Now 33, LeBron reflects on ’round, orange ball’

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SALT LAKE CITY — LeBron James will spend his 33rd birthday on Saturday playing on the road against the Utah Jazz — a place where his teams have lost their past six games.

“I need a win here. I suck here,” James said before the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ morning shootaround Saturday. “I personally don’t suck, but my team sucks when we come here. We cannot win a game. So hopefully we can change that.”

James’ birthday gave him reason to reflect on how he has changed the world around him in his three-plus decades on the planet.

Some 6,500 miles away, in Shanghai, for instance, fans of James put on a light show in a public square to honor the Cavaliers star with images from his career projected on a basketball net-shaped structure with messages like “Love you forever” and “Not the next, the first” displayed along with Mariah Carey’s “Hero” playing in the background.

“I mean, listen, man, that round, orange ball that keeps going up and down, that thing has taken me places that nothing else in this world would be able to do,” James said. “So that’s why I approach the game like I do every single night. That’s why I train the way I train. That’s why I am who I am. That’s why I study the game. Because I owe everything to that round, orange ball that goes up and down and bounces when you’re dribbling, since I was 5 years old and my mom brought me a Little Tikes hoop.”

There’s a picture of that floating around too.

“It was younger [than 5] because I was in diapers,” James said. “I wasn’t wearing no diaper at 5. That would’ve been kind of nasty. I had to be like 2 or 3 years old. There’s a picture floating around of me with my first Little Tikes hoop at Christmas. … So ever since then, it was just like, it just did something to me. Just did something for me. So to hear that story about having something all the way across the world, thousands and thousands of miles away, it’s pretty cool.”

James and his teammates started the birthday celebration early with an off-day excursion Thursday through several vineyards in Napa, California. He said he would have some friends and family join him in Salt Lake City but wouldn’t bring in the full crew because the Cavaliers will be flying back to Cleveland after Saturday’s game.

His mother, Gloria, will give him a birthday card as she does every year, and he will add it to his collection. He said he saves them all.

“My mom is like the Hallmark wizard in our family,” James said. “She’s always been on time and or target with the cards. She’s pretty cool.”

James was asked what his favorite birthday was.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” he said. “Eighteen is always cool. You have this false notion that you’re a grown man, and you turn 18, and you’re actually not. But you have this false notion. I turned 18 during my senior year, and I was like, ‘Manhood now, I’m ready.’ I was nowhere near ready for that.

“Eighteen was good; 21 was cool. People had known my story for so long. There was always certain clubs and stuff I used to go to, and they were like, ‘Come on, bro, we know you’re not 21. We cannot let you in here and mess up our liquor license.’ So 21 was pretty cool too, especially when I went to Vegas, because I was playing USA Basketball so much.

“When I turned 21 and I went to Vegas that summer, I was like, ‘I’m back,’ and I was so happy to show my [ID] card to ’em. I was like ‘Bow!’ with my ID. I’m like, ‘I’m 21, let me up in here. I’m up in here.’ Those were a couple good ones.”

And 33 seems to be a good one too, even if it involves a challenge like trying to win in Utah for the first time since 2011.

“Where I come from, it doesn’t matter where your birthday is,” James said. “I’m 33 years old, and the way I grew up, not many guys make it past 18. So I’m blessed to be in this position where I am today, and I don’t take this moment for granted.”

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