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After Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, LeBron James sat on a riser beside Kyrie Irving looking bored.

Irving wore sweats. James, a head higher than his teammate, wore a suit. They looked like father and son at a meet-the-teacher night.

James does not move anywhere alone. A small clutch of retainers and Cavs staffers move with him. They all seemed in on the joke when another Cavalier, Mo Williams, swanned into the room halfway through the presser.

Williams is a seldom-used veteran best known as an FOL (Friend of LeBron's). So here he was, paying public tribute.

Williams made a great show of raising his phone to film proceedings. In a nice meta touch, a woman was there to film Williams filming James. More phones turned. Everyone was suddenly filming everyone.

James bent over exaggeratedly and began laughing. Which allowed Irving to laugh. Which freed everyone else to laugh as well.

We all spent a good 30 seconds laughing at something that wasn't particularly funny. As soon as James got serious, everyone else did as well. Quite literally, snapping to attention. And on we continued with the post-game blandishments.

One was vaguely reminded of Solzhenitsyn's passage about the Soviet factory director who decided to sit down during an ovation for Stalin. As they gave him 10 years in the gulag, the director was handed a sheet that read, "Don't ever be the first to stop applauding."

That is Cleveland's function in LeBron James' professional life. In Miami, he was a star. In Ohio, he is the centre of the universe. Everything revolves around him.

His image is omnipresent in the downtown. The 10-storey mural that sits alongside the Quicken Loans Arena – conspicuously designed to resemble a man in front of a congregation – once ran with the caption, "We are all witnesses."

That was before the first break-up. Now it has the word Cleveland emblazoned across the back of James's jersey, as if he and the city are one and the same.

A lot is made of James's various community endeavours. He has given millions of dollars to charities supporting youth and education in Cleveland. He's got an coming reality show entitled Cleveland Hustles – a sort of inner-city Apprentice. He wants to send hundreds of current grade-schoolers to study at the University of Akron.

More than most pros, James has tried to make public service central to his brand. Maybe that's why people have never quite warmed to him outside his hometown of Akron and its environs – it still seems like branding.

There is something undeniably calculating about the way James carries himself. He's the only pro I can think of who doesn't lean in to the mic at pressers. Instead, he picks it off the podium and handles it like a talk show host. That way he can stay erect.

If you are inclined to like him, he gives off thoughtfulness and purpose. He always has a sturdy-sounding, functionally-vapid reply.

"When you have a team that's winning, I think it brings excitement to the people," James told reporters this week. "It's a sense of hope and they just get excited every night that you go out on the floor."

Like Michael Jordan, he is never going to screw up because he never intends to say anything interesting.

If you are inclined against him, the vibe he gives off is scheming and pompous. Throwing chalk; the blowing-into-hands routine; the head-thrown-back howls; the implied sneers. He's a coach-killer and a control freak. James turned timeout huddles into the finest theatre in basketball: Exactly how will he embarrass his boss today? There may never have been anyone better than James is. There certainly have been few who understand that better than he does.

It is remarkable how poorly the best athletes are able to leverage their talents. They are the most famous people on Earth. They get plenty of money and attention, but it rarely accrues to real power.

You're considered a post-career success story if you are fed back into the system in a less important role – as an executive, coach or TV analyst. Aside from a big house, the most players can hope for is going from an alpha to a beta.

How many have built real empires (and, no, tucking yourself under Nike's corporate umbrella doesn't count)? None. How many will be best remembered for things that didn't happen within the lines of play? Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe and a very few others aside, none.

That's the real conundrum for an athlete as great as James. The sport can't possibly contain the entirety of your legacy. You need more. You need to be loved and respected as well as admired. And for years beyond your playing days.

James will never get love outside Cleveland. He doesn't have the right personal style. Too flat. Too grim. Intensely contrived and commercial.

There is also the problem of his physicality. I've stood beside many amazing specimens. None of them are in James's league. He is as close as any human can come to being perfectly realized.

It's great fun watching people get close to James for the first time. It is, quite literally, awe inspiring. Jaws dropping and eyes widening and all that other stuff used as visual props in bad movies. But in real life.

When you're that big and that athletic and that much better than everyone else, it can be perceived as its own form of cheating.

The viewing public wants to believe that basketball at the NBA level is hard. That's why people are so taken by Steph Curry. By the standards of the game, he's too short and too skinny. He must've worked for it.

By contrast, James makes it look easy. There is real effort behind the effortlessness, because there always is. But James doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.

You can see it in the way opponents tire of being pressed to praise him, to find new ways to describe how special he is. Even they think it's mostly down to luck.

"He's a great player. I don't know how many adjectives I can give him," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said after Game 2, frustration creeping into his voice. "We're not here to increase his legacy."

Legacy work – that's all James is doing now.

It would be wrong to call it selfish. James is one of those rare players who see team wins as personal victories. As such, he's willing to step back and become a distributor. Some observers believe he is the greatest passer in the history of the game. James is happy to do it. He doesn't need to win the box score every night. He trusts (correctly) that people will give him most of the credit in any case.

It's a highly functional and difficult-to-achieve level of sports narcissism – believing the team can't win without you. People who reach it either flame out early or end up in the Hall of Fame.

That's where it's headed now. James needs to break Cleveland's 52-year-old championship curse. Then he needs a couple more. Many career records are within his reach.

The money is peripheral at this point. According to Forbes, he pulled in $65-million (U.S.) last year, all told. He's recently favoured one-year deals. Aged 31 and having not diminished physically, he still has two max contracts left. If he wants them.

And, honestly, why would he care? He's smart enough to know money won't sustain him. He needs adulation for that. After all, why come back to Cleveland – a place where they'd been burning him in effigy – if this wasn't about ego?

You can call it "giving back," but if that's all it was, you wouldn't need to talk about it on TV.

The more James wins, the more possible that sustained obsession becomes. As a sportsman, you need a special sort of legend to transcend sport itself. You need the aura of Best Ever. That's what James wants. He makes no secret of it. He's out there auditioning for it every night.

The Cavs remained on the court after Game 2, doing interviews and primping for fans. They may not see their home crowd again until Game 3 of the NBA final.

At the door to the Cavs locker room, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar waited.

At 69, Abdul-Jabbar is bent by age and an unusual amount of gravity. He moves gingerly and seems frail. There aren't many players whose reputations James is still chasing, but this would be one of them.

As the Cavaliers came jogging off the court, they seemed surprised to find the NBA's all-time leading scorer waiting there. Most reached out to tap hands. If any had stopped, he'd have clogged up the door to the locker room. He'd also have presumed a great deal: 'I'm the guy Kareem really wants to talk to.' James did not hesitate. He came to a stop several feet in front of Abdul-Jabbar, forcing the older man to make the last few steps forward.

"How are you feeling?" Abdul-Jabbar asked.

Once again, people began lifting up phones to record this moment. James was keenly aware of the attention.

"I feel great," he said. "Great!"

He took Abdul-Jabbar's hand and clapped the elderly man on the back. Hard. You could see Abdul-Jabbar flinch.

Then James pulled him in for a hug. They whispered in each other's ears for a bit.

It was James's decision to leave. He was still talking as he began to ghost. Abdul-Jabbar watched him fade into the dressing room, arm raised.

The unspoken implication was clear: 'You were the greatest in your day. But I'm just a little too busy undoing that to talk right now.'

Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly