First off: If you are a fan of any kind of basketball (or even sports in general) and you didn't see last night's game between the Cavs and Pistons, you missed something special. Don't worry, you can watch the two overtimes and a highlight reel of LeBron's performance on NBA.com.
With that said, the game was unbelievable. I've watched hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of basketball games in my life, and I honestly believe that this was the best basketball game I've ever seen. Sure, as a Cavs homer and a former season ticket holder (for the strike-shortened '98-99 season and LeBron's rookie '03-04 season), I'm biased. Nevertheless, I think I'm not alone in calling it one of the all-time great performances. Either way, this game meant a lot for the Cavs, their fans, the city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio, and all connected.
A little bit of personal history is in order here. I fell in love with the Cavs at what was probably a bad time -- the last days of the Fratello regime. The year was 1997. This was post Daugherty/Price and just after the team had essentially abandoned Mike Fratello's trademarked "slow-down" style. The Cavs had made a bold move in trading Terrell Brandon (along with former Eggsavier Mouseketeer "star" Tyrone Hill) in a three-way deal that netted them Shawn Kemp. Kemp, along with a core of the newly acquired Wesley Person and four "rookies" -- Derek Anderson, Cedric Henderson, Brevin Knight, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who really wasn't a rookie since he had been drafted by the team in 1996 but had missed the season with injury) -- captured my interest when the Cavs went on a 10-game winning streak early in the '97-98 season. That team was fun to watch. Kemp averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds a game and was the first Cavalier ever voted to start in an All-Star Game. Z established himself as a legitimate center in the NBA. Knight was an exciting point guard (he had 20 assists in the first game I attended in person that year, against the Washington Wizards). They even beat Michael Jordan in his last game in Cleveland with the Bulls (who obviously won the championship that year). The team finished with 47 wins and a sixth seed in the playoffs. Even though the Pacers knocked them off three games to one in the first round, the future was looking decent for the Cavs: with Jordan retiring, the East was wide-open, and the Cavs had the young nucleus and superstar to take control.
And so it was that at the start of the '98-99 season, which was shortened to 50 games because of a lockout, the Cavs were on their way "back" to glory. My dad and I were there, ready to watch every game from our season ticket seats in the lower bowl. Early in the season, Kemp and Ilguaskas outplayed Robinson and Duncan and scored a home victory for the Cavs against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. At that point, Kemp still played like the Man, and the "rookies" were showing improvement. And the East really was wide open: in fact, the Knicks, who managed only 27 wins that season (equivalent to 44 in an 82 game season) and the last seed in the playoffs, were the Eastern Conference champions that year.
So what happened? First, Ilguaskas got hurt (the first of a series of frustrating injuries that lead to him missing more than 200 games in the four seasons between 1998 and 2002). Then . . . well, pretty much the rest of the team got hurt. Fratello was fired and replaced with Randy "Slim" Whittman, who was famous for making Bill Belichick seem like the life of the party. Whittman inspired all with a .371 career win percentage, coaching the likes of Trajan Langdon (the Cavs' 11th overall pick in 1999 who ended up hitting a whopping 86 threes in his NBA career), Bimbo Coles (the first in a seemingly continuing run of Cavs point guards who couldn't shoot -- his .286 field goal percentage in his last season with the Cavs was particularly impressive), and Donny "Don't Call Me Donyell" Marshall (about whose return we Cavs fans were actually excited, until we remembered he really wasn't Donyell Marshall). The only bright spots of Whittman's tenure were Andre Miller (how my fellow UD alum Jim Paxson had the foresight to draft Miller at 8th overall in '99 but completely blew it by selecting Langdon three picks later is beyond me . . . have I mentioned that the weekend before the draft it was reported that the Cavs were working out Langdon as a "potential second round pick" or that Derek Anderson stormed out of the Cavs' draft party after Langdon was selected?) and Clarence Weatherspoon's '99-00 season (Spoon nearly averaged a double-double and promptly said "get me the hell out of here" after the end of the season). For a prime example of the typical Cavalier fan's mindset at this time, check out this guy's 2000 Cavs draft analysis.
Randy Whittman was fired and gave way to John Lucas. I think it was around the time that the geniuses running the in-game entertainment at Cavs games started using the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" during player introductions. The "Meet the new boss /same as the old boss" refrain was particularly inspiring and fitting. Lucas was famous for completely losing his voice two weeks into the regular season and having a son who ended up being pretty good for Oklahoma State. His .298 win percentage in a season and a half made us all think, if only for a second, "Hey, maybe Whittman wasn't that bad," after which we promptly threw our Whammer doll across the room. (By the way, can I nominate Whammer for worst mascot ever? C'mon, a dunking polar bear? It's not that cold in Cleveland. And are the Cavs the only team whose website calls its former mascot a "poor floor leader"? Can we just get rid of mascots in pro sports altogether?) The Lucas era was largely forgettable, aside from the last days of Andre Miller (c'mon, he averages 16.5 points and 10.9 assists, and we hand him a one-way ticket to the Clippers?) and Ricky Davis shooting at the wrong basket in a blowout to try to get a triple-double (I remember being in my old Oldsmobile and listening to Joe Tait's call of this . . . it was classic . . . I wish I could get a tape of it).
For my money (which I continued to faithfully spend on Cavs tickets), the worst move of the Lucas era was my main man Paxson's Andre Miller for Darius Miles trade. How a Dayton basketball legend could do such a thing is still beyond me. I hated the trade, and hung my Andre Miller youth jersey (another brilliant Cavs giveaway!) on the wall of my room at UD in protest. I also vowed not to go to any game in the '02-03 season, even though my friends told me you could get courtside tickets for less than $20 with a college ID. Of course I still watched whatever games I could on tv (we only got the occasional Fox Sports Ohio game in Dayton, but I suffered through every game that was on whenever I was home in NE Ohio). I told myself, "I'll give Paxson one more shot."
We all know what that one more shot was. I've never been one to follow high school sports, but I remember first coming across LeBron James' name when he was listed in the Akron Beacon Journal as an All Summit County wide receiver as a sophomore. After he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior, I started following Saint Vincent-Saint Mary's television appearances and reading the occasional article on the team. There was talk that if it were possible for him to go into the NBA draft after his junior year, he would be the #1 overall selection. We began thinking, "What if we could get LeBron?"
Everyone who follows sports knows about the tribulations and triumphs of LeBron's senior year of high school. Meanwhile, John Lucas was fired halfway through the season. Lucas gave way to interim coach Keith Smart, who was famous for hitting the game winning shot for Indiana in the 1987 NCAA Championship game. Fittingly, Smart's .225 win percentage continued the Fratello-Whittman-Lucas decline.
As the Cavs lost game after game in 2003, our LeBron dreams became more and more palpable. In Dayton, all eyes looked toward the long awaited matchup between local Kettering Alter and LeBron's SVSM squad. Tickets were long gone, so I was left to catch the game recap via the local news. At the time, I was copy editor of the campus newspaper, and I remember laughing my way through a column written by a staff member who was lucky enough to go the game. In his piece, which carried the headline Defenseless James not so great, Stephen Dahl, who I suppose was a nice enough guy, pretty much ripped LeBron. LeBron was the real deal, he argued, "only if basketball were merely a dunk fest and dominating guys seven inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than you." He went on to write that he couldn't believe that LeBron wouldn't even jog to the other side of the court to play defense, and mused that "Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady are licking their chops to teach James a lesson." Dahl's conlcusion? Check it:
[B]ased on his four performances that I’ve attended or watched, with the first choice in this year’s draft, I would not draft James.
The general manager who inherits the first choice would be better off trading down a few spots and getting a solid player.
James is a very raw player that has great potential, but lacks fundamentals contrary to the many European stars that are available to draft.
Translation? Try and trade down to get what eventually became Darko. Maybe Dahl was trying to jump-start the anti-LeBron Bandwagon. Regardless, even at this point I could see someone with an ax to grind for what they were. Why a UD student had an ax to grind against LeBron is beyond me -- keep in mind, this is before half the country knew who Carmelo Anthony was. In the interest of fairness, I should also note that i was sitting four rows behind the basket when UD upset Dwayne Wade's then Top 10 and eventual Final Four Marquette squad, and I never had any inkling of how good he would become or that he'd star in consecutively aired commercials during the 2007 East Finals.
Anyway, it's a good thing Jim Paxson learned more about NBA talent evaluation at UD than Stephen Dahl. (Interestingly, Big Steve has had a prolific career contributing to ESPN.com's Page 2. Check this and this. He also recanted his LeBron column six months later. At least they didn't use him as my replacement for the Flyer News Sports Diary.)
Fast forward to May 22, 2003. For once, the Cavs got lucky (even after they "blew it" in typical Cleveland fashion by winning their last game of the '02-03 season, which caused them to tie with the Nuggets for the worst record in the league and have only a 22.5%, rather than a 25%, chance of getting the #1 overall pick) and won the draft lottery. After I did a celebration dance around my parents' house (unlike Bill Simmons, I never even though to do anything other than watch the lottery with my dad), I got on the phone with the Cavs' season ticket department. In 2002, I had vowed to attend no Cavs games for the '02-03 season. In 2003, I had vowed that I would buy season tickets if the Cavs won the lottery. True to my word, by the end of the night on May 22, I was a grand lighter in my wallet, but I was once again a Cavs season ticket holder. LeBron was our hometown guy, and I was going to see him play every night.
Brian Windhorst did his typically great job in detailing what's happened since then. I've been watching faithfully the past four years. The highs and lows of LeBron's rookie year and the team transitioning from the LeBron-Ricky Davis-DMiles mess to the Carlos Loozer fiasco and the disappointment of the late season collapse in '04-'05 to the 50 wins and "one missed rebound" heartbreak of the '06 playoffs to the present. I've stood by LeBron and the team through all the rough times. I was there when they said he couldn't hit a shot to win a game, and rejoiced as he did just that in Round One against the Wizards last year. I was there this year when Gilbert Arenas said LeBron couldn't hit a short to win a game, conveniently forgetting 2006. I was there through LeBron's first half "swoon" this season, annoying my bowling team by continuously drifting toward the TV in the bowling alley when the Cavs played on Wednesday nights. I was there when the Skip Baylesses of the world criticized the Cavs as being overrated and lamented the fact that neither Miami nor Chicago would play the Pistons in the East Finals, even though the Cavs had a right to be there as the #2 seed.
And I was there last night. Forty-eight points (on 18 of 33 shooting, no less). Nine rebounds. Seven assists and two steals. The Cavs' last 25 points, and 29 of their last 30 points. Unbelievable. By the middle of the second overtime I couldn't say anything -- I was just shaking my head.
I found it fitting that Bill Simmons spoke not for Cavs fans, but for NBA fans when he wrote that his "life as a basketball fan was being irrevocably altered" during last night's game. In another article, Windhorst boiled the evening down to its essentials. I heard a guy on the radio this morning saying that Cavs fans shouldn't be too excited, that it was just one game and the Pistons haven't played to their potential all series, and that even if the Cavs make the finals they'll be lucky to take more than one game from the Spurs. But people said that coming into the Pistons series.
There's always going to be haters out there. However, like Simmons said in the article linked to above:
If you care about basketball, you'll remember where you watched this game 20 years from now. If you care about basketball, it meant something when Marv Albert blessed the night by calling it "one of the greatest performances in NBA playoff history."
Anyone who's still knocking LeBron (or the Cavs) is out of his mind. He's either got some whacked-out agenda or he just wants to be different. Either way, he's missing out on something special. The Pistons are a good, perhaps even great team. This is roughly the same team (minus Ben Wallace, plus an over-the-hill Chris Webber) as their championship team from a couple of years ago. They've made the Eastern Conference Finals five years in a row. Try telling Chauncey Billups he wasn't playing well and he'll point out that last night he finally started hitting clutch shots (that's "shots" in the plural form). There were two or three times that the Cavs should have been put away, but LeBron wouldn't let them lose. Detroit played a great game, but LeBron countered with a classic game.
The series isn't over. Everyone's pointing out that last year in the Eastern Conference semis the Pistons took games 1 and 2, and then the Cavs took 3, 4, and 5 before barely losing game 6 at home and getting blown out in game 7. It's possible that the Pistons win the next two games. However, given the lessons the Cavs learned last year -- when they were "a rebound away" from winning the series at home in game 6 -- you can't tell me that the Cavs aren't going to come out fired up and ready to close out the series tomorrow. I know that the Pistons do have a tendency to put it in neutral, but they weren't in neutral last night. I don't think they were in neutral in game 4, either (the Cavs defense, I think, has made the Pistons --especially Billups -- look bad throughout the series). I also know that the Pistons play their best basketball with their backs to the wall, that during their recent run they've won ever series in which they were up 2-0, and blah blah blah.
All that doesn't matter to me. A few weeks ago, Chris Spielman was going on and on on his radio show in Columbus about how "NBA insiders" were saying that LeBron needed a "signature" playoff game. I said to myself, "I don't care what LeBron does, as long as the Cavs keep win whatever series they're playing" (full well knowing that the Cavs go as LeBron goes, but whatever). Well, now they've got what they want and I've got what I want. LeBron's proved he's the man, and the Cavs are winning. The Pistons have a shot tomorrow and they have a shot on Monday if they do win tomorrow. Hell, even I picked the series to go seven games (with the Cavs winning in seven, of course). It's no matter, though. All that matters is LeBron, and I think he's finally figured out what he needs to do to win, at least against Detroit. Boobie Gibson will play better tomorrow. Doc Gooden will play better tomorrow. Sasha Pavlovic will play better tomorrow. The Wild Thing will play better tomorrow. We won't need LeBron to score 48. He's going to get help, and he'll be able to take it from there.
Like Terry Pluto said, "James seems to be sending everyone a message: This was his moment; the Cavs are coming into their own; the best really is yet to come." For the first time since . . . well, since ever, the Cavs have a presence in the NBA's power structure. If the Cavs win tomorrow, they'll be in the NBA Finals for the first time ever. It will also be the first time a Cleveland sports team has been in its sport's championship since the Indians in 1997.
I know one thing for sure: I feel a lot better having LeBron James --rather than Jose Mesa -- as my closer.