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LeBron James Headlined Arguably the Greatest Draft in NBA History
The only drama produced by the 2003 Draft was which players would go No. 2 through 60. And that night, Cavalier fans didn’t give a damn about that either.
Drafting LeBron James with the top overall pick was the easiest decision any organization has ever made. The drama was getting to that seminal moment at Madison Square Garden is what matters.
Accurately heralded as a once-in-a-generation athlete who could transform an entire franchise with his combination of skill, strength, intelligence and charisma, Akron’s “Chosen One” had been making noise about 40 minutes south of Cleveland well before 2003.
Cleveland’s brass didn’t have to swing a deal or manage cap space, and the 2002-03 squad did its part – going 17-65, the franchise’s worst mark since their inaugural season. That team lost all but three road games and tied Denver for the league’s worst record. At that point, there was nothing left to do but hope for the ping-pong balls to fall the right way.
The Cavs contingent of owner Gordon Gund, board member Warren Thaler and VP of Communications Tad Carper made their way to 450 Harmon Meadow Blvd. in Secaucus, N.J. for the Draft Lottery – with Carper carrying a briefcase he dubbed “the football” – a play on the Secret Service case with the nuclear codes that goes everywhere with the President.
(The precious content of the briefcase was the now-famous road wine No. 23 jersey with “JAMES” emblazoned across the back.)
As Deputy NBA Commissioner Russ Granik began opening envelopes, the Knicks were called, then Chicago, then the Clippers, Miami and Chicago. Denver, who shared the same odds as Cleveland, drew the No. 3 selection – leaving the Grizzlies and Cavaliers remaining. Granik had barely enunciated the “Mmm … “ in “Memphis” before Cavalier fans realized that the basketball gods had smiled brightly on the North Coast.
When the victorious traveling team returned to the arena, Tad Carper walked into a building with gleeful employees going berserk. Tad strode directly into the office of then-VP of Ticket Sales and Business Development, Chad Estis, and calmly placed the four winning ping pong balls, numbered 2, 3, 6 and 12 – adding up to 23 -- on Estis’ desk and said, “I believe you’re looking for these.”
Just over one month later, the Cavaliers fulfilled their destiny and tabbed the young King with the No. 1 overall pick.
LeBron took the stage in an iconic white-on-white suit that contrasted perfectly with the wine-colored lid that marked the start of his legendary career with Cleveland. He was that season’s Rookie of the Year – the first trophy in a truckload of hardware he’d rack up over the course of his Cavaliers career.
James vowed that night to light up Cleveland like Las Vegas, and he did exactly that. Over a decade later, he made another promise to deliver a title to the region where he grew up, and he saw that one through, too.
But despite Numeral 23’s legendary ongoing career, he’s one of several players from the 2003 Draft that are likely headed for Springfield.
After the Pistons – who’d acquired the pick in a 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe – swung and missed on Darko Milicic with the second overall pick, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were the next three choices by the Nuggets, Raptors and Heat, respectively.
To many in Northeast Ohio’s chagrin, James won the 2012 and 2013 NBA Championships alongside two of those top picks – Bosh and Wade – in Miami.
But he made up for it by helping three other classmates – Dahntay Jones (No. 20, Boston), Mo Williams (47, Utah), and James Jones (49, Indiana) – win the 2016 title with the Wine & Gold.
The following season, Kyle Korver (51, Creighton) was traded to Cleveland, making two consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Kendrick Perkins (27, Memphis) made two Finals appearances with the Cavs – in 2015 and 2018 – with Golden State taking the cake on both occasions. Sasha Pavlovic (19, Utah) was a member of the first Cavalier team to reach the NBA Finals back in 2007.
[Four members of the 2003 Class helped the Warriors sink the Cavaliers in three of those four Finals matchups – David West (18, New Orleans), Leandro Barbosa (28, San Antonio), Luke Walton (32, Los Angeles Lakers) and Zaza Pachulia (42, Orlando).]
In terms of former Cavaliers from the 2003 not named ‘James’ vying for Springfield, Korver – fourth in NBA history with 2,450 made three-pointers – can certainly make a case.
Anthony has never reached the NBA Finals, but is still going relatively strong as the second-leading scorer from the 2003 Class – with 26,446 points and the meter still running.
The Cavs second round pick in 2003 was UCLA sharpshooter, Jason Kapono, taken with the 30th overall selection. Kapono spent just a single season in Cleveland – appearing in 41 games, starting three.
The Cavaliers have had their share of productive draft days, but the organization – and the league – may never see a bounty like the one produced back in 2003.