Oh damn, this isn’t good, LeBron just killed my brother.
Damon the Second (D2), my younger brother, is on the floor, and his eyes are closed. I move towards him in slow motion. His legs twitch. His eyes are flinching underneath his eyelids. LeBron James had just run his body over like a monster truck trampling a Mini Cooper.
D2 (yes, the short, white Mini Cooper in that analogy) and his body went from standing vertical to laying horizontal in less than a millisecond.
Why did you do that, D2?
Why the hell did you step in front of a LeBron James going full speed?
Use your Ivy League degree for something, damn.
I have a lot of stories about playing at Kent State University, but this is one of my favorite stories. Yeah, I tend embellish, yeah there are some exaggerations, but this is true. My brother and I beat LeBron five games in a row.
“How to Beat LeBron James” is a story of two unlikely brothers playing against the GOAT.
And fittingly, it happened in the gym of a college team I despised the most, Akron University.
I mean, it was a fluke I even ended up at Kent State. A fluke my brother got into Brown University. A fluke I got my jersey retired. A fluke we both played professionally in Europe. A fluke Gary Waters, Kent State’s coach, even signed me.
Thank God for my teammates — for Pope, Al Moore, Kyrem Massey, JC, Ed Norvell, Andrew Mitchell — all the guys that talked me out of quitting as a freshman when I couldn’t feel my legs. I wanted to quit the team so bad. I felt depressed about how bad I was playing, about being the worst player and Coach Waters constantly yelling at me to not be soft.
But I was soft, and I had to learn how not to be.
And thank God for Coach D and Coach Heck, the coaches I saw the most before coming there to play and try out in my one open gym in August. They were my only hope for even getting in the run against the guys to show my mettle.
It’s hard to tell when you are 18, when these college coaches play mind games (by play games, I mean, they tell you they’re waiting to sign a big Russian kid instead of you) and even after you show up at 6:00 am to shoot and get the nerves out, and then play lights out again six hours later against the guys — you still don’t know what they are thinking about you.
But I made the team, eventually.
And I’m glad I didn’t quit because I can still taste the stale popcorn air of the MAC center, hear the buzz of halogen orangish lights, feel the bounce of the light blue and gold painted wooden floor, and shut my eyes and feel the electricity of playing Akron U. in front of our home crowd.
To me, in there, the basketball was a spiritual place.
People always ask in the media, why do teams play better at home, why do they shoot better?
Well, you now you know my answer — because most guys feed of the spirituality and energy of where they practice their craft.
But playing LeBron James at Akron University was special.
It was his home.
See, when I was a senior at Kent State, after the Elite Eight, and three NCAA runs, LeBron James used to come to a few of our home games and even at 16, he would have a line out the door for autographs.
I used to think, who is this kid?
Is he that good?
Then one day, I got the chance to play him, at the place where I hated to play the most, our biggest college rival — Akron U.
If there was one game we wanted to win all year, it was against the Zips. It was this gym I was always told to dominate as a young man.
That is this story.
When the King, Lebron James rips through and drives left, there is one thing that every basketball player should have:
“Help — “ I yell. My younger brother, D2, a sophomore shooting guard at Brown University, is behind me on the weak side.
Nene Hilario steps over to slow him down, and I slip in front of Romeo Travis for the dump down pass. LeBron is already anticipating this, slowing his attack. He keeps his head up and glides a ball into the spot where I was moving out of — an overhead pass that flips out of his hand like a pebble from a trebuchet.
The ball ricochets off the Akron University bleachers and comes right back to me.
Hey, ball. Thanks, Bron-Bron.
My hands are tingling with adrenaline. My body is floating above me somewhere — is this actually happening, am I playing against the Chosen One — the GOAT?
Rule 1: LeBron James will find you so don’t move out of the spot you were in after he passes the ball.
Rule 2: If you don’t do Rule 1, tell LeBron, “My bad dawg.”
Rule 3: Double LeBron as much as possible as early as possible.
Granted, I’m not an NBA player or coach (*Unless you count that one Phoenix Suns free agent jersey with no court action) and I don’t really know what you should say or to do stop LeBron, but I know most of the best players in the world, when they hear, “My bad dawg,” will still pass it to you a few more times before icing you out, especially when getting double teamed every time he touches the ball.
But when guys move out of the spot I’m passing too, it pisses me off. And I’m just a short point guard that made most of his mediocre money in Europe winning small titles and cups playing for teams no one in America cares about.
Not that I’m complaining.
Hey, I mean, at this point, a turnover is a turnover, and money is money — so stay woke with your head on a swivel, fellas.
It’s our ball, and our defense is holding on for stops.
“Force him right. Keep him in front. Help. Force him right! Go double, I got you. Go double now!”
I keep yelling this.
I don’t know if it is helping. I get the sense our only chance is to rotate with Nene and hope these young guys miss shots. The truth is, I love watching the one on one battle inside the five-man team war, the strategy of stopping someone from scoring, but also playing help-side defense.
I love watching the ball and man move, being on an invisible rope with my teammates, and being ready to drop down for a steal or deflection to help someone when they’re beaten.
The only way to beat LeBron is to make him earn and fight for every point, every pass, and take his strengths away.
That means you double-team him early and rotate early. You make him give up the ball. You make him fight through a line of early help and rotate to take away the easy first shot.
My coach in high school, Dennis Starkey, a Michigan Hall of Famer, used to call these weak side defensive movements: “The Championship Plays.”
“Just because you’re beat, doesn’t mean you’re out of the play,” Coach Starkey would yell.
And the infinite game of being there for your teammate always feels good.
I got you boo.
It’s why I love sports so much. Maybe even business, when someone drops the ball, you can save them. You can step up. You can be selfless and sacrifice.
Playing against LeBron reminded me of my childhood. My dad would drop me off at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan to play against the Mateen Cleaves, the Charlie Bells, and the Morris Petersons of the world. It was in Flint that I felt that the first surge of anxiety, knowing I had to earn something.
Knowing I had to prove my basketball worth.
Sure, I’ll never be a Flint Stone, just like I’ve never been an NBA player, but it doesn’ t matter because I’ve actually checked LeBron. I’ve had to sacrifice and find a way to play with the best players in the world.
The only mindset to have is knowing there is always a shot at redemption in playing the next play.