Among certain aficionados of the rare and esoteric, there is a game known as I've Never Seen That. It applies to the history of the NBA, and it addresses the very few players who were outright originals. Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James, who graced Oracle Arena with his presence Monday night, is such a player.
The club might be more exclusive than you think. Kobe Bryant hardly qualifies, for he is a veritable clone (with full intent) of Michael Jordan. Shaquille O'Neal wrote luminous chapters of dominance, but we saw a better version in Wilt Chamberlain. Self-styled eccentric Dennis Rodman was a phenomenal rebounder, but not essentially different than the studious Jerry Lucas. Little-man Steve Nash gets to places on the court he has no right to visit, but it's territory previously visited by Tiny Archibald.
Bill Russell was an original, for reasons that need not be explained. So was Elgin Baylor, who turned frontcourt play into an art form, and Julius Erving, who took the best of Connie Hawkins and added a singular style. You think of the George Gervin finger-roll, Bernard King's jump hook, Wes Unseld's outlet pass, the wild and wicked shot releases of Wally Jones and Lloyd Free.
There are people around today's NBA who think that LeBron James is the fastest man in the league with a ball in his hands. Think about that: The man is 6-9 and, some say, around 270 pounds. That's a Karl Malone build. If he's even among the top ten in the league for pure speed, it's a ridiculous notion. But No. 1 sounds more like it. You realize that when you see him in person.
Before Monday night's game, somebody asked James how many points he'd average if scoring was his obsession. The question seemed to baffle him. As unstoppable as he is, James was born to pass. In the manner of Magic Johnson, or any authentic point guard, he gets more satisfaction from gift than glory. That's the first thing people noticed watching tapes of his high school performances: the sensational passes from all angles of the court.
LeBron couldn't really answer the question, because "My game won't allow me to do that," he said. "It won't allow me to not find the open man, to not look for my teammates."
He paused, and broke a smile. "But I do score, like, 61 points in video games."
So much of James' performances border on the surreal. Against the Warriors, he broke out one of his specialties: racing from out-of-the-picture oblivion to catch up with a solo-breaking opponent, timing his leap perfectly and blocking the shot without the hint of a foul or goal-tend. He did it to Stephen Curry in the first half, then sneaked up behind Monta Ellis for an encore in the second half, bringing gasps of astonishment from the crowd and a smile from Ellis, so certain he'd been cruising toward an easy deuce.
This has been a staple of LeBron's game for the better part of two years, and I don't know about you, but I've Never Seen That -- not exactly, nor that often. Even from Russell. That's how it goes for the entire LeBron package, one that simply overwhelmed the Warriors on Monday night when it mattered most. Cherish all moments with an original.