Christmas is a day when the world is supposed to be perfect. For yours truly, basketball fan, in 2003, that was just about the case when the Magic and Cavs locked horns on this special, special morn.
LeBron James had already exceeded all expectations and was headed for one of the most emphatic rookie campaigns in hoops history. But he was still learning and coming into focus. We knew there was much more yet to come, particularly when it came to that all-important jumper. His one flaw coming into the pros was the lack of one, and while it had been better than advertised, it remained shaky and hardly a point of pride. On the other hand, this was the Magic when Tracy McGrady was near the top of the pile. It ended up being his last in Orlando. His body never really recovered from injuries suffered at the end of the year, and his reputation took a serious hit after the team lost 19 straight after an opening-night win. McGrady demanded a trade in the offseason. That was it for Tracy McGrady, phenom.
In December of 2003, though, T-Mac was still T-Mac, as potent and lithe a scorer as I've ever seen. He was so relentless and creative with the ball, so varied in his attack, that the world slept on his passing, rebounding and all-around floor game. Put simply, McGrady was a monster, LeBron was the Baby Beast tromping toward the shores of Tokyo. The two met on that fateful day. At the time, it seemed like the league was heading for its greenest pastures in years. The two stars spurred each other on, with McGrady's positively unreal 41 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists—plus five threes—setting the standard. Orlando took the game in OT, 113-110. But James also made a major leap forward, hitting four threes as part of his 36 points. Okay, so he also had 8 turnovers, and his six boards and two assists weren't exactly stat-stuffing. But you had to be there. LeBron went toe-to-toe with all that McGrady was and more than held his own.
So there you had it. McGrady looked to be a force for years to come, and at the same time, James was close on his heels, fast becoming the kind of supernova we all know him as today. It looked like the NBA's darker days would yet yield some truly memorable players, while the Messianic crop of James, Melo, Bosh and (though we didn't quite know it yet) Wade would light the way to a new future. Except it wasn't meant to be. McGrady would look decidedly old by the next year, with only Kobe and Duncan really spanning that divide. Further melancholic footnotes: that was back when Boozer was pumping out major contributions for the Cavs, who for all his flaws, would undoubtedly have made Cleveland into a much, much stronger team all these years since had he not ... well, you know how that went.
But it wasn't meant to be. That Christmas Day, T-Mac and Bron were two ships passing in the night. I didn't realize it then, but T-Mac would soon be greatly diminished, while LeBron would ascend to heights that make us all nauseous. For a few hours, though, they crossed paths: McGrady at his finest vintage, LeBron for the first time displaying the "I can do anything" game that's made him the cosmic force he is today. It was just a few hours. But oh, how it has haunted me, haunted me ever since.
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.