James thrills crowd in his pro debut

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - So now we understand a little.

LeBron James can play. He can really play.

He swiveled and contorted his body on one astonishing reverse. He whisked passes by defender's ears and into teammates' hands. He dunked and made himself look all tough afterward, kind of like how Tracy McGrady does.

In his professional debut, James, the star from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, glided to the hoop and the hoopla at TD Waterhouse Centre last night in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 107-80 win over the Orlando Magic in an NBA summer league game.

He was impressive. An announced crowd of 15,123 buzzed a little for James' first NBA exhibition, got giddy at times and then left intrigued, if not blown away.

They left with the understanding that there is more to come from the top pick in the NBA draft. Most will probably want to witness his journey.

After a night that ended with a stat line of 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists, James walked calmly off the court as lingering fans lunged over a rail. The crazy hype did not faze him.

"This ain't nothing new to me," James, 18, said. "Y'all know. I get a lot of exposure."

Still learning this league, James managed to run a team and play to a crowd that watched his every move. In the layup line before the game, James and Darius Miles put on an informal dunk display. After one thunderous dunk from Miles, James sprinted toward the basket and softly laid the ball in the hoop.

The crowd booed. James laughed. He had them from the start.

He did most of his damage in the first quarter. He had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists in that period. James began with a steal and dunk. Then, he slipped in for a backdoor layup. Later, he threw a no-look pass to center DeSagana Diop for a layup.

And, finally, he had his most memorable play. He swooped to the basket for a crazy reverse layup, flipping the ball up with his right hand just before his feet hit the ground.

It ended an amazing, fascinating display. James wowed this crowd of Magic followers.

"That was pretty fun," James said. "I like playing with the bigger crowds. I play better."

At the first quarter, James had some struggles. He turned the ball over twice in the third quarter when the Magic pressed him. After one errant pass, forward Britton Johnsen - a former University of Utah standout who is trying to make it in the league - dunked over him.

"I got lucky, I guess," Johnsen said. "I'm living in a kind of different world than he is. I'm coming from the back, back, back door to the NBA."

Said James: "I get dunked on a lot in practice."

Point guard Reece Gaines, the Magic's first-round draft pick last month, had 16 points and five assists. Second-round selection Keith Bogans led all scorers with 24 points.

This game was nothing compared with true NBA competition, and James knows it. He exited his first semi-NBA competition with a minor calf bruise and did not play the fourth quarter, but he sat mostly because the game was a blowout.

And so now James' act will move to a more private setting, away from raucous crowds and into a smaller setting closed to the public. The remaining four days of this event are at RDV Sportsplex and will be closed to the public.

But even in this brief glimpse, one thing is certain: James can bring a crowd.

In the crowd were NBA players Drew Gooden, Chucky Atkins, Jason Williams, Amare Stoudemire and Steven Hunter, and NFL quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

Before the game, $5 tickets were being scalped for $80, and a traffic jam developed around the arena five hours before the opening tip.

"He's exciting to watch," said Paige Berger of Albany, N.Y. "He's got the skills of Magic [Johnson] and [Michael] Jordan combined."

"You ride the waves of the NBA and the excitement of the NBA," said Chris D'Orso, the Magic's director of marketing. "He is the exciting new thing out there now."

Jerry Brewer is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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