My best moment since the last best moment: Deleting an upcoming Tuesday, 9 p.m. entry in my calendar, which had read: "Dallas versus Miami Game 7, if necessary." It only took me six games to win these Finals.
You probably missed the part where Mark Cuban chose me to accept the championship trophy as it was handed over from commissioner David Stern, or when I dribbled out the dying seconds of the fourth quarter clock, or any of the in-rhythm three-pointers I made down the stretch, but make no mistake -- I won these Finals.
My preparations started on July 8, 2010. Up to that point my relationship with professional basketball was unremarkable. I played four hours a day as a kid, years on end, praying for a freak pituitary condition to strike me (it didn't).
I grew up idolizing Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb and the Atlanta Hawks, wore number 25 in EVERY sport as a combination of their numbers (21 and four respectively), and made my bedroom walls a shrine to my NBA heroes (and Stephanie Seymour).
On Feb. 24, 1994 -- The Day My Face Melted -- I suffered through the horrendous, lopsided trade that sent my beloved Dominique to the Clippers for Danny Manning. I spent the next few years wandering the basketball wilderness, occasionally inebriated, searching for a place to rest.
In the late 1990s, while I was working as a writer in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant emerged as my Nique 2.0. I relished those first three Kobe/Shaq Laker titles with a passion reborn, and my enthusiasm for the NBA was back, so much so that I took up work producing for the Toronto Raptors, a job I remained at for nearly five seasons.
Ultimately those seasons tested my resolve as the vigour of youth drained from me -- also known as MLSEFS or Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Fatigue Syndrome -- but while my love for this or that player or team lessened, my love for the NBA remained. I found myself without a basketball purpose, trudging through the NBA diaspora, pumped-up sneakers in tow. Still I hustled my aching knees up and down the court twice a week for years, just to keep loose in case I got the call from the A-league.
On July 8, 2010, I got the call. I refer to it as The Second Day My Face Melted. You may know it as The Decision. On that fateful day, Lebron James, native son of Ohio, seven-year veteran of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and arguably the most talented basketball player of the new century, now-infamously declared in an overwrought ESPN special that he would take his talents to South Beach and play basketball for the Miami Heat. This bothered me on 1,016 levels, but here are the six pertinent to this discussion:
1. You dance with the one that brung you. I'm a basketball purist. If you want to go down as a legend in this league, or any league, win with who drafted you. Jordan. Magic. Bird. Russell. Kobe. Duncan. Hell, lose with who drafted you. Stockton. Malone. Ewing. Elgin. Reggie. And up until this week, Dirk.
2. The arrogance of it all. After months of Sarah Palin-esque self-concocted media hype, Lebron held a one-hour live special on ESPN to announce his future plans to ditch the city that cherished him, that spoiled and fawned all over him, and didn't consider there might be negative fallout. It was the most brazen, thoughtless "screw you" any athlete has ever given to his adoring fans. That he referenced himself in the third person five times in under an hour did not help.
3. Not knowing what it means to be a fan. As ESPN aired a live shot of Cavs fans burning his jersey, James continued to utter that "the real fans will love me for who I am." No Lebron. In sports, your real fans love you for the game you play in the region they support. That's why Cleveland fans loved Craig Ehlo in 1989 even as Michael Jordan hit 'The Shot' over him. You root for your guy in your town. Want to know what it means to be a fan? Sapphire in Almost Famous knows.
4. He went to Miami. He didn't move to New York to be the biggest star on the biggest stage. He didn't go to Chicago, to put himself in the best possible position to win for years to come. He went to Miami, the worst sports town in North America. Look up Florida Marlins or Panthers attendance records. Want to attend a barren, lifeless, arrive-30-minutes-late-leave-15-minutes-early game? Go to Miami. Worst. Fans. North America.
5. Let me do the math. Okay, technically this happened the next day. I'll let the cloying, self-laudatory, ego-fest speak for itself.
6. Next up, Kevin Durant. It was the moment I realized Lebron, who I had theretofore respected and even admired, was never going to amount to basketball greatness. Forget him. Forget Bosh's insipid preening or Wade foolishly claiming the new Big Three now formed "arguably the best trio to ever play the game of basketball." Somebody has to teach these chumps a lesson. Kobe? KG? Durant? Dirk?
The rest of July was a blur. I hadn't been this riled up about sports since 1994 (which coincided with Dominique at his peak and his nadir, the Doug Gilmour Maple Leafs renaissance years, and the end of the Blue Jays decade of dominance). I couldn't shake The Decision. It seeped into my every conversation. I implored others to listen to my rants (now longer and more vitriolic than usual). I needed to vent.
I needed to go to Cleveland.
Dec. 2, 2010. People actually said I was crazy. Not just a line you write in a column. My wife agreed. I set out on a solo mission to Cleveland to be present for the return of Lebron James to Quicken Loans Arena. I wasn't writing a column or shooting a documentary. I didn't have good seats. I was Ohio, angry, bitter and anxious. I drove through five hours of North Tonawanda snowstorms to arrive at the most anticipated NBA regular season game... ever.
Based on expectations, Miami had started the season slowly. They were an unimposing 11-8 before tip-off, putting fear in few, unable to beat anyone on the road or any team with a quality record. On the other side, Cleveland, predicted to be terrible, found themselves in the final playoff spot, an Eastern Conference-respectable 7-10. Hanging around. This was gonna be epic. The building was electric. The chants were hilarious. The hatred was palpable, bonding and exhilarating. The game?
Miami 118. Cleveland 90.
The drive back to Toronto that night was long and cold and lonely. Wistful Wilco songs on the satellite radio did not help. Cleveland would lose 34 of their next 35 games. Miami would win 18 of their next 19. Trajectories divided. Lebron ascending.
I spent the entire season cheering for whoever played the Heat. The Charlotte Bobcats are playing 'em? I frickin' love the Carolinas. Gimme another Pepsi Cola. They're in Boston? Who cares that Dominique's most famous moment was losing to Larry Legend in Celtic Green. Go Celts. Lebron was playing H.O.R.S.E. against the guy who killed Inigo Montoya's father? Go six-fingered man, go.
By the time playoffs commenced in April, I had chosen my team: whoever was playing the Miami Heat. I was no band-wagoner either; I had been a fan of that team from the day we were awarded the franchise*. (*July 8, 2010) For brevity sake, this was my playoffs up until the Finals, as told in haiku:
Expected a sweep, no shame
At least you won one
The Celtics, my hope
My Laker pride put aside
Turns out they were old
Meanwhile back out West
Kobe Bryant vanquished. Hard.
Please Dirk be for real
Thunder still growing
The Bulls, not a full bouquet
'06 the sequel
And then there were two. Miami and Dallas (read: Lebron and me). Okay, I can make a home in my heart for Dallas. They are my kinda team. Mid-30s, awkward-looking and devoted. I've unabashedly admired Coach Carlisle since he transformed the Raptors' 'Scoreless' Williamson (2001) into the Detroit Pistons' Corliss Williamson, Sixth Man of the Year (2002).
Yeah, I can do this. I can get behind Jason Kidd. He's slowed to the point where I feel I could hit a few shots over him. I like that in an NBA player. Speaking of shadowy versions of myself, J.J. Barea, my height, my weight, roughly 40,000 times my basketball superior. Actually, I think I'm taller than him. 41,000.
Okay, these are my boys! Jason Terry**, he of the pre-season gall, audaciously tattooing his arm with the NBA Finals Larry O'Brien trophy, claiming he would laser it off if they didn't win. (Even off-kilter DeShawn Stevenson, he of the Abraham Lincoln neck tattoo, and the accidentally backwards Pittsburgh Pirates face tattoo, said "When he first got the tattoo I said he was crazy.") Oh heck yeah, these are the guys that are going to win this Finals with me!
Dirk Nowitzki is the bonus. He is the waking up on Monday morning, feeling lousy, unprepared for the workday, then realizing it's a long weekend. Dirk is the potential for relief. He is everything I wish to be when I wish to be a seven-foot European sharpshooter. He doesn't celebrate clutch shots. He doesn't go on tirades or slip into moody funks. He just takes care of business. He vanquishes teams and hits the showers. He makes impossible last-second shots. Repeatedly. He is Ivan Drago and Rocky Balboa combined. He is a player to be celebrated. A Jew hasn't idolized a German this much since Oskar Schindler.
I don't have to describe the brilliance of these Finals games or the manner in which Dallas triumphed because you can watch them on classic sports replays for decades to come. The Star Wars-esque simplicity of this series -- the basic George W. Bush good versus evil to it -- made them so easy to access. Either you're with us or you're with the egoists. This is the old, bent-but-not-broken warrior taking one last stab, one last effort to overcome the sinister, youthful creation of the times... and the old dude wins. Cleveland wins. I win.
In those last few moments, as I dribbled out the clock in the hush of the South Florida night, amidst a blur of tweets, hope, texts and excitement, a promise of something wonderful emerged: I was going to win the NBA Finals and I was going to win it the right way. I had put in the time and the effort. Three weeks ago I wasn't even a Mavs fan and now here I was, shock of shocks, top of mountains, nearly 12 months of anguish and pleading later, about to win the NBA Finals.
The cameras and microphones pointed at me. The battle had been won. Comment? Still breathless:
"We worked so hard and so long for it. I really still can't believe it." - Dirk "Mike Gallay" Nowitzki
*Sidenote 1: Lenny Wilkens, former coach of the Toronto Raptors, was the coach helming the Hawks during the infamous trade. His name is like Voldemort to me. I shake when I see him. He thought Manning would be an upgrade. Over DOMINIQUE WILKINS. They were in first place at the time. In the league. Jordan was retired. Years later, in 2002, I was working camera at the Air Canada Centre during a Raptors practice. I was instructed to film a Lenny Wilkens interview. That interview never made it to air. I shook the whole time, massive, swelling shakes of pure rage. I think I blacked out for a good three days afterward. It's possible I killed him and quickly resuscitated him. I can't be sure; the footage is unusable.
**Sidenote 2: In early 2004, I was assigned my first-ever player interview. It was with then-Atlanta Hawks shooting guard, Jason Terry. I had little prepared for the interview and fumbled through every question. Somehow reverting to my 9-year-old self, I asked Terry if he, as an Atlanta Hawk, was also a Dominique Wilkins fan, just like me. He looked past me (I assume looking for the parents of this stray child) and hit the locker room. I'm still glad I asked it.