BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 30: LeBron James warms up before the Goodman League All-Stars take on the The Melo League at Edward P. Hurt Gymnasium at Morgan State University on August 30, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul headlined a summer league game in Baltimore straight from basketball heaven on Tuesday night, but it was James and Durant who stole the show.
What happened on Tuesday night in Baltimore won't go down in history, but everyone who had a spot in Morgan State's 4,500-seat gym will probably remember it for the rest of their lives.
But first we had to get in.
Thousands of fans descended on Morgan State's tiny campus on Tuesday, and between purchasing tickets and waiting with 4,500 people to go through four metal detectors, it took me about two-and-half hours to finally make it to a seat, and that would've been on the low end compared to most fans. But that's part of what makes this indie wave of basketball so unique.
The genius of summer basketball's mainstream arrival isn't in the players, but the fans -- the people willing to seek out a tiny gym tucked away in Baltimore just to watch a pickup game. The ones who left work early to shell out $40 for tickets without any guarantees of what they're getting. The millions of others that follow the games online, watching grainy web feeds and tracking Twitter.
We all know that guys likeand play basketball all year round, but if 2011's endless summer of grassroots hoops has taught us anything new, it's that in cities all over the country, NBA or no NBA, there's an underground world of basketball fans who chase the next big game just as hard as Durant.
While we all waited in line, the people around me set the scene. In front of me, two guys were going back and forth. "I saw Carmelo like two weeks ago," says the man in front of me. "But Bron?"
His friend nods. "Yeah. Bron bring 'em out," he says, "But KD gon' put 'em down."
To my left, another fan is talking about Durant. "He does this every night, man. Every night. Watch, he gon' put up like 45, at least." Five minutes later, the same fan predicts Durant will go for 60. Another five minutes pass, and I hear him say, "He could go for like, 80."
Behind me, I heard a fan complaining about ticket prices. "Man for 40 dollars they better be servin' us a meal in there." Another voice: "Man $40? They coulda charged A HUNDRED for this."
A showdown between D.C.'s Goodman League and Baltimore's Kurk Lee league had been rumored all summer long. It was a cool possibility, and a fun event for the locals, but nothing earth-shattering. Until last week, when news broke that not only would it finally happen, buthad recruited and Chris Paul to join him vs. D.C. and Kevin Durant.
This meant that any bragging rights from Baltimore would have to be put on hold, since Chris Paul and LeBron James aren't actually from Baltimore, and it wouldn't really be a fair fight.
It also meant that with Kevin Durant, Carmelo, LeBron, Paul and a slew of other pros on both sides, Baltimore was about to play host to the summer game of a lifetime.
So, word traveled fast. Within days of the initial announcement hitting the web, the game's organizers scrambled to find a bigger venue, eventually settling on Morgan State's Talmadge L. Hill Field House, where they'd sell tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis, starting at 5 p.m. on game day. In other words, while buzz engulfed the basketball underground and eventually made its way to mainstream outlets like SportsCenter, nobody had tickets.
More importantly, that meant everybody had a chance at tickets. The enormous buzz, coupled with the equal opportunity, translated into a crowd that defied stereotypes. This was Morgan State, after all -- a historically black college in a predominantly black city, watching teams that were exclusively black.
But waiting for tip-off and looking around the arena, there was more diversity than expected. You had the black guy sitting courtside in the giant shirt that read "Free Nelly Nell", but there was also the 50-something white guy sitting a few seats down in a button-down. There was the woman popping out of her skin-tight, leopard-print dress, and then the 16-year-old girl in gym shorts who walked by with her two brothers. There was the guy wearing his post office uniform, and three twenty-somethings who looked like they'd just left their hedge fund.
Seeing all these people elbow to elbow in a sold-out crowd was a little jarring, but it's not mentioned to support some lame "basketball brings us all together" cliché. It's just that if basketball's a religion and summer basketball's reserved for evangelists, then this is how the gospel spreads.
Whether half of the crowd was seduced by the name "LeBron James" doesn't even matter. After the game we all saw and the energy that carried throughout the stadium from start to finish, it's hard to imagine that Tuesday will be the last time they fall for it.
So, what made the game so great?
There were plenty of highlights -- Chris Paul doing Chris Paul things and running circles around everyone, Carmelo Anthony dropping 30+ from inside and outside, Josh Selby andstaging an impromptu dunk contest in the second half -- but as far as the lasting memories go, it all comes back to KD and LeBron.
A lot of people who don't weren't there on Tuesday night will see the final score (149-141) and see that Kevin Durant scored 59 points while LeBron added 38, and they'll sneer. Something like, "Ha! That's what happens when nobody plays defense." But that's not how it went down.
There was no team defense, which meant that once a player beat his man, he was all but guaranteed an open look. But that's a whole lot different from "nobody played defense."
There was tough one-on-one defense all night long, and every possession was a new battle. For the fans, the intensity was as unexpected as it was exhilarating. The Goodman League may not have considered Tuesday night a definitive showdown between D.C. and Baltimore, but they weren't conceding a thing.
Nobody embodied this dynamic better than Durant and LeBron. The game may not have been a fair matchup between Baltimore and D.C., but Durant vs. LeBron would have no asterisk, and they played like it.
With the crowd egging them on from a few feet away, a meaningless exhibition game for charity took on a whole new dimension, and the two best basketball players on the planet spent almost half of the 48 minutes trying to one-up each other. Not in a playful, "anything you can do I can do better" kinda way, but in a dead serious, "I'm better" kinda way.
If LeBron scored on one end, Durant would call for the ball and isolate against Bron on the other. Usually they both scored. When LeBron hit a turnaround, KD hit a turnaround. When KD hit a three, LeBron would try one, too. When LeBron thundered down the lane for a dunk on one end, KD snuck out on the fast break and banged home a response on Carmelo's head.
Then it was back to LeBron...
What LeBron and Durant staged Tuesday was everything we always pretend the NBA Playoffs are. We like to think of them as a battle of individual wills, where the best man will eventually win in a seven-game series. That's generally unfair, because basketball teams have five players-a-piece. When the Heat play the Thunder, it's not really LeBron vs. Durant.
On Tuesday? It sure felt like LeBron vs. Durant. There were still four other players on each team, but the actual game was unfair to begin with, and in hindsight, D.C.-Baltimore feels like an undercard.
The actual game never matched the suspense we felt every time the ball would stop, the crowd would start buzzing and either Durant or LeBron would go right at the other one. It was like seeing a barber shop argument get settled in front of your eyes, on every other possession.
And again, the genius here comes back to the fans.
That's the biggest difference between what happened Tuesday night and what happens during the NBA All-Star Game every year. Instead of a crowd full of celebrities and disinterested businessmen, there was a crowd of 5,000 fans who understood exactly what was at stake. And they made sure LeBron and Durant knew, too. It's what pushed the "exhibition" to a whole 'nother level, and kept it there for pretty much the entire 48 minutes.
When LeBron James and Kevin Durant are in the Hall of Fame one day, the memories of Tuesday night will be a hundred times cooler. For now, it was the epitome of what's makes summer basketball so special, in general.
If NBA players playing in these sort of exhibitions was at all a secret before Tuesday night, what happened in Baltimore should put an end to it. ESPN had multiple reporters and a camera crew on hand, and given LeBron's involvement, it's a safe bet that the whole sports world will be talking about summer basketball over the next 48 hours or so.
So in that case, let's clarify: Summer basketball strips the game to what makes it most infectious in the first place. You may not get team defense and set plays, but what the games lack in complexity they make up for with transparency. There's never any hiding in basketball, but especially not if you're getting abused one-on-one in front of fans that'll call you on it and an announcer that's on the court.
Throw in the most dedicated fans, announcers like Miles Rawls, and the sudden flood of NBA superstars into any open gym they can find, and you begin to see why this stuff provides such a welcome diversion from the NBA lockout. Spreading the gospel of summer hoops isn't about reminding people why they should love random summer league games, by why they love the game itself.
People talk about the rise of summer basketball like it's a lockout-inspired revolution, but Tuesday night wasn't new, really; it was just the entire experience on steroids.
And as for the final verdict Durant vs. LeBron? People will say KD got the best of him, but for every vicious crossover Durant threw, Bron countered with, say, an effortless fadeaway. For everything backbreaking three from Durant, there was LeBron wreaking havoc on the fast break. And yeah, Durant scored 59 to LeBron's 38, but LeBron had to split his shots with Carmelo.
Much as I'd love to give to the edge to KD, LeBron was every bit as unstoppable, and in the end, there were no clear winner. Durant even took to Twitter postgame to point out that his team lost and that's all that matters. But then, that lack of closure is the only thing that could have made Tuesday night even better.
Because they have to play again, don't they?