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LeBron James a star to savour

BASKETBALL is soccer's only rival as the global game. Compared to the sport invented by Canadian PE teacher James Naismith in 1891, rugby, for example, is a parochial affair indeed and calling that sport's premier tournament a World Cup is a piece of overstatement similar to the American designation of their blue riband baseball event as the World Series.

This year's NBA finals, which got underway on Thursday night, is being shown in 205 countries. But the game's international status is not simply a matter of spectator appeal. Final favourites San Antonio Spurs have in their ranks France's Tony Parker, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto and Holland's Francisco Elson, while outsiders Cleveland Cavaliers feature Lithuania's Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Serbia's Sasha Pavlovic and Brazil's Anderson Varejao.

That pattern repeats itself throughout the league. The NBA's player of the year is a German, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, and last year's number one draft choice was an Italian, Andrea Bargnani of the Toronto Raptors. Any selection of the league's leading players would also have to take into account the likes of Pau Gasol (Spain and Memphis Grizzlies), Andrei Kirilenko (Russia and Utah Jazz), Yao Ming (China and Houston Rockets), Mehmet Okur (Turkey and Utah Jazz) and Andris Biedrins (Latvia and Golden State Warriors).

If this is a surprise to you, then join the club. Until four years ago I'd lost touch with the NBA since the heyday of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and would have concurred with the lazy generalisation about basketball at the top level being a game with a limited and almost exclusively American appeal. While that may be true of American football, it has nothing to do with the reality of basketball.

The league's growth worldwide probably has a lot to do with Jordan, who was one of those sportsmen who perform at such a sublime level that they transcend the confines of their own game. Their excellence is such that even people who know nothing about the sport they play recognise them as superstars. Pele was one such star and is perhaps Jordan's only rival as sporting icon of the century gone by. That's how good the Bulls' man was.

Players like that come along once in a lifetime or maybe even just once in the history of a sport. Yet a few years ago the buzz in America was that a high school kid in Ohio might well possess the ability to play on a similar plane to Jordan. The kid was LeBron James from the city of Akron, previously best known as the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Goodyear Tyre Company.

James was selected as a number one draft pick in 2003 and duly set about living up to his billing. He has reached a number of scoring milestones quicker than any other player in the history of the game and this season has single-handedly dragged the Cavaliers to their first ever NBA final.

What makes this young man all the more remarkable is that he endured one of those appalling childhoods to which American society abandons so many of its youngsters. James never knew his ex-convict father, and spent time in care. His mother has served time in jail as has the man who helped her bring LeBron up. LeBron eventually ended up being looked after by the family of his high school coach. It is the type of upbringing which many of his peers in the game have had to overcome. That they've done so bears witness to a remark once made by the fine crime novelist Jonathan Kellerman (who has worked as a psychologist with underprivileged kids). "By and large, people do a bit better than you have a right to expect."

It's almost impossible to connect the dysfunctional childhood with the remarkably mature figure presented by James, a softly spoken thoughtful youngster whose obvious leadership qualities have inspired his journeyman team-mates to move from being zeroes to heroes.

When James joined the Cavaliers they were officially the worst team in the league. This was why they got the best young player. It's fascinating that America, which makes a fetish out of the free market in so many other spheres, goes out of its way to encourage equality in its big sports. In the NBA, as in the NFL, the bottom team get first pick in the draft. The result is that the kind of tedious domination exerted by a Chelsea or a Manchester United is unthinkable. Those who are first will be last and those who are last will be first.

Awe is the only proper response to his signature move, the Tomahawk

It's taken four years for James to bring the Cavaliers from the bottom to the top two. In the conference finals he broke the heart of 2004 champions Detroit Pistons with a 48-point performance in the crucial fifth game of the best of seven series, including 19 of the last 20. In full flow he is a wonder to behold, a six-foot-eight 240-pound man who runs like a deer, has the handling skills of much smaller players and the power to physically take on much bigger ones. Awe is the only proper response to his signature move, the Tomahawk, a windmilling 180 degree slam dunk of the ball into the basket while on the run.

Comparisons with Jordan are invidious, of course, and perhaps even ludicrous at this stage. The Chicago star won six NBA titles while James is only playing in his first final. In Thursday's opening game the battle-hardened Spurs double and triple-teamed the youngster, and the rest of the Cavaliers couldn't pick up the slack. James could only manage 14 points, half his average total, as the Spurs went 1-0 up in the series. All the same, few observers expect him to remain subdued for long.

The next match is on Sky Sports tonight. Ireland, unfortunately, is one of the very few countries in the Western World without at least a weekly basketball highlights programme on terrestrial TV. Which, when you take into account the huge popularity of schools basketball, is an odd anomaly.

So what about it, RTE? The NBA presents one of the most thrilling sporting spectacles in the world and it's a pity that the kids you see shooting hoops in so many of our towns are denied the opportunity to savour it on a regular basis. If you can dedicate time to Moto GP races between souped up Honda 50s, surely you can make a little bit of space for LeBron.