Monday, March 15, 2004

As Good As It Gets

He wanted to make sure, but I didn’t need gravy fries to entice me to come. Not that day. Not after I had hopped on a plane and traveled halfway up the east coast for that weekend. Not after I had made flight reservations more than a month earlier in preparation for that historic day in Cat Town.

Nope, I didn’t need a wake up call. I didn’t even need the two alarm clocks I had set the night before just in case. At 7 a.m. my eyes were open and that was it. No more sleeping, just adrenaline and anxious thoughts churning through my mind as I lay in bed, trying to save as much energy for the game. No, I wasn’t playing, but I felt like the sixth man, the fan in the stands cheering for the Catamounts to pounce on the Black Bears for the America East title.

Finally, I put on my new, dark-green Vermont basketball shirt, which Reza had given to me the night before, and as I headed up Pearl Street, I wore my coat and hood to fend off the typical cold and cloudy March weather in Burlington. Not too many cars were on the road. It was a Saturday morning. I looked up in the direction of Patrick Gym and saw the sun trying to peek through the gray sky. To my back, a mostly blue sky hovered over Lake Champlain.

As I walked with steps of anxiety and excitement, I began to worry that I forgot something. I doubled checked – my camera, my wallet, my phone. I called my mom in Connecticut and reminded her to tape the game.

Approaching Patrick Gym, I saw a bunch of bundled UVM fans in front of a red Nectar’s banner, waiting in line for free hot chocolate, bagels and gravy fries. Although I had an empty stomach, I didn’t wait in line, at least not outside. I wanted my ticket and to find the Lands first.

I opened the door into the Patrick Gym lobby and there were Buzz and Donna, one of a few hundred fans who arrived early. Buzz said they were waiting for me and that he had called me 10 minutes earlier.

“Hey Brett,” he said on my voice mail. “Where are ya? It’s 9:20, we’ve been here for an hour waiting for you, the rally is going, there’s gravy fries, if that’s the incentive, get your rear-end over here....”

There had been so much hysteria building up to the 11:30 a.m. tipoff that I would have had to have been dead to miss it. It was the first national television broadcast from Patrick Gym since Sugar Ray Leonard fought in the 1976 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials.

That and the fact Phish was singing the national anthem, and Ben & Jerry’s offered a special “Slam Chunk Sundae” in honor UVM’s basketball teams, and Taylor....

The 6-foot-9-inch junior forward was the guy everyone seemed to have on their minds. When Reza picked me up on Thursday night at Burlington International Airport, one of the first things I said was, “Is Taylor playing?”

“We’re going to make a decision at game time,” Reza said.

“Well, has he been practicing or just shooting around? How is he doing in practice?”

“He’s still beating everybody with one hand,” Reza said with a laugh.

That same night at the Land’s dinner table, we were passing around and soaking up various Catamount basketball anecdotes like Donna’s rolls and mashed potatoes and gravy.

“You know, a lot of people, the coaches included, weren’t sure if Taylor would be able to play Division 1,” Buzz said.

“Yeah, he was a scrawny freshman,” I said.

“Yeah, he was only 6-foot-7 then, but he grew two inches,” Reza said.

“I can’t believe some big-time school didn’t sign him,” I said.

“Well, he only played two years of varsity at St. Johnsbury Academy,” Reza said. “He didn’t make the varsity until his junior year.”

And since his first year at UVM, Taylor Coppenrath added more than 50 pounds on his muscular, yet unassuming frame and averaged more than 24 points per game as he was named Kevin Roberson America East Player of the Year for the second straight season. But his consistently brilliant play was not the only reason he was the favorite topic of conversation days before the March 13 championship game. No one knew for sure whether he was going to play or not, except Taylor himself. On Feb. 11, he broke the scaphoid bone in his left wrist while drawing a charge against Stony Brook. Coppenrath hadn’t suited up since Feb. 15 against Boston University, and was absent from recent tournament wins over New Hampshire and Hartford. Coppenrath’s father, George, was one of the few people who did not want him to play, fearing further injury and the risk of Taylor’s wrist never healing properly. Besides the Maine fans, George might have been the only person who didn’t want Taylor on the court since Taylor’s cast was removed Monday and he began light practices.

For Taylor, this was the perfect situation, wasn’t it? He hadn’t played in a month, so people would understand if he had a sub-par performance. If he was just out there scoring a few baskets, grabbing some rebounds and playing defense, wouldn’t that be all any Vermont fan could ask for? It is Vermont, after all, not Connecticut or Kentucky. Still, everyone knows he carries the weight of UVM’s offensive production, especially if T.J. Sorrentine is cold. Pressure or no pressure, a sellout crowd of 3,228 couldn’t have ever dreamed of what they were about to witness.

In the Patrick Gym lobby signs with each UVM player’s name and jersey number hung from the second-floor railing. So did a banner over the souvenir shop – WELCOME TO CATAMOUNT COUNTRY. I still wanted my ticket, so I waited in the player will-call line. Reza had saved me and his girlfriend Erin tickets. Only Alex Jensen’s mother and Jack Phelan’s parents were ahead of me in line. The lobby wasn’t even half-full, yet.

Then more fans arrived. Among them, I said hi to my former classmates Andre Anderson and Grant Anderson and Trevor Gaines. How time flies, I thought, they graduated. So did Craig Peper and Jared Steele, who mingled with the UVM basketball family before tipoff. Nostalgic thoughts fidgeted in my mind. Wasn’t I just playing ball with those guys? Weren’t we just drinking together? I felt old.

Soon the line could not be identified. The entire lobby was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder. Why aren’t they giving out the reserved tickets, I thought. A middle-aged fan walked on the second-floor overhang and pumped his fists and exclaimed, “Go Cats Go! Go Cats Go!”

After an hour of clinging to my spot in line, I got my ticket and it was into Patrick Gym! Besides the lack of empty seats, the first thing I noticed was the lighting; it seemed a bit dimmer than I remembered. The court and seating on both sides of the gym were still the same – small, cozy and close to the action. Some call it a glorified high school gym, but it represents the state well.

Every seat is a good seat. However, sitting halfway up at mid-court was better than many other spots, such as the location of the UVM students -- who postponed their spring break plans -- and were seated farthest back on both sides of the gym. I spotted Buzz and Donna almost directly across from me. Buzz had a convenient aisle seat for the end-of-the-game celebration.

The UVM players came out of the locker as a loud cheer from the Cat fans muffled Jay-Z blaring from the speakers. UVM had its cheerleaders near the Vermont bench. Facing them at the opposite end, were the Maine cheerleaders, who in their light blue outfits looked out of place. It was hard to spot a Black Bear fan. The stands seemed full, but more and more people filed in, many of whom wore their white “Patrick Power!” T-shirts. Man, I was glad I didn’t go to Cancun or Florida for spring break.

Vermont’s own, Phish sang the national anthem as viewers from across America could have seen on ESPN that Saturday morning. Then the starting lineups were announced. Coppenrath and his floppy, moppy hairdo and elastic wrap around his left wrist was starting. The fans were elated. George Coppenrath was trembling inside.

As Scotty Jones jumped for the tipoff, I flashed my camera and Sorrentine grabbed the ball. Gametime!

Maine scored the first basket. At the other end, Coppenrath put Vermont on the scoreboard with a layup and foul at 18:35. He converted the old-fashioned three-point play. It was only the beginning for Coppenrath. Baseline jumper. Layup. Layup. Three-pointer at the top of the key, giving UVM a 20-10 lead in which Coppenrath had 12 points and hadn’t missed yet. Each time he scored, I looked across the gym and pumped my fists in the air as I saw Buzz doing likewise. I felt like Buzz was sitting next to me each time I saw him and I knew he was glad he used his seniority and made the rare call out of work.

I told the middle-aged guy wearing a green clown wig in front of me that Taylor might score 40 points. I actually had started saying that after Taylor’s seventh point, for the record. “He may,” he answered me.

Things couldn’t have been worse for Maine at that point. The Black Bears lost their starting center, 6-foot-10-inch Mark Flavin, four minutes into the game with an injured calf. Coppenrath dominated. He converted a hook shot just before the halftime buzzer, giving UVM a 40-23 advantage. A UVM student walked by the court holding up a coach’s clipboard that he had written a message on for the crowd to see:

Maine vs Vermont
Coppenrath 28
Maine 23

Coppenrath had singlehandedly outscored Maine in the first half. It was like a fantasy. In the men’s locker room at the half I heard someone say, “That’s the best performance by one player I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s all day,” said another.

“Bring on Duke,” said yet another.

Brennan told his team, as any coach would have, to keep feeding Coppenrath the ball. Maine coach John Giannini decided to double team No. 22 in the second half, and that plus the fact UVM was cold helped the Black Bears claw their way back, trailing 49-41 midway through the half.

Maybe the delay in the game at 14:05 played in Maine’s favor as the shot clocks stopped working. I kept booing the refs the entire time. It seemed like the right thing to do since I didn’t know what was going on at the time and I was fearing the notorious Cat Collapse. Several minutes later officials placed auxiliary clocks on the floor on each side of the court.

However, Coppenrath kept scoring, mostly from the foul line as Vermont students chanted, “You Can’t Stop Him! You Can’t Stop Him!” And everyone in the building new it was true.

With Maine hanging around, Sorrentine picked a critical time, with 5:52 remaining, to drain his only three-pointer of the game, giving Vermont a 15-point cushion and two Brennan arms in the air. Giannini said that at Sorrentine’s three-point shot and several other times during the game he couldn’t call instructions to his players because the crowd was so loud.

Coppenrath tipped in a shot for his 42nd and 43rd point with 50 seconds left in the game. A few possessions later, I watched senior Corey Sullivan soar for an easy two-handed alley-oop dunk as I stood in the aisle ready to storm the court.

The final seconds ticked off the scoreboard, which read, VERMONT 72 VISITOR 53.

Later, I checked my voice mail and heard Peter’s message relaying the sequence of events he was watching on television in Washington, D.C. “What an amazing game,” Peter said. “Taylor Coppenrath just moved up a notch in my book. That puts him at notch one, I mean one thousand. What an amazing game. You are celebrating right now. They just streamed the court. The shank dunk by Maine at the end. The Cats fans just streamed the court. I bet you are one of them.”

I sure was. I ran in between the UVM bench chairs and headed for center court where most of the student section had mobbed the players. I gave David Hehn a hug, not because I knew him, but because it’s just the thing to do at that moment. I jumped up and down like I had won the lottery, and in many respects it felt better than anything monetary or material. I saw Reza and I had someone take our picture. I said hi to Scotty and Grant and Trevor in the mist of the mayhem. Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was Buzz! I held my camera in front of us and took a picture. It was a surreal moment.

A few minutes later fans walked onto the court or cheered from their seats, as Donna had, as the players and Brennan cut down the net. Buzz and I stood next to the ladder as I took pictures of Sorrentine, Coppenrath, and Brennan.

Buzz told me we were invited into President Daniel Fogel’s post-game ceremony. It turned out anybody that wanted could have gone. There were small sandwiches, crackers, cookies, fruit and soda before the ceremony began next to the indoor tennis courts. I probably ate more than was polite, but nobody was going to say anything and I still had an empty stomach. Reza came out with the America East Championship trophy, which was heavier than it looked. We took pictures and mingled with the Land’s friends and some of the players. Fogel and Sullivan and Brennan made speeches at the podium as a crowd gathered. Brennan said how grateful he was to be able to coach at a place where his job wasn’t in jeopardy during his losing seasons. He had a genuine and concerned look on his face as he talked about his good fortune and how Taylor turned into a “rock star.” Of course, he had to throw in a one-liner, “How about if you’re his old man, how about if you’re George Coppenrath, and you wake up one day in West Barnet, Vt., and you realize you’ve sired Seabiscuit?”

Unlike Seabiscuit, Coppenrath is one of the taller competitors in his sport, but his hometown nestled in the Northeast Kingdom is anything but big. On the other hand, he had gaudy game stats: 43 points (a career high and tournament record) on 14-for-19 from the floor, 14-for-15 from the foul line and 13 rebounds.

“Coppenrath was amazing, he made everything look so easy,” Giannini told the media. “That’s my fault, too. If I thought he could play like that after four weeks off, I would have doubled him the whole game.”

“If I had known that anyone outside the NBA could score 28 points on us in a half, I would have done it from the get-go. Are you kidding me? He can do anything he wants in this state, because he became a legend for the ages.”

Although Coppenrath played just one game, he won the Reggie Lewis Award as the tournament’s most outstanding player. Njila, who made all eight of his foul shot attempts and scored 13 points, joined Coppenrath on the All-Championship team with Sorrentine, who finished the title game with six points and five assists.

“This wasn’t a game, it was a party,” junior David Hehn told the media. “And Taylor was the DJ.”

During the president’s ceremony I saw a poster, I think next to Taylor’s mother, that read:

Face Paint $5
T-Shirt $15
Ticket $23
Date w/

As the praise kept coming, Taylor stood away from the mob and answered the media’s questions with honest, humble responses, as he usually does.

“I thought I was going to play limited minutes and just contribute what I could, however much I could,” Coppenrath said. “See how my wrist felt, take it from there. We just started going to it, getting some easy plays, and the guys hit me where I needed to get the ball.”

In Coppenrath’s small Vermont village of West Barnet, residents borrow videos of UVM games from the general store, which anyone can check out on an honor system. Coppenrath displays his rural roots, saying he wants to be a math teacher when asked about the prospect of playing in the NBA.

“A fourth-grader called him up and asked to talk to him for a class project,” Brennan told the Boston Globe. “And Taylor says, ‘I’ll be in the gym at 5 o’clock after practice.’ Later, the kid called back and says, ‘My dad has to work late and I can’t come.’ So Taylor says, ‘OK, I’ll come over to your house.’ He doesn’t think anything of it. The kid couldn’t come here, so he goes there. That’s how the whole state is. There’s no sense of entitlement here, no sense of, ‘We deserve this,’ or ‘We deserve that.’ People are just hard-working and caring.”

Coppenrath’s leadership and value system have rubbed off on the UVM team. Or maybe it’s the progress the team has made since its winless November to its undefeated January. The last time I was in Burlington, I looked in disbelief at the Burlington Free Press sports page lying on the kitchen counter at the Lands. The Cats had lost at Rhode Island by 38 points, on Dec. 30 to be exact.

A few weeks later, in the showdown at Boston University, the players realized how fortunate they were to be able to have thousands of fans watch them play a kid’s game. One of those fans was Winooski’s Mike Antoniak, who spent his final Saturday with his wife Candy watching UVM play BU before heading to Iraq. Antoniak, who watched the conference title game with his National Guard buddies, addressed the UVM team before they took the court against BU. He said he was taking a picture of his wife and daughters and his ticket stub from last year’s title game in Boston. After the tears, UVM won that game by two points. And they kept winning, especially when it counted most.

“You could not script this any better,” Giannini said. “I expect I’ll take my kids to see this as a Disney movie some day.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood could never do it justice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Lebron-Melo Mania

I must be delirious. It’s 4 a.m. and there he is, again, looking at me with that blank stare, the same expression he had during warmups and periodically throughout the game hours ago. That stare – as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders and he knows it yet embraces it – won’t go away as he stands in front of me with a basketball in his right hand ready to crossover. No, I’m not on a basketball court with one of the two best teenage players in the world. I’m at a gas station off Interstate 85, about a half hour outside Chapel Hill, N.C.

The first half of my two-day journey is nearly complete when I notice my Volvo 240 wagon needs gas. So I pull into an Exxon station. As I pay for my gas, I glance over near the cash register and there he is – Lebron James – on the Upper Deck trading card box. Gosh, he’s everywhere, I think to myself, there’s no where to escape the hype, not even at a rural North Carolina fill-up station.

That hype has followed James and his good friend Carmelo Anthony long before they played in their first professional game this season, before they signed eight-figure deals with Nike, and even before they were drafted by the two worst teams in the NBA.

The hype began as a current of chatter among the basketball media and hoop gurus last season and crashed into mainstream America like a tidal wave. Soon their photos were everywhere – “Lebron” and “Melo” were on their way to becoming household names. James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the prophetic phrase – THE CHOSEN ONE – and after Anthony led Syracuse to the NCAA title he graced the front page as well, not to mention numerous other magazines and newspapers. They were 18. Now they’re 19, and the hype continues to grow.

This year people keep popping the same question to me. Friends, family and strangers ask, “Who do you think is better, Lebron or Melo?” It’s tough for me to answer. They’re just so similar. Both are 6-8, strong, athletic, scoring more than 20 points per game and leading their teams toward playoff contention.

The question and the hype kept rattling around in my head one night in January as I lay in my bed, unable to fall asleep. I was suffering from Lebron-Melo Mania. I finally got out of bed and searched the Internet for a cure: go see Anthony and James play in person.

The itinerary for Lebron-Melo Mania: back-to-back nights; first Philips Arena in Atlanta, then the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.; and 1,300 miles later I’m back in my Chapel Hill apartment for some needed sleep.

I was going to watch the top two rookie of the year candidates perform against a pair of depleted teams, Atlanta and Washington, who had both lost twice as many games as they had won (20). Nevertheless, it would give me a chance to see what all the hype was about.

I headed south on a cool, clear Monday. As I approached Atlanta, with its skyscrapers looming in the distance near the five-lane highway, I began to worry about traffic and parking. Surprisingly, I had no problem. But then again, it was a Hawks game. A team that dressed only eight players and started Jason Collier, who had just signed a 10-day contract the day of the game.

To get to the court, I entered the CNN Center, which is attached to Philips Arena. As I walked into the huge lobby area, it had the appearance of a mall food-court and the feel of an airport terminal. Some people sat in the center of the lobby eating dinner while others grazed through the gift stores and fast-food joints, in no hurry to go or be anywhere in particular. Not hungry and not knowing anyone, I went to the arena, where it was quiet and virtually empty. It was like walking into a library on a Saturday night. But I was early. There still was over an hour to the 7:30 tipoff.

Finding my aisle seat, which was behind the basket on the Cleveland bench side, I noticed the first sign of the hype. Most of the hundred or so fans in the arena gathered around the Cavalier entrance in hopes of a photograph or signature from James. A plethora of James jerseys could be seen in the mostly male crowd of young and old, black and white fans. But were they really fans? Did they come here to cheer on the home team? Did they come to watch Jason Kapono and Ira Newble each work on his shot?

About an hour to game time, Ain’t It Funny pumped out of the arena speakers as Tony Battie and Jeff McInnis, who was recently acquired to take point guard duties off James, signed autographs. Standing next to the entrance railing, a boy about 16 years old said to his tall buddy, about the same age, “Is this guy good?” as he held a program that Battie had just signed. His friend shrugged and he threw the program on the ground like an empty peanut wrapper.

Next to the swarm of James admirers, a yuppie couple, maybe late 30s, looked for their seats with their three young sons, the smallest of whom wore a James jersey.

After Battie and McInnis headed into the locker room, Kapono shot jumper after jumper. The small crowd glanced over at him with a look of seriousness and disinterest, as if to say, “Why are you even here? We came to see Lebron.”

During that time of anticipation and limbo, I saw a boy, say age 10, wearing a James jersey and holding a notebook-sized photo in a protective sleeve of Anthony and James next each other, each holding the bottom of their game shorts.

The music was still playing, but the arena was almost empty with 47 minutes until tipoff. Bob Sura and a few Atlanta players entered at the other end and warmed up, yet only about two dozen fans were gathered near the Hawks’ entrance.

Standing amongst the James crowd, a college student came up to me and asked, “You know when they come out?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you from New York City?” I asked noticing his blue Yankee fitted cap and New York accent.


“Did you fly down here?”

“No, I go to school at Clark. I came to see Lebron. Who do you think is going to win?”

I shrugged, trying to be objective and stay in journalism mode.

“You don’t care,” he said. “You came here to see Lebron too.”

Moments later a chubby black boy, about age 10, leaning over the railing blurted out, “Come out here Lebron!”

A few minutes later the ushers told everyone standing around the entrance to find their seats. As the crowd grudgingly left, I asked a guy, who looked about 19 or 20, where he found his unique white James jersey with Cavaliers written in cursive. He said he bought it at a mall near his home in Columbus, Ga., but he was originally from Akron, Ohio, and was friends with James. “I wanted to talk to (Lebron) because we went to middle school together back in Akron,” he said.

Sitting next to me at my seat was a high school couple, Justin and Alex, on a date. They’re seniors at Forsyth Central High in Cummings, Ga.

“You a Hawks fan or did you just come to see Lebron?” I asked Justin, who sat next to me.

“Yeah, Lebron, that’s about the only reason why,” Justin said, chomping on a pizza.

“Who do you think is better, Lebron or Carmelo?” I asked.

“Lebron,” he said.


“I don’t know,” Justin said. “I just think he’s better ... I don’t really watch too much NBA. I like college basketball better.”

Finally, with about 16 minutes to tipoff, James and his Cavalier teammates took the court. Walking in the lay-up line, duck-footed in his black Nikes, James wore the expression on his face, the one I had seen at the gas station.

Nearing tipoff, there were still many empty seats. In fact, the game time attendance of 14,050, was Cleveland’s smallest crowd all season. However, two of those in attendance were Dominique Wilkins and his brother Gerald Wilkins who shared popcorn during the game in the front row across from the Cavalier’s bench.

At one point during warmups, James shot a three-pointer and bent down to retrieve his missed shot, where Dominique happened to being standing. Upon seeing the Hawks legend, James turned on his million-dollar smile and they shook hands and hugged and chatted briefly. For the precocious star, meeting hall-of-famers and celebrities is an everyday occurrence. How could it faze someone who has Michael Jordan’s number on speed dial?

Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke told ESPN Magazine about his experience with James: “I met him early in the season, before he played the Clippers in LA. He’s the same player and the same person I saw come to play in Pauley Pavilion when he was in high school. You’d think the hype would have rubbed off on him. It hasn’t – it’s rubbed off on us.”

And it was soon about to rub off on the Philips Arena crowd. James received the loudest cheers when the Cleveland starters were announced. He powdered his hands and rubbed his sneakers on a stick-em mat and it’s game time!

It didn’t take long to understand why James was his team’s most lethal offensive threat – a two-pointer from the top of the key, an offensive stick-back, a two-handed alley-oop dunk from McInnis, where the top of James’s head rose to rim level, and a slick bounce-pass in the half-court set to a cutting Carlos Boozer for two. A simple fact of observation: nobody on either team had James’s athleticism, scoring and playing-making ability. Other players did, however, outwork him, at least on the defensive end of the court.

Atlanta’s Stephen Jackson repeatedly beat James on screens from teammates, giving Jackson open shots or forcing James’s teammates to help out. James’s posture was too straight-up to utilize his superior athleticism on defense. Also, he often hung around the perimeter, basket-hanging some may say, in order to start a fast break or be the recipient of an easy bucket.

While James may basket-hang, he certainly is no ball hog. One time James fed Zydrunas Ilgauskas and I heard him say, “Shoot it.” Another possession, with a few ticks left on the shot clock, James received a pass and had a good look at the basket. But instead of shooting, he passed it to McInnis, who launched a wide-open three-pointer at the buzzer – definitely not a rookie decision.

James’s flaws weren’t exposed that much in the first quarter as Cleveland led 34-15, behind his eight points and entry passes to Boozer, who had 14 points.

A few minutes into the second quarter James intercepted a pass on the perimeter and raced down the court with only Jackson to beat. James tried to fend off Jackson with his right arm, but was shoved to the ground under the basket. Flagrant foul, whistled the ref.

James rose to his feet and walked toward Jackson, but both players were separated as they jawed at one another. After the game James told the Beacon Journal, “I just let him know I’m a competitor. I had to let him know I’m not a punk.”

After James made three straight free throws, Cleveland led 39-19. Perhaps the foul was what the Hawks needed to fire them up. Or perhaps Atlanta’s 32-point loss to the Cavaliers on March 3 was still fresh in the players’ minds. Whatever it was, Atlanta went on a tear, exposing James on pick-and-rolls, to take a 51-50 lead at halftime.

After the break, the Cavaliers jumped to a lead, but I started to notice another weakness in James’s game. He tended to spectate without the ball on offense, standing behind the three-point line and just waiting for the ball, seldom crashing the boards. But when he had the ball in his hands, the Hawks were at his mercy. The thing that makes James so dangerous is the fact that he can penetrate and finish at will, but when double-teamed, he always has his head up and finds an open teammate. James penetrated three straight times to the basket to give his team the lead at the end of the third quarter. As he walked to the bench, he stared into the crowd behind Cleveland’s bench with a look that said, “Take that. I’m the man.” I found out afterward that there had been a heckler in the front row. After the game, James told the Journal Beacon, “(Hawks fans) can blame the loss on (the heckler), he got me fired up. He wasn’t bothering me. I was bothering him.”

The heckler must have been agitated in the final two minutes as James penetrated to the basket for a short jumper while also drawing a pair of fouls and finding Ilgauskas for a field goal to solidify a 108-102 Cleveland win.

A middle-aged man sitting in front of me kept yelling at the refs throughout the game, “He gets all the calls! Hey ref, he’s only a teenager, you can’t give him that!”

Sitting next to me in adulation, Justin clapped every time James scored saying, “He’s only 19 and he’s killing you guys.”

James walked off the court staring at the heckler to let him know who won. In the locker room it was a different story. An Associated Press reporter wrote, “Lebron James slumped in a chair in front of his locker, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and a run-down expression. ‘I’m so tired I can’t get dressed,’ he said to no one in particular.”

He had reason to be tired. He sat just three minutes, scoring 34 points with seven assists and six rebounds in Cleveland’s fourth consecutive win, a feat not achieved by the Cavaliers since February 2002. Still, playing the game may have not been the main reason he felt worn out ... it may have been....

With a little over five hours of rest under my belt, I left Chapel Hill for Washington, D.C. Once in D.C., I picked up my friend Zeph, who works for the department of labor, at Union Station. Like myself, Zeph loves watching skilled players, such as Anthony and the Denver backcourt. Besides Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards didn’t have recognizable talent on game day. Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes sat in street clothes while Jarvis Hayes sat out the second half with a hurt hamstring and Jared Jeffries played a minute after intermission before he left the court with a knee injury.

Of course, who am I kidding, we both came to see Anthony, like virtually everyone else. For Anthony, a Baltimore native, it was his first NBA homecoming.

After eating at a Chinese restaurant, we walked to the MCI Center. As I entered, I looked behind me and saw a guy with a No. 15 Syracuse jersey. Inside the arena there seemed to be every kind of Anthony jersey ever made. It almost didn’t feel like we were at a NBA game, but a Carmelo Anthony show.

But wherever there is Anthony, there is James. I walked past a girl wearing an Anthony jersey with her younger brother who had on a James jersey. A half hour before tipoff we found our seats (near the back of the lower deck across from Washington’s bench). Since no one was warming up, I watched the jumbotron, where an announcer was comparing Anthony and James and showing highlights of both players.

Soon the players came out and Anthony and Juan Dixon, also a Baltimore native, shook hands and talked. But I didn’t pay much attention to Anthony in the lay-up line. Earl Boykins caught my attention, not with any fancy moves, just the fact he was out there, all 5 feet 4 inches and 133 pounds. Standing straight, Boykins came up to Anthony’s chest. The fact Boykins averages double figures in scoring while only playing half the game is even more impressive. “He’s my hero,” Zeph said. “He’s the only NBA player that I would wear their jersey.”

In addition to Boykins, the Nuggets had a formidable backcourt in starters Voshon Lenard and Andre Miller. However, I didn’t see many Lenard or Miller jerseys. According to Baltimore Sun writer Mike Preston, Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik told Anthony during a shoot-around before the game that it was time to take over and lead a team that had lost eight of nine games. Anthony graciously accepted the role, knowing he had been Denver’s go-to guy most of the season.

Compared to the quiet Atlanta crowd, the Washington fans needed to be checked for a pulse. As the starters names were announced, cheerleaders walked around the court with signs that read, “Make some Noise!” and “Get Loud!” Nobody reacted to the prompt until Anthony’s and Dixon’s names were called. Though the arena seemed about a third full, the game-time attendance was 14,924.

Taking Bzdelik’s advice, Anthony looked for his shot early on, but missed his first five attempts. He was fouled on his sixth attempt, a put-back on his own missed lay-up. Unlike James, who can play point or wingman, Anthony is clearly a small forward, but he demonstrated his versatility by nailing a few pull-back jump shots. When his defender tried to guard him close, he crossed over and exploded to the basket using his athleticism and agility to contort in the air when two defenders tried to block his shot. While no where near the talented passer James is, Anthony crashes the boards more often and is craftier in the low-post than his Cleveland buddy.

Halfway into the second quarter Anthony broke Jeffries down with a crossover and exploded down the lane, taking off from just in front of the dotted line for a tomahawk dunk. He hit a few perimeter jumpers before intermission, giving Denver a 46-39 lead and smiled after each shot as if it was too much fun. Anthony tended to show that smile and enjoyment on the court more than James.

“Both young men have brought a great freshness, a great smile back to the game,” Magic Johnson told the Associated Press. “Nobody wants to smile. We’ve got to get back to smiling, destroying their man at the same time.”

Anthony and the Nuggets certainly destroyed the Wizards in the second half, scoring 71 points en route to a 117-87 victory. The lifeless Wizard crowd didn’t enjoy the sorry second half performance, booing periodically during the fourth quarter. With the victory, Denver (34-31) doubled its win total of last season.

Anthony’s shot, especially his pullback jumpers, were more accurate than James’s and virtually impossible to stop with his size and quickness. He tallied 26 points, six rebounds and seven assists. His overall aggressiveness and willingness to crash the boards and stick close to his man on defense were advantages he demonstrated over James. Yet like James, Anthony needs work on moving without the ball.

As impressive as Anthony was, watching Boykins accelerate to the basket and score over defenders more than a foot taller than he was inspiring. Boykins was also the only player I saw in both games shake hands with the other team at the end of the game. But in the NBA, sportsmanship doesn’t sell jerseys or tickets.

So I wasn’t delirious when I stopped at the Exxon station and saw James. Little did I know at the time, he has a $5 million deal with Upper Deck. Putting the numbers aside and the reality that Anthony and James are so young and so rich, do they deserve the hype? Did I get my money’s worth in Atlanta and D.C.?

Without the opportunity of meeting either player, and finding out what type of person they really are, I can’t say I got shafted. Sixty points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists by a pair of teenagers in the NBA on back-to-back nights is a feat in itself. And the fact my Volvo didn’t have any problems is another testament to my good fortune.

Five months ago many people said the expectations for these two players was too high. With both leading their teams into playoff contention, people are talking more and more about their skills and less about the sneaker contracts and inexperience. The hype hasn’t died down though, as I witnessed enough Anthony and James jerseys to fill an entire sporting goods store. They both have improved their games and likely will only keep getting better. They seemed accustomed to the hype, the constant attention. And so far, they’ve proved they can handle it by their words and actions.

So now we’re back to the question, “Who do you think is better, Lebron or Melo?” And it’s still as tough to answer now as it was before I saw both of them play. Anthony probably has a better supporting cast than James, but his team also has a better record than James. They both have raised their teams out of the depths of mediocrity to respectability. Whoever makes it to the playoffs or wins more post-season games is likely to be crowned the better of the two. Regardless of the outcomes, it’s hard to mention one without mentioning the other.

“A lot of people were saying the NBA was down,” Anthony told the Los Angeles Times at the start of the season. “With me and (James) coming in, maybe we can bring the NBA back. You aren’t ever going to hear my name without hearing his name. For our whole careers, it’ll be like that. Same way with Magic and Bird.”