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.”

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