For an instant, LeBron James again sees life through the frightened eyes of a fatherless 8-year-old boy.
Sitting in the basement conference room of Antioch Baptist Church, James has just finished handing out Thanksgiving groceries to families as needy as his own once was.
A few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, the Cavaliers' superstar is allowing a rare glimpse into his well-guarded privacy during an exclusive interview with the Associated Press. He's upbeat while openly discussing fatherhood, wanting to win an NBA championship in Cleveland, his upcoming contract extension, personal goals and dreams -- but then a question about his past seems to awaken painful memories.
Leaning back in his chair, a flashback momentarily walks James back in time.
An only child -- and not yet a basketball prodigy -- James is being raised in Akron by a strong single mother who has nurtured her son with love but little else. She preaches to him to be fiercely independent, respectful and kind. She tells him to fear no one.
Most importantly, Gloria James teaches young LeBron how to be a man.
Money is tight so the pair move frequently, fleeing tough neighborhoods around the Rubber City where he is exposed to the harsh realities of America's urban decay.
On a chilly November day years later, he remembers it all.
"I've seen a lot of stuff that kids my age just don't see," James says, hinting at a darkness he would prefer stay hidden. "That's where the knowledge comes from. I don't want to go back to what I've seen when I was 7, 8, 9 years old."
Asked for an example, James pauses and shifts in his seat. Staring at the floor, he's unsure how to respond.
Things on the street?
"Everything," he says. "Everything that's not right. I think that's where I got my knowledge."
It has happened in the blink of an eye, much faster than anyone thought possible.
In two NBA seasons, James has blossomed into one of the league's premier players -- and perhaps its signature star. Last season, he became the fifth player to average 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for a season, adding his name to the hoops pantheon of Robertson, Havlicek, Bird and Jordan.
On a rebuilt and improving Cleveland team, his game has matured. Through this season's first 17 games, he averaged a career-high 28.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
"The difference now is that he keeps his teammates involved," Boston Coach Doc Rivers said after James dropped 36 on the Celtics. "He scored 36 in the flow. The guy's in the third year of his career. To understand the game the way he does, he should coach."
As he approaches his Dec. 30 birthday -- a date he shares with Tiger Woods -- James seems to have exceeded all the impossible expectations that accompanied his leap from high school.
Nothing fits him any longer. Not the gloomy predictions, not the endless skepticism, not any of the labels slapped on him.
He is better than advertised. From day one, James has gone beyond the boundaries.
"You pay for a ticket to see LeBron perform and it's like getting a present," says Minnesota's Kevin Garnett. "I just hope the people of Cleveland understand, realize, what they have. He's like the Beatles."
James has handled his rise to iconic superstardom with grace and a rare ease for someone so young, rich and talented. As the whirlpool of his A-list celebrity life swirls around him, James manages the pressure. He's always in complete control.
"To this day, I don't feel it," he says, asked to recall when he knew greatness was destined. "I hear my friends and my mom tell me I'm special, but honestly, I still don't get it. I just want to be levelheaded about things. I think about the times I had before and I don't want to go back to those times."
Under fame's blinding spotlight, James has matured from teenage talent to proven professional, from playful kid to doting parent, from Nike salesman to corporate heavyweight.
At an age when most people his age are handling adulthood's responsibilities for the first time, James has embraced them with a wisdom beyond his years.
"I don't know where I got it," he says. "I don't read books much. I don't read newspapers that much. It's everything that I went through in my itty bitty life, my little bitty 20 years of life, I've been through so much."
An hour before tipoff against the Timberwolves, kids wearing No. 23 jerseys in a rainbow of colors stream into Quicken Loans Arena. Across the street, a larger-than-life billboard of James with the message -- WE ARE ALL WITNESSES -- towers over downtown.
Once inside, Cavs fans of every age jockey for position in an area designated for autographs.
Clutching scraps of paper, magazines, almost anything with James' likeness on it, the youngsters holler for attention. So close to game time, they settle for a wave as James glides by.
One boy, though, gets special attention.
During warmups, 14-month-old LeBron James Jr. is gently handed to his daddy, who cradles the child and kisses his forehead. James and his girlfriend, Savannah, are raising the baby together.
Being a father has enlightened him like nothing before.
"It's great," he says. "Sometimes in the past when I played something might make me lose focus, or I would go home after a game where I thought I could have played better and I would let it hang over my head for a long time when it shouldn't."
James' father wasn't involved in his upbringing. James has had male role models such as Frank Walker, an Akron man who first put a basketball in his hands, and Eddie Jackson, once his mom's boyfriend who has remained close.
There have been others. But Gloria James, who had LeBron when she was 16, remains the light of his life.
"She gets all the credit. I don't know how, but she did it," he says.
The move was unexpected, like one of the eye-popping spins he makes in the foul lane, but James says he knew exactly what he was doing.
Not long after the Cavs failed to make the playoffs last season, James fired his agent, Aaron Goodwin, and turned over his personal and business management to three friends, Maverick Carter, Randy Mims and Rich Paul. With James as their CEO, they formed Four Horsemen Management.
The decision to drop Goodwin was seen in some circles as a sign of trouble. To James, it was essential to his growth.
"I realized that it was time for me to become a man," he says. "I wanted to be like I've always been, the head of everything that I've done. When you're young and the leader of a basketball team, you don't realize someday you're going to be the head of a corporation or the head of your own business."
LeBron James Inc. is booming. Since the summer, James has contributed more than $200,000 worth of relief supplies to Hurricane Katrina victims across the Gulf Coast. He and his team are exploring new endorsement deals, trying to build a sponsorship portfolio rivaling any athlete's.
"In the next 15 or 20 years, I hope I'll be the richest man in the world," James says. "That's one of my goals. I want to be a billionaire. I want to get to a position where generation on generation don't have to worry about nothing. I don't want family members from my kids to my son's kids to never have to worry. And I can't do that now just playing basketball."
James has an upcoming business decision that will shape his career and legacy, and the Cavaliers' future. Next summer, the club will have its first opportunity to offer James a maximum contract extension.
Since the night he was drafted, promising to "light Cleveland up like Las Vegas," speculation has centered on when he'll leave for a larger market. James has expressed his desire to stay, but Cavaliers' fans won't believe that until he signs a new deal.
"At this time, I'm very, very happy," James says. "Besides having a son, the Cavs are the thing that I'm closest to. One thing I will not do because I'm a business man, I will not put all the eggs in one basket. It's not fair to me. But I will give the Cavaliers the most opportunities for LeBron James.
"That's just being real. I'm a business man, the Cavs are running a business, too. For my teammates and for the city of Cleveland, I won't make promises because I don't know what might happen the rest of this season."
He can be more than Mike.
On a promotional trip to China this summer, James was welcomed like a conquering hero by a nation that has fallen in love with the NBA. After Yao Ming, he is perhaps Asia's most popular player. And, like his experience playing for the U.S. Olympic team, the overseas visit broadened James' world view and his place in it.
James has a chance to do more as a global ambassador than Jordan or Woods.
"It's not that I want to do it because M.J. wasn't able to do it or Tiger didn't. I don't base myself off what other people do," he says. "I've always been a people person, I hate being by myself. "
Although his duties now include team leader, father and entrepreneur, James also understands his obligation as role model to a new generation. It's not something he takes lightly.
"I went to Nike and I saw that old Charles Barkley commercial where he said, 'I'm not a role model. If you want to have a role model look up to your parents.' It kind of startled me because kids look up to me.
"Once you become a professional athlete or once you do anything well, then you're automatically a role model. So, I didn't say I'm not going to be a role model. That's ridiculous. I have no problem being a role model. I love it. I have kids looking up to me and hopefully I inspire these kids to do good things.
"The younger guys who come into this league, hopefully I inspire them to do the right thing. I've told younger guys already, even though I'm young, I give them tips on what they can do better on and off the court because it's very important. Kids are our future."
From where he's been, James would know.