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CHICAGO — I get a slew of emails from older fans saying the NBA is a joke, a collection of tattooed, moody, overpaid, pass-challenged, ball hogs.

And those are the nice emails.

Much of the criticism comes from the Hip-Hop image the league hitched its wagon to in recent years.

The NBA had more general appeal when Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were on its Mount Rushmore of worthy ambassadors.

Teams didn't "buy" championships like Golden State, Miami and Cleveland have. The league had a dress code, much more parity, rosters were fundamentally solid, there was no revolving door of coaches and average players didn't get contracts that could gag a sheik.

Killer paydays are a common occurrence now.

The NBA's streets were paved in gold when owners struck a $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT last season — pushing the salary cap to $99 million this season.

Individually, though, the list of magnanimous superstars is lacking with LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant the runaway fan favorites. Curry and Durant are relatively quiet and low key, while the iconic James remains the face of the NBA even at age 33.

Saturday night, the Bulls hosted James' Cavaliers and started a patchwork lineup of Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio, Justin Holiday and Cameron Payne — hardly worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, James was starting his 69th game. He had to play, with the Cavs having lost 20 of their last 35 since a Dec. 21 win over Chicago.

James finished with a triple-double of 33 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists in a 114-109 win.

"I’m like fine wine,” James told reporters last week in Portland. “I get better with age."

Here's how good The King has been: The only other players in league history who have averaged 25 points, eight boards and eight assists while shooting better than 50 percent from the field are Oscar Robertson (1962-63), Michael Jordan (1988-89) and James last season.

"I'm probably playing at an all-time high just because of my body, my mind, the way I go out and approach the game," James said on that west coast trip. "And then just the grace of God giving me the ability to do this.

"I'm blessed, and I never take it for granted."

The NBA mandates players talk to media during the pre-game open locker room but James was unavailable Saturday and the Cavs did not shoot around earlier in the day, so we would have to wait until the cooling off period afterward.

Don't get the wrong impression. James has worked hard to become a kinder, gentler, accessible superstar, a Mr. Nice Guy to fans and media.

He has had no notable run-ins with the law, never been mixed up in any real unsavory business.

Yes, there have been lapses in judgment. "The Decision" years ago to leave Cleveland for Miami and promising at least a half dozen titles there was childish, but James has since worked hard in cultivating a positive image.

His humanity is quite refreshing in today's ultra-competitive, cut-throat NBA world.

So what if he's the highest-paid player for the fourth straight year at $85.3 million, including $52 million from endorsements and royalties, and has 41 million followers on Twitter.

The NBA needs more heroes like him and the Cavs need him more than ever. They no longer are dominating the Eastern Conference, as in years past, while looking up at higher seeds Toronto, Boston and Indiana.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was asked before Saturday's game who would be guarding James and that brought a quick smile. "Ah, the whole team," he said.

But individually, who gets the call?

"There's gonna have to be so many guys," Hoiberg said. "His last five games, averaging over 30 points, shooting 43 percent from the 3-point line, averaging almost a triple double ... he's just doing so many things out there.

"He makes the game so easy. If you help and you're one second off, he's making that on-time, on-target pass. The dunk he had over (Portland's) Jusef Nurkic is one of the most incredible plays I've seen all year."

The 2014 Bulls' draft pick is 7-foot tall and the 6-8 James' elbows almost grazed the rim.

"It's fun to watch him. It's not fun to play against him," Hoiberg said.

We'll be seeing that replay until the NBA Finals while Nurkic might want the Witness Protection program if the heckling continues.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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