LeBron James will celebrate his 35th birthday Monday with a party he will pay for himself. He pretended to grumble about having to pick up the tab for his own bash, but he doesn’t mind in the least. To him it’s a momentous occasion for reasons that go well beyond athletic longevity.
“The milestone of it is when you grow up in the inner city, around a lot of things you don’t want your kids to see, to be able to get to this point in age where the statistics are stacked up against you because of obvious reasons, that’s a blessing,” James, a native of Akron, Ohio, said Sunday in a reflective moment. “And it’s more of a blessing for me to be able to do what I love every day and be able to let my family reap the benefits of that and they allow me to be an inspiration to them.”
The fourth of his 13 assists in the Lakers’ 108-95 victory over Dallas on Sunday was the 9,000th assist of his career, making him the only player in NBA history to dish out 9,000 assists and pull down 9,000 rebounds. He’s only the ninth NBA player to earn that many assists, a level he reached in an impressive push this weekend by collecting 29 assists (with only three turnovers) in back-to-back victories at Portland and over the Mavericks at Staples Center.
“Hell of a two-game stretch,” coach Frank Vogel said. “His pace the last two nights has just been outstanding. In the open court but also in the half court, and not looking to settle.”
James has no intention of settling. “My teammates and the coaching staff trust me to play the point and run the show. It’s my job to take care of the ball and just try to put guys in position to be successful, put the ball on time and on target for threes, for lobs, for dunks, for transition. Whatever the case may be,” he said. “Use my ability, my vision that I’ve had all my life, I just try to see the floor. And I’ve been able to do that the last few games.”
James scolded well-wishers after Sunday’s game, saying he wasn’t 35 yet because he was born in the Midwest and, since he now lives in Los Angeles, had three extra hours before his birthday arrived. He can’t stop the clock, but he’s doing what he can to suspend time and push for the championship he came here to win, the one that’s in sight now as the Lakers continue to develop a supporting cast that can relieve some of the offensive burden he and sore-shouldered Anthony Davis have carried.
James scored only 13 points Sunday, but Davis scored 23 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 19 of the 46 points contributed by the bench, another strong outing for the reserves. The Lakers, with tenacity and smart defensive schemes, held Dallas to its lowest field-goal percentage this season (36 percent) and held the Mavericks under 100 points for only the second time in 32 games.
If there’s one concession James makes to age, it’s that he must more carefully tend to his body. He has been bothered lately by a ribcage injury and a sore groin, and he had ice bags strapped to his right elbow and knee and had his right foot immersed in a bucket of ice as he spoke to the media Sunday night.
But he’s emotionally engaged on a level this season that he didn’t reach last season, especially after the groin injury that turned a promising start into a deflating mess. He’s leaving load management to others, playing an average of 38.5 minutes per game and having missed only one game.
“I just try to work on my mind, work on my body, work on my game. I’m just trying to stay as fresh and as positive as possible throughout this marathon and don’t take it for granted,” he said. “If we’re playing a lot of games, I’m working on my mind. Or if I’m banged up, I work on my body. Or if I feel my game needs to be tuned up a little bit, I work on the court. That’s what it boils down to, being able to put that type of work in, whether it’s your mind, your body or your craft. It’s been instrumental to me being able to do the things I’ve been able to do at this point in my career.”
He got this far, to 9,000 assists, thanks to the encouragement of a youth coach named Frank Walker.
“It’s something that was instilled in me when I first picked up a basketball,” James said. “[Walker] always talked about it’s the greatest part of basketball, to be able to see the ball move from side to side, to be able to attract the defense and get your teammates open shots. I was a little kid and I was somewhat better than some of my teammates. He was like, ‘It’s much greater reward in seeing some of your teammates that can’t dribble or can’t score for themselves, for you to get them open looks.’ And that was instilled in me when I was 9 years old and I first started playing. We won the championship the first year, we won it the second year, I started winning and winning and winning. I just knew it was the way I want to play, so it’s been a part of my game.”
Davis, sitting a few feet away, was told by reporters that Monday is James’ birthday. “I’m not getting him no gift,” Davis said, before calling over to his teammate. “’Bron, you want a gift?” Davis said. James smiled. “Yeah, for you to get the hell out of my face,” James said, playfully.
Every year is a milestone for James, who said he doesn’t plan to have a blowout celebration Monday. “The biggest one I had was when I turned 21, so far in my life. This one is going to be very mild,” he said. “Forty will be gigantic.”
There could be a championship celebration thrown in this year too.