1. I was in Baltimore. I'd driven past the waterfront, through some nice neighborhoods and then some not so nice neighborhoods, and finally arrived at a construction site that'd been turned into a parking lot and seemed at least 50-60 percent legal.
In three years as a sportswriter, I think this was the single most grateful I've ever been to have this job. It came during the miserable, final days of August and all its suffocating heat, and somehow I was allowed to miss a day in the office to go to Baltimore to just go and watch basketball. All the cars in my construction site parking lot, and all the others in the more legitimate, overflowing parking lot next to us, were there because of LeBron James.
This was nine months ago, when the NBA Lockout seemed like it would go on forever, and a flurry of exhibition sorta made it seem like it wouldn't matter. But there'd never been anything like this. Carmelo, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson and 10 or 15 other NBA players on two teams.
But the headline was LeBron facing off against Kevin Durant. Fans pushed and shoved and cursed as we all tried to get into the stadium at Morgan State, and that was a full hour before tip-off. I was 95 percent sure there would be a riot one way or another, and I was just hoping they wouldn't cancel the game. But somehow we all got through the metal detectors in orderly fashion, and an hour later there wasn't an empty seat in the building. Then the show exceeded all our wildest expectations.
Because here's the thing with summer ball, or exhibition games, or the NBA All-Star Game, or basically any basketball game without strict refs or coaches: You can't hope for too much. You watch to be entertained, and to see great players doing incredible things, but you understand that especially when it involves pro players, they probably won't take things really seriously. Only in the back of your mind do you hope that things hit another level, and you get to see the best players in the world go one-on-one with each other, playing for their own reputation, making a meaningless game feel like much more.
And it's what we got with LeBron and Durant. They both played 48 minutes, they guarded each other for most of the night, and for long stretches at a time, they made guys like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul invisible. LeBron would hit jumpers over Durant; KD would come back and answer at the other end. LeBron would get out on the break for an alley-oop; KD would come back with a three. As Michael Lee wrote for the Washington Post afterward:
No coach would’ve allowed them to take the ball up and go at each other with step-back jumpers, stutter steps and crossover dribbles. That’s the beauty of these summer league pick-up games, because players can defend their reputations and display their pride each possession, with fans goading them every step of the way. James and Durant definitely got caught up, making those $40 tickets – $100 for floor seats – worth the price of admission.
It's already hard to remember everything about that game, but one thing I'll always remember is how little LeBron and Durant smiled as they went back and forth. That was the best part.
2. There's been a lot of talk about false media "narratives" and unfair expectations over the past few months, and to those points, one of the best things I've read during these playoffs was from Vincent Thomas at The Shadow League, writing about the current generation of NBA superstars, struggling to win titles.
By all accounts this generation of basketball players is astonishingly wonderful on an unprecedented level. It’s often awe-inspiring to watch LeBron and Durant and Rose. Chris Paul plays point guard better than any human being not named Magic. But none of the Gen Y superstars – save Wade (and Rondo), of course – have any jewelry.
People are perplexed. So much so, that now you’re hearing certain factions trying to change the narrative -- like, all of a sudden, it’s not all about championships. Nah, fam – it’s all about championships.
This litmus test is not unfair. Why? Because these young dudes are better than everyone.
There will be plenty of people who tell you this series isn't about LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Don't listen to them. It'll look a lot different than summer basketball, and KD and LeBron won't be one-on-one very often, and there are plenty of other factors that'll determine every game. But still. In 25 years we won't be arguing about where Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade rank in the 10 greatest players of all time.
Both KD and LeBron have been playing for history since the first time they stepped on an NBA court, and now their paths collide. Of course it's about them. The litmus test is not unfair if we're talking about the best. The greatest players have the power to the bend the narrative in their favor. If you don't believe that, look at what Durant and LeBron did to take over the Conference Finals. This is what the NBA Playoffs are all about.
3. "... 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."
That's what I wrote after that game in Baltimore. Both of them took that game as a challenge and responded by going at each other's neck as often as possible. It all sort of felt like a dream, because even as it was happening I knew it was the sort of thing I'd try to explain to people for years, but it would never quite register, no matter what I said.
Now everyone gets to watch it happen in the NBA Finals.
Everyone loves basketball for different reasons, but stuff like this strips it down to its bare essentials. On any court where there are humans playing and humans watching, there will always be players like LeBron and KD trying to prove once and for all who's best, fans arguing about it with themselves, and made or missed jumpers that might lay the whole thing bare. Maybe basketball injects life into these arguments or maybe it's the opposite, but either way.
It's why we romanticize Bird and Magic. It's why, 55 years later, Grantland can write 10,000 words on summer pickup games between Dave Bing and Elgin Baylor in D.C. Because everyone who was there will talk about them forever, and we'll all read it to remember why we love basketball.
I don't know if we'll be arguing about Durant vs. LeBron 55 years from now or even five years from now, but "Who's the best?" is the simple question that we're always trying to answer one way or another. And we almost never see it played out on the court. With the two best players of them all, with everything on the line, and the whole world watching. So yeah, these next two weeks seem like something we may remember.
As for the series, then, I think Vincent Thomas had it right. These dudes are better than everyone.
Now it's all about championships.