A puff of smoke . . .
That’s what you see coming from the hands of LeBron James before every game.
A big, white, fluffy puff of dreamy smoke.
It happens when James walks over to the scorer’s table seconds before the opening jump ball. He pours resin in his hands, quickly rubs them together, then sends his hands to the heavens, pulling them apart wide as the resin heads to the ceiling. It’s the same pregame ritual Michael Jordan performed for years with the Chicago Bulls. Just as Jordan wore No. 23 and had a shoe contract with Nike, so does James. It’s a tribute to the player he most admired while growing up in Akron.
On this night, the puff of smoke went up before Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers were facing the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. Northeast Ohio was in a frenzy, the Cavs one victory away from their first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals. Their first in 37 years. Their first with LeBron James, who was only 22. Their first of many? Some fans dared to dream just that—that this was just the start of something big. Just like the white puff of smoke as James raised his hands and the white power expanded and floated up, up, up and away. Eyes closed, arms fully extended, sound and light and energy pouring over him. It was as if he and the thirsty fans from his hometown were locked in an embrace.
On this night, something magic would happen. This was more than a basketball game, it was a sports romance. Try to think of another franchise being led out of the sports wilderness by a homegrown player. It would be as if Jordan had come from suburban Chicago instead of Wilmington, North Carolina. Or Larry Bird coming from Boston instead of French Lick, Indiana. Or Magic Johnson being a Los Angeles native rather than growing up in Michigan. Or Mickey Mantle in the Bronx, or Tom Brady in New England. It just doesn’t happen, a superstar shouldering the dreams of his hometown as James did that night.
As the smoke rose from James, the fans at mid-court roared. He took it in, maybe not quite believing it all himself. James was born to a teenage single mother and spent much of his youth in the projects and on the streets. He could tell you of guys from his neighborhood who had been shot, guys in jail, guys just lost. He could look under the basket and see his mother, Gloria, in the prime seats, along with his girlfriend Savannah and their young son, LeBron Jr. They are a part of his dream. They’ll never be hungry, never have to worry about a place to live, never wonder if someone will shut off the heat or electricity.
Sitting right behind James at mid-court was Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers. He watches the games from directly behind the press table—not close to the benches but near the public address broadcaster and those in charge of game presentation: the pregame fireworks, video screen, the sound effects. James is part of his dream. A $375 million dream, because that’s what he paid for the franchise in 2005—probably twice what it was worth before James joined the team in 2003.
Gordon Gund was listening to this game, and he’s a part of the dream, too. He can only imagine what James looked like, muscles rippling, anxious sweat steaming off his forehead as he threw that white powder to the sky. Gund is blind. His eyes at the game are the words of Cavaliers radio broadcaster Joe Tait. This was 2007, nearly 24 years since Gund bought the team from Ted Stepien and saved it for Cleveland. He made that $375 million deal with Gilbert for the sale of the team, but kept 15 percent. He longed to be a part of this night, when the Cavs finally had right guy at the right time.
Basketball is really about getting the right guy.
As Cavaliers veteran point guard Eric Snow once said, “You either have The Guy, or you are trying to get The Guy. In LeBron, we have the kind of guy that other teams want to get.”
Getting The Guy . . .
So often, Cleveland fans have seen their guys leave to free agency or trades. Heck, the entire Cleveland Browns team left for three years—when Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore. Or their teams tried to get the guy, but he turned out to be the wrong guy as happened with the Cavs and Shawn Kemp and Danny Ferry.
But now, Ferry was a part of the dream, too.
After a sometimes frustrating playing career with the Cavs, Ferry is the guy hired by Gilbert to make it work for LeBron James. When Ferry left the team in the summer of 2000, he was respected for his work ethic and his relentless determination to transform himself into a viable NBA player, but he still is known by many Cavs fans as the guy who came in the Ron Harper trade, perhaps the worst deal in franchise history. Now, Ferry is the guy making the trades, and fans were glad to have him back.
Getting The Guy . . .
This night was not about dreams going up in a puff of smoke. It wasn’t about a poll in 2006, when ESPN named Cleveland No. 1 in its fan misery index. The fans didn’t lose LeBron, perhaps the greatest athlete ever to be born and raised in the working-class neighborhoods of Northeast Ohio. He had just signed a contract extension in summer of 2006, meaning he is committed to the franchise at least until the summer of 2010. He had defied the odds, by not only staying home to play but by overcoming curses and critics to enliven a dying team and inspire a depressed fan base. Every seat in the arena on the mild June night was filled and he was the reason why. They had been filled all season, the Cavs breaking team records for sellouts and overall attendance. Outside, in a large plaza next to the arena, thousands more squeezed in together to watch the game on giant video screens provided by the team. Just four years earlier, the Cavs had attracted the fewest fans in the NBA. Thousands of them were wearing James’ replica jersey in an array of colors and perhaps hundreds of thousands more were in bars, in their homes, or even on their jobs doing the same.
Getting The Guy . . .
Talk to the people selling hot dogs and T-shirts, those who own the restaurants and nightclubs around the arenas—they all will tell you LeBron has made their life better. Not just because he gives fans reason to cheer, but he makes people happy. The team wins, he scores, fans buy stuff—and the vendors make more money than they did before they had The Guy that forever changed this franchise.
Getting The Guy . . .
Across the court, Marv Albert welcomed a national television audience to the broadcast as James went through his popular pregame maneuver. Before James came, the Cavs hadn’t been on national television in more than three years. In the 2006–07 season, more than 50 games were on national TV. As the fans cheered and the cameras recorded, more than 300 media members settled into position to document the historic night, just four years after two of the three newspapers that followed the Cavs stopped even covering their road games due to lack of interest. The side of a nearby building in downtown was covered in a Nike ad for James, a spectacle that was so well received and photographed that the mayor had declared it public art so it could be protected. Dozens more surrounding buildings were covered with signs and banners cheering on the once forgotten team. In a courtside box, the new billionaire owner who had bought new seats for the fans and a new video board to show James highlights on, took in the scene. All of them and more tied together in a package of success and money by the young man’s talent and the smile and the puffs of magic smoke.
Getting The Guy . . .
This was a great night for Nike, the shoe company that won the biggest corporate battle for any amateur athlete to be its company spokesman. Nike bet more than $100 million that there would be days like this, when an 18-year-old from Akron would become one of the NBA’s elite players, an international celebrity, a savvy salesman for shoes and clothes. They never said it, but they want him to be their next Jordan, and James was coming off a Jordanesque performance in Game 5 of these Eastern Conference Finals with Detroit, scoring 29 of his team’s last 30 points as the Cavaliers prevailed in double-overtime, 109-107. James put 48 points next to his name in the box score that night, and was utterly unstoppable. Jump shots, driving shots, slashing shots and slam dunks. Left hand, right hand—and sometimes, fans swore he did it with no hands. The ball just went from him into the basket. Cavs fans had never seen a performance like this because they never had a player like this. No matter how hard their franchise tried, it was never able to get The Guy.
Then through a white puff of smoke came LeBron James, on to the court, the hearts of fans beating little faster. To Cavs fans, he’s their guy—The Guy. Who’d ever have dared dream it?^ top
Excerpted from the book The Franchise, copyright © Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst
Two award-winning sports journalists give an in-depth look at how a team and a city were rebuilt around superstar LeBron James.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers drew the top pick in the 2003 NBA draft, an entire city buzzed . . . [ Read More ]
Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine- . . . [ Read More ]
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for ESPN.com. His writing has been honored by the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press. He has also written for The Plain Dealer and The . . . [ Read More ]TerryPluto.com