it’s just unbelievable.”
This All-Star break is a welcomed one for the Los Angeles Lakers' superstar, who despite being 37 and in the fourth quarter of his career, remains in the conversation as being the league's best player.
He's averaging 29.1 points per game, scored at least 25 points in 23 consecutive games and shown he can be as dominant as ever.
While James' game is showing little signs of erosion, his body has begun to betray him. He's missed time this season an with abdominal strain and left knee injury.
Then there's the mental toll.
“This is the strangest season I’ve been a part of so far,” James said. "I don’t want to just talk about the injuries, but COVID protocols. We’ve had our head coach be out for several games. We’ve had injuries.
"We’ve had a little bit of everything. It's been very challenging, very physically and emotionally draining at times, but that’s the NBA season for you.”
The homecoming weekend is a chance to re-energize for a end-of-season stretch that could require James doing even more with Lakers center Anthony Davis expected to miss more than a month with a mid-foot sprain.
And although the Lakers sit ninth in the Western Conference and didn't make any moves at he trade deadline, James feels good about their direction despite this being “a hell-storm of a season for us so far.”
“I love the way we’ve played the last few games,” he said. "At the trade deadline, the energy shifted in our locker room. One resulted in a win. One resulted in a loss in the Bay. But I hope we can continue that same energy, that same connectivity, and as a leader of the team, obviously, it starts and ends with me, and we go from there.”
That's just the way it is for James.
Whether playing in Los Angeles, Miami or Cleveland, James sets the tone.
And while the Lakers have struggled mightily, his former team, the Cavaliers, have been revived with a nucleus of young talent.
Cleveland is one of the league's biggest surprises and the Cavs' rise has fueled questions whether James might consider a third stint with the team he led to an NBA title in 2016.
James has said he'd like to end his pro career playing with his son, Bronny, now a high school junior.
As he reflected on his youth and “having teams up 77 North” to root for and inspire him, James praised the city and the Cavs, who are being represented in Sunday's All-Star Game by point guard Darius Garland and center Jarrett Allen.
“Cleveland is very deserving of this platform and this moment,” he said. "They got two All-Stars of their own in the game in D.G. and the big fella, Jarrett Allen. And they got another guy in the All-Star, and that’s me.
“It’s great, man.”
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports