SAN ANTONIO - Headphones tilted back on his head, LeBron James walked the Cleveland Cavaliers through the shadowy tunnel and into the arena's gleaming lights - and their first NBA finals.
''We're here now!'' James shouted.
He brought them.
And he will decide how far they'll go.
Tagged as the face of the league and saddled with huge expectations, James arrived at basketball's ultimate stage Wednesday as the Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs practiced for the last time before Thursday's Game 1 at, AT&T Center.
The climactic setting is a new one for the Cavaliers. It was only four years ago when they won 17 games while playing in front of as many empty seats as filled ones at home.
''It was like we weren't even in the NBA,'' said center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, drafted by the club in 1996. ''We were in a deep depression as an organization.''
Those gloomy days were B.LB. - Before LeBron.
The 22-year-old has been a household name in the U.S. since he was an Akron, Ohio, high school phenomenon, and his growing popularity has made him just as well known on the playgrounds of Beijing.
In these playoffs, his second trip to the postseason, James has elevated his multidimensional game to a higher level, pushing the Cavaliers within four victories of Cleveland's first major sports title since 1964.
His appearance in the best-of-seven series should do wonders for the NBA's globalization plan. Undoubtedly, he'll also boost TV ratings, perhaps tempting casual viewers interested in seeing if he can match his jaw-dropping, 48-point performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit.
It's as if Michael Jordan, the more famous tongue-wagging No. 23, has resurfaced. Not quite. Not yet.
With most of the attention focused on James, the other team in this LeBronian lovefest isn't getting its proper due. But hasn't that always been the case for the Spurs, standing at the edge of their fourth championship since 1999?
''The league is about new, exciting things,'' said Spurs forward Michael Finley. ''And LeBron is that thing right now.''
The Spurs are still, well, the Spurs: basic, boring and bland - just how their humble star center Tim Duncan and the Western Conference champs like it.
They have always won with defense, and still do. The league's stingiest defensive squad during the regular season must figure out how to slow James, who sliced up the Pistons for 25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists, putting him with Oscar Robertson (1963), John Havlicek (1968) and Larry Bird (1986) as the only players to reach those averages in a conference finals.
Detroit tried to double- and triple-team the 6-foot-8, 245-pound James, whose ability to pass over the top of defenders allowed him to find wide-open teammates for easy shots.
Spurs forward Bruce Bowen will be assigned to guard James, but he'll need help, especially when James decides to post him up near the basket.
''Any way I can gain 40 pounds overnight?'' Bowen joked. ''He's so strong and young; it's hard to believe that he's 22 with the body of a 30-year-old. That creates problems. There's nothing you can do about that. There are certain things you can do to adjust, but when people are just physically gifted and that talented, it creates a difficulty.''
On his last visit deep in the heart of Texas, James scored 35 points with 11 rebounds and four assists on the Spurs, crowning his Nov. 3 performance with a monstrous dunk over a defenseless Duncan, who stood under the basket with his arms raised overhead as if being held up by bandits.
James won't have it easy as the Spurs likely will blitz him wherever and whenever he touches the ball.
''Defensively, they're one of the best teams in the NBA,'' he said. ''They work well together on the defensive end. You know if you beat one guy, another guy steps up. They've been pretty good throughout the years on the defensive end. But it's no added pressure for me.''
Finally, the Cavaliers seem to have a supporting cast James can count on.
Sometimes unselfish to a fault, James followed up his 48-point extravaganza with a more typical Game 6. He scored 20 points on 3 of 11 shooting. But it was his ability to draw defenders and feed rookie Daniel Gibson, who made four 3-pointers and scored a season-high 31, that helped the Cavs advance.
Not long ago, the thought was that James needed a superstar sidekick, a player like Jordan had in Scottie Pippen. Turns out, James might have all he needs.
''We've had different guys step up in different games,'' Ilgauskas said. ''So LeBron hasn't had to count on just one guy. There's always somebody else scoring, somebody else rebounding. We might not have other superstars, but we got other guys who play good basketball.''
Ceaselessly confident, James isn't showing any pre-finals jitters. The whole world might be watching to see what he'll do, but that's nothing new. In the past, the spotlight has been a warming place - not one to shun.
Before the Cavaliers boarded their team bus, James paused to sign autographs for fans waiting outside the team's hotel and then danced his way on board to the music in his headphones. He was playful, behaving like a kid and not the father of one son (and soon two) about to play in the highest-stakes game of his life.
''Sometimes he acts like he's 18,'' Cavs coach Mike Brown said. ''He's just a good-natured, good-spirited individual. He likes to have fun, but when it gets time to lace the shoes up and get out on that hardwood, he's a pretty focused individual.''
Jordan was 28 when he won his first title; Duncan was 23. This might be James' year, it might not be. But Brown says it will eventually happen.
''He's too talented, too driven not to win one,'' Brown said. ''I agree with the talk that in order to be quote-unquote, one of the best players in the world, you should have one of those on your resume, if not more.
''It's a matter of time for him.''