Here's my theory on the NBA: All truly great players are a generation ahead of themselves.
Go right down the list: Bill Russell was the first truly athletic big man in the so-called modern era. Not the first big man, certainly. The first athletic big man. Ditto for Wilt Chamberlain, the first athletic 7-footer.
Oscar Robertson was the first 6-foot-5 point guard, big and strong and a master at backing down smaller players. Elgin Baylor was the first great athletic forward, Michael Jordan, simply a different level athletically than those he played against. That's a trait all superstars share, regardless of the generation. Julius Erving was in that same category, bringing a kind of swooping athleticism to the game that rarely had been seen before.
Larry Bird was the first 6-9 forward with the shooting and passing skills of a smaller player. Ditto for Magic Johnson, the first 6-9 player with superb point-guard skills.
You can make a case for some others, certainly, but the point is that all these players were ahead of their time, as if looking at them in their prime was like having a sneak preview of the game's future, even if we didn't know what it was going to be.
Now we know -- because the Miami Heat's LeBron James is both basketball's present and its future.
It's more than his physical gifts for the game, that he is a 6-8, 260-pound man at the height of his physical powers; even more than that he's the unquestioned best player in the game, and already in the mix for the best players in the game's history.
Once upon a time, 6-8 guys built like linebackers did not handle the ball. They plunked themselves down in the low post and waited for someone to give it to them. That was Basketball 101, as unquestioned as a pregame layup drill.
Those days now often seem as dated as two-hand set shots.
Miami is the prototype of the new way to play in the NBA, a style that essentially functions without a true center. Russell and Chamberlain haven't walked through the door in a long time now. Old-fashioned centers in the NBA now are true dinosaurs, remnants from another time.
The game is now -- for teams and individuals -- all about quickness and versatility, the ability to do a variety of things.
And who is any more versatile than LeBron?
In all the important ways, he is the point guard for the Heat. He is their best ball-handler. He is their best passer. And if he's not their best shooter, he still is a streaky shooter with deep range. Add it up and you have a 6-foot-8, 260-pound man with great speed and great court vision who comes rushing down the court like a freight train going downhill.
LeBron is the game's future: big men who have the skills of small men, and expand the game, and make it different.
I suspect that this is how he will one day be remembered in basketball history. Not for his high-school fame in Akron, Ohio, when he was all but anointed as the next great thing. Not for all the TV commercials. Not for the ill-fated "Decision" on ESPN when he announced he was going to Miami. Not for where he stands on the list of the game's all-time greats.
But for the fact that, love him or hate him, LeBron will be remembered as one of the game's seminal figures.
You can see his legacy, if you only look for it.
It's all the big kids who don't want to live and die in the Death Valley that is the low post anymore.
It's all the big kids with expanded games.
Is this good for the game, or bad? Who knows?
That's for the future to decide.
But all games change and evolve. History tells us that.
And I suspect that we will see more and more kids who model their games after LeBron -- big, strong kids who don't want to be pigeonholed. Big, strong kids who will move the game to places that might seem unimaginable now.
Call it LeBron's legacy.