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Game Recognize Game

Call it my then-allegiance to Michael Jordan as the GOAT. Or, maybe I was just tired of sports media trying to anoint the next Jordan.

Lee Eric Smith

Whatever you want to call it, when I first heard of some Ohio hoops prodigy named Lebron James back in 2002, I thought there was no way he could live up to the hype – and even if he did, it would take some time.

That’s just how it works, right?

And then I watched James’ very first NBA game on Oct. 29, 2003 against the Sacramento Kings. The Cavs lost, but not before Bron went off for 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals.

The stat line reflected the eye test: This rookie played like a seasoned vet, pretty much from the opening tip.

Now in the twilight of his legendary career, Lebron is still performing at an MVP level 18 years in. His Lakers are favorites to compete for and perhaps win his fourth championship.

So it was a sign of high respect when Lebron was asked about an unexpected gift from Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant. Morant, who led Memphis to a 105-88 rout of the Lakers on Feb. 29, gave James a signed jersey after the game.

“I didn’t even know I was getting his jersey, actually,” James said. “I gave him mine for sure, but I didn’t know he was returning the favor. It’s just pretty cool.”

After receiving James’ jersey, Morant felt he owed a debt.

“I was like, ‘Man, now I’ve got to return the favor,’” Morant said. “He’s definitely a guy I look up to – not just only on the court, but off the court as well.”

When Lebron came into the league, his reputation for assists preceded him and carried into his rookie season, averaging 21 points, six assists and six rebounds.

It takes a high basketball IQ to post those kinds of numbers in any season, let alone as a rookie. Morant is averaging just under 18 points per game in his rookie season, to go with seven assists.

And then there’s this: Much like James did in Cleveland, Morant has instantly catapulted a small NBA market into wins, respect and an accelerated maturation process. Which is why it was fun to listen to James explain Morant’s gifts – from one phenom to another.

“I don’t think it matters how old you are if you have a basketball IQ,” James said. “I think he’s played like that probably his whole life because the game is mental, and then the physical abilities came after that. The same with me. When I was eight, nine years old, before the physical talents took over, it was about thinking the game and the mental side.

“So, it doesn’t matter how old you are because either you have it or not when it comes to basketball IQ,” James said. “That’s something that you can’t teach that or learn it. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.”

Minutes later, Morant was just as effusive in his praise of Lebron.

“He’s just a great all-around person. He does a lot to help others,” Morant said. “He’s just a great role model, a great player. I feel like, in my eyes, he’s the best being to play the game right now. He’s just done so much on the floor.”

Common NBA wisdom says that Lebron is near the end, though we seem to say every single year that he’s having one of the best seasons of his career. But regardless of how much longer he plays, he knows the game is in good hands.

“I’ve always thought about that, what young guys are coming up in the ranks that will be able to continue to carry it on after I’m gone, or after or whoever that’s been around as much as I have,” he said. “You look at Ja, and you look at Zion. You look at Jayson Tatum. You look at Luka Doncic, and Trey Young, and the list goes on and on.

“Those guys are just not only great on the floor, but also, more importantly, off the floor, and that’s a great thing to have,” he said. “Our league is in a very, very good place no matter what year it is.”

Game recognizes game . . . GRIND ON!

NOTE: Ja Morant and the Grizzlies (31-32) host Trae Young and Atlanta’s Hawks (19-45) at the FedExForum tonight (March 7). Tipoff is 7 p.m.


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