In the Beginning, King James Version
Cleveland sports is littered with tales of sadness, devastation, and heartbreak. But it wasn't always that way. Cleveland teams had a proud tradition of success in the early nineteenth century up through the NFL's Cleveland Browns championship in 1964. The following fifty years, however, contained so many magnificent disasters that they were given their own legendary names, such as "the Shot," "the Drive," and "the Fumble."
LeBron James was supposed to change all of that. The phenom who grew up just down the road from Cleveland in Akron was regarded as basketball's best prospect by his junior year of high school. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time as a junior at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary and was declared "the Chosen One" and the next great NBA superstar. James was ready to soar. And the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to go with him.
During the 1998-99 basketball season, just as LeBron was getting media attention, the Cavs began losing more games than they were winning. They were sliding into NBA mediocrity, not good enough to compete for championships and not bad enough to draft elite talent. The teams with the worst records have the best chance at high draft picks, so in the NBA landscape, the absolute worst place to be is stuck in the middle. By the time James was entering his senior year of high school, it was clear he was the top talent available in an elite 2003 draft class that had scouts, coaches, and general managers swooning.
"Heading into that lottery and that draft, there was a lot of preparation that took place internally regarding the outcome of the lottery," Cavs senior vice president of communications Tad Carper said. "That draft was one of the strongest ever. History has proven that to be the case. We knew that going in. This was a loaded, powerful draft and we knew it was going to be a game-changing situation for us."
Carmelo Anthony was a freshman who guided Syracuse to a national championship. Chris Bosh was the ACC Rookie of the Year, leading Georgia Tech in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and field-goal percentage. Dwyane Wade was an explosive combo guard out of Marquette who kept rising on draft boards throughout the predraft process. Darko Milii was a tantalizing European who dazzled during workouts. In all, the 2003 draft produced nine All-Stars and two NBA Finals MVPs. The jewel of the draft, however, was James. And the Cavs were determined to do everything possible to get him.
The Cavs had swung and missed badly at acquiring a superstar when they traded for Shawn Kemp in 1997 and signed him to the seven-year, $107 million deal his former team, the Seattle SuperSonics, refused to give him. As Kemp's weight ballooned north of three hundred pounds and his play deteriorated, the Cavs regretted giving him the deal almost immediately and spent at least two years trying to get out from under it. They finally did in 2000, dumping the last four years and $71 million on the Portland Trail Blazers. Removing the bloated Kemp erased the only star off the roster, and fan interest was waning. The Cavs faced the same problem the NBA in general battled at the time: a lack of star power.
Ratings had steadily declined following Michael Jordan's retirement in 1998. More than twenty-nine million people had tuned in that year to watch Jordan topple the Utah Jazz and win his sixth NBA championship. Ratings plummeted after that, and by the time James was a senior in high school in 2003, less than ten million watched the San Antonio Spurs beat the New Jersey Nets for the franchise's second championship. In Cleveland, attendance was down, and so were the gate receipts. The Cavs were losing more than $1 million a month. Cleveland, and the rest of the league, desperately hoped the 2003 draft would supply the needed star power to jolt fans back to the game.
"There was an acute awareness about LeBron and the path that he was headed down and how those roads were going to intersect eventually," Carper said. "There's that saying about how 'when the stars align.' It really was a situation where the stars aligned. Players and coaches go out to win every game. That was certainly the case with us. Everything that we did, I think, leading up to that was designed to allow us to be in that position to allow the stars to align."
The NBA instituted a draft lottery beginning in 1985 in an effort to dissuade teams from intentionally losing games-tanking-to get the number one pick. Now just being bad was no longer good enough. Teams had to be bad and lucky. The team with the worst record entered the draft lottery with a 25 percent chance at landing the top pick in the draft, while the team with the best record of all the non-playoff teams had less than a 1 percent chance at the top pick.
As James entered his senior year of high school, the Cavs knew they had a future superstar in their own backyard. They won thirty-two games his freshman season, thirty his sophomore year, and twenty-nine his junior year. They were trending in the right direction, but not fast enough. The team with the worst record over the previous five full seasons had averaged about fifteen wins. The Cavs had the sixth pick in the 2002 draft, but if they were going to be in position to draft James the following summer, they had to get worse. Much worse. They needed to race to the bottom of the standings.
Prior to the start of the pivotal 2002-03 season, James's senior year at St. V, the Cavs traded away their top three leading scorers in Lamond Murray, Andre Miller, and Wes Person. All were decent veterans, but none of them were pillars of a championship organization. They got little back in return. Miller was arguably their best player and set a franchise record for assists in a season, but he was entering his contract year and wanted a max deal. The Cavs knew he wasn't worth max money, but he was good enough to keep them from losing enough to have a chance at James. They dealt him to the Los Angeles Clippers for Darius Miles, a preps-to-pro phenom who was high on potential but low on production. Miles could run and jump as well as anyone, but he couldn't guard a dead body and it quickly became clear he certainly couldn't play basketball in the NBA.
Cleveland began the season with the league's youngest roster. Seven players had two years or less of experience, including guys like Smush Parker, Tierre Brown, and draft bust DeSagana Diop. Players and coaches compete to win every game, but the focus of ownership and the front office was simply to lose enough games to have a shot at James, or at worst, one of the other future stars in this talent-rich draft. Things seemed to be going according to plan, but at 8-34, coach John Lucas was fired around the midway point and replaced by interim coach Keith Smart. Lucas was never viewed as the long-term coach. He was always a stopgap measure to guide the Cavs through losing seasons. But Lucas's firing angered James because Lucas let him work out with the team. James had played with some Cavs, some other pros, and some college players at Gund Arena (now known as Quicken Loans Arena) the summer before his senior year of high school. James held his own against the veterans, even dunking on one. The workout, which was against league rules at the time because James was still in high school, was reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Lucas was suspended two games and the Cavs were fined $150,000.
Despite that minor bump, everything else was going as planned until the Cavs closed the season by winning two of their last three games and three of their last seven. They needed a loss on the final day of the season to clinch the league's worst record and the best chance at landing James. Instead, Parker scored seventeen points, Brown scored sixteen points, and the Cavs beat the Raptors 96-86.
"It was really good that our fans got to see down the stretch that we did pull some games out at home," Smart said after the finale. "We had a tough season and it was good that the guys got a chance to win and get the feel of victory. They get to go home this summer glad they won their last game."
Not everyone shared Smart's joy. Dick Watson, the team's general counsel and a minority owner, was incensed as he stormed into the coach's office after the win. "You fucked it all up!" Watson screamed at Smart as he pounded on the desk. "We spent months on this and you fucked it up on the last day!"
Because of that win, the Cavs finished the season at 17-65 and entered the draft lottery tied with the Denver Nuggets for the league's worst record. That meant they also shared with the Nuggets the same 22.5 percent chance for winning the number one pick. No one knew at the time, but Carper was already carrying a number 23 jersey in the Cavs' new colors with james stitched across the back. Team owner Gordon Gund sat on the stage representing the Cavs at the lottery while general manager Jim Paxson stayed home to tend to his wife, who was undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer. When NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik revealed the Cavs had won the number one pick, the city of Cleveland erupted. Carper reached into his briefcase, grabbed the James jersey, and shot onto the stage as the television show cut to a commercial break. Carper handed the jersey to an elated Gund. It was the most important victory in franchise history.
"Nobody knew I had that [jersey]. Nobody," Carper said. "I went onstage and gave it to Gordon, and as I turned around-this is still during the commercial break-the members of the media that were there were looking at me with their eyes wide open and mouths dropped open saying, 'Oh my gosh! I can't believe you just did that! Did you know something going in? Isn't that arrogant or presumptuous?' I still remember standing there on the edge of the stage looking at them saying, 'Not presumptuous, just prepared.' That's what it was. The preparation, trying to prepare for success. It worked out. And if it hadn't, then the jersey would've stayed in my bag and no one would've known we had it. It was so obvious and so clear, we had no reservation about it. If we won the lottery, this was obviously going to happen and this was our pick. We had no hesitation in doing that. It was one of the rare moments in NBA draft history. Even if a team knows who they're going to take, there is leverage and reason to be gained by not talking about who you're going to take in advance. This was one of those very rare situations where there was no leverage to be gained, no benefit to be had. We were very clear about that."
LeBron Raymone James was born to a sixteen-year-old single mother on Hickory Street in one of Akron, Ohio's tougher neighborhoods-about forty miles south of Quicken Loans Arena. He was raised by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, Freda, until his grandmother died of a heart attack on Christmas Day in 1987. James was a week away from turning three. Unable to keep up with the maintenance on their old house, which had been in the family for generations, Gloria and LeBron were eventually evicted and the house was razed. James spent his childhood bouncing between apartments, family, and friends. He moved twelve times in three years and missed nearly a hundred days of school in the fourth grade.
While James was struggling to survive, so were the Cavs, who didn't even exist until 1970 and wasted little time in capturing Cleveland's crown for sports stupidity. Ted Stepien purchased the team in 1980 and will go down, God rest his soul, as one of the worst scoundrels in NBA history. Stepien served in the air force during World War II and told people he once fell out of an airplane and lived to tell about it. The plane, he said, was about five hundred feet off the ground. Former Akron Beacon Journal sports writer Sheldon Ocker, who covered the Cavs when Stepien bought the team, approached him with the idea of spending a couple of hours together for a Sunday magazine piece. "Come over Sunday after church," Stepien told Ocker. "We'll sit out by the pool and watch porn."
The Stepien stories are endless. When Ocker went to his house that day, Stepien wasn't home. Instead, Ocker tracked him down at a nightclub on the east side, where he was judging the Cavs' first-ever cheerleader tryouts. Stepien and two of his associates were judging the pageant and taking notes. Stepien asked the girls questions such as "What's your favorite color? What's your sign? Would you ever attend a nude beach?" When one of the contestants replied that she'd go to a nude beach with her husband, Stepien grew flustered. "I didn't say anything about a husband," he snorted.
When the pageant was over, the judges and Ocker retreated to Stepien's house to tally the scores. Each judge wrote down a number between one and ten for each contestant and made comments about each. When Stepien got to a card he didn't like ("Shit, small tits!"), he'd throw the index card into the middle of the room. They finally narrowed the field of forty contestants down to twelve. There was only one problem: They were all white women. When it was pointed out to Stepien he needed to have some minorities, Ocker said he started digging through the index cards on the floor he had previously discarded. "I think she was black," Stepien said about one. "She had nice tits and a nice ass. She's in." By the time they were finished, Stepien had added two African-Americans. The dance team was complete.
On the court, Stepien never valued draft picks, discarding them like gum wrappers while chasing marginal talent. He traded Butch Lee and a future first-round pick to the Lakers in 1980 for the anonymous Don Ford and the Lakers' first-round pick that summer. The Cavs selected shooting guard Chad Kinch from UNC-Charlotte with the Lakers' pick. They traded him twenty-nine games into his rookie year and he was released by the Dallas Mavericks after the season, his NBA career over after one year. The pick traded to the Lakers became Hall of Famer James Worthy. Stepien, in fact, managed to trade away all of his first-round picks between 1982 and 1986 for little in return.
Copyright © 2017 by Jason Lloyd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.