CLEVELAND - LeBron James used to bring his birth certificate along to AAU games to prove his age.
"They questioned me because of the level of my game," the Cleveland Cavaliers forward recalled last week. "I've always played the game above my age."
Then maybe he should keep documentation of his Dec. 30, 1984, arrival handy.
There remain a few NBA skeptics, who are still having hard time accepting that a 19-year-old kid who skipped college could possibly be this big, this strong, this fast, this unselfish or this good.
"I don't believe that," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers joked recently when told James was still weeks away from his 20th birthday. "I'm going to check. The way he's playing, he's got to be 30."
On Thursday, LeBron hits the big 2-0 and, hard to believe, he has already joined the NBA's elite.
"I don't call him King James," said Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett, the reigning league MVP. "I call him The Gift. A gift for Cleveland, and for the league."
In just his second season in the pros, James has raised his game to an All-Star level. Through 27 games, he's averaging 24.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and leading the league in steals (71) while carrying the surprising and soon-to-be-sold Cavaliers (16-11) into first place in the Central Division.
"He's doing everything for us," Cleveland coach Paul Silas said. "We certainly wouldn't be where we are without him. To be this young and have the understanding of the game that he has is just unreal. I marvel at him."
So does the rest of the league.
He has delivered jaw-dropping dunks, including a slam against Charlotte where the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder caught a pass in full stride on the break, elevated to eye level with the rim and jackhammered the ball through.
He's sharing both the spotlight and ball with his teammates, who sometimes aren't ready for one of the creative no-look passes that James seems to relish more than making any shot. His defense has improved from a year ago when he ran into every pick, and he rarely forces shots the way he did as a rookie.
In the first third of the season, James has dropped a career-high 43 points on the world champion Detroit Pistons, become the youngest player to reach 500 career assists and rebounds and was named the Eastern Conference's top player for November.
Lately, he has been flirting with an elusive first career triple-double. In a win over New Orleans on Sunday, James had 22 points, a career-high 14 assists and nine rebounds. He and Kobe Bryant are the only players averaging more than 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
"He might average a triple-double someday," Silas said. "In two or three years, when he learns the game better, he'll be unstoppable."
James, who shares a birthday with Tiger Woods, seems to improve each time he laces up his signature Nike Air Zoom LeBron II's.
"A great basketball player can beat you different ways - defensively, offensively, rebounding the ball, passing and blocking shots," Garnett said last week after James posted 26 points, 12 assists and six rebounds in a win over the Timberwolves. "He totally illuminates all those qualities. He is a credit to the game."
All of James' personal stats are significantly ahead of last year's pace when he finished as the just third rookie in league history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
But Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan were both in their early 20s when they did it.
Beyond the basketball, there is the business of LeBron.
He has almost single-handedly resurrected the Cavaliers, whose market value has skyrocketed since he bounced to them in the lottery. Things are going so well for owner Gordon Gund that he's on the verge of selling the club to Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert for a reported $375 million.
The deal is expected to be completed in 2005 when the Cavaliers, barring an unforeseen collapse, will return to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 when James was a fresh-faced 14-year-old.
He's a man now, and although he's got the game to prove it, James knows there will always be those who doubt his age.
"They're going to say the same thing next year when I'm turning 21. 'Is he really 21?'" James said. "I'm just blessed, man. I've put a lot of hard work into it, and I taking nothing in life for granted."
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