CLEVELAND — With so much greatness crammed together inside a single building on a single memorable night, something had to give, right? Well, greatness gave Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
And then gave some more.
There were the members of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team saluted at halftime … followed by the cozy embrace between Michael Jordan, fresh off a private jet, and LeBron James … followed by the record stream of 3-pointers dropped by Steph Curry — 16 made for 50 points! — including some from the logo … followed finally by the game-winning shot by LeBron in his triumphant homecoming.
Whew. It was all so exhausting, so fulfilling, so satisfying to anyone with a sense of history and appreciation of basketball talent spanning generations. To see it unfold at various points and then finish with such an exclamation made this special version of the All-Star Game as distinctive as it was designed to be.
Let’s start at the end: When the All-Star format was tweaked a few years ago to roust a competitive spirit that took a dormant turn among players, the finish was destined to be suspenseful between Team LeBron and Team Durant. As the 71st All-Star Game wound down, it was first team to 163 points, next basket wins. The ball went to, of course, LeBron. After all, this was, and in some ways still is, His House; a championship will do that for a player even if he (for now) reps Los Angeles and the Lakers.
Let’s pause here and roll back to 1989: first round of the playoffs, Game Five, Bulls at Cavs, when Jordan rose up and sent Craig Ehlo to the floor. Sure, the stakes were completely different compared to a midseason exhibition played more than three decades later, but the symbolism of what Jordan did was not lost on LeBron in the moment.
And so: LeBron launched a one-legged, fallaway 17-footer over Joel Embiid that found net and closed the curtain on the night, giving his team the 163-160 decision. And the first thing that ran through his mind?
“I always wanted to be like MJ growing up,” he said. “It’s crazy that the game-winning shot was a fadeaway and it was inspired by MJ.”
The coincidence of the connection between the two was just too drippy, especially given what happened earlier in the night to make it all possible and fantasy-like.
Jordan spent the day in Florida at the Daytona 500. In addition to being owner of the Hornets, he’s stretching his influence into auto racing; Jordan wants to bring cultural change to that sport by sponsoring driver Bubba Wallace, who finished second in the race.
Therefore: Jordan missed the 75th team photo which was snapped pregame, but his private jet arrived in Cleveland in time for the halftime ceremony, where he was introduced last — and received the loudest ovation.
As the court began to empty, a sea of humanity approached Jordan to pay respects. It was past players (Dennis Rodman stood out among them) and then current players (Giannis Antetokounmpo in particular seemed star-struck) and then the famous and beautiful people sitting courtside, all wanting a piece of the legendary six-time champion.
And then, squeezing his way from among the crowd was LeBron, giving a tap on the shoulder and causing a collision of goats. The two had a hug, then some quick and obviously respectful words, followed by another hug while the world watched. Once separated by an entire generation and the gazillion debates that raged between their respective fan bases, they finally met on the court to settle it, once and for all. And then it became pretty obvious.
The embrace between Jordan and LeBron was, undoubtedly, the reason the weekend mattered. It upstaged everything that preceded and followed it Sunday.
“I did not want to lose the opportunity to shake the man’s hand,” said LeBron. “Part of me wouldn’t be here without MJ’s inspiration. We haven’t been in the same building a lot throughout my career. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to reach out to him.”
There’s another LeBron’s connection that made the night possible. Curry, after all, was also born in Akron but not raised there; he left shortly after once his father, Dell, went from the Cavaliers to the Charlotte Hornets. It became sort of a running joke, which escalated during the string of Finals appearances between Curry and LeBron.
Anyway, Curry became the career 3-point king this season, and recaptured that energy in this All-Star Game when he collected enough 3s to come within two points of Anthony Davis’ All-Star record of 52 points. Curry went on a long distance tear; at one point he hit five 3s in a span of 128 seconds.
LeBron was in awe: “Come on, man, this guy is from a different planet. He literally has an automatic sniper attached to his arm and when he lets it go, everybody … is thinking it’s going in every time. To be out there and watch that (other) kid from Akron shoot the ball the way he shot it, it was unbelievable. It was pretty cool.”
And just like that, Curry — who was booed all weekend because Cleveland can’t forget those three Warriors titles at the Cavs’ expense — saw the atmosphere change almost abruptly. He did the unexpected … and won over the crowd on his way to winning the Kobe Bryant MVP Award.
“I didn’t hear the cheers,” he joked. “It takes some energy to boo. I tried to channel that into a good performance and have fun with it. Got hot early, tried to put on a little bit of a show and the joy came out in the celebration. It was kind of a perfect ending. I was MVP and (LeBron) hit the game-winner. All the history of our (Finals) series, given that we’re from Akron, you can’t really draw it up any other way.”
Not really. The last time LeBron was this happy in Cleveland, there was a parade. He had good vibes all around in his return. When he was introduced with the starting lineup, the overhead screen displayed the 2016 championship banner. Cheers. He threw the chalk toss before checking into the game. More cheers.
LeBron seemed humbled and touched by it all, not just his game-winning shot but the sheer enormity of the night.
“Hearing the ovation I got from these fans, they saw me 11 years of my career,” he said. “So many of these guys have followed my journey. It was super dope and I was appreciative.
“And the halftime ceremony, even the guys who weren’t here, we still felt their presence on stage. I was tripped out. All my inspirations taped to my wall (as a kid), to see those guys and be on stage with those guys … I’m trying to make it understand as much as I can.”
LeBron is now 5-0 as a team captain in the All-Star Game, and his latest win, given the circumstances, given the historical significance of the 75th anniversary and certainly given how it finished, made this one his biggest.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of that moment any better than the actuality that just happened,” he said.
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