That Olympic Feeling

OMAHA, Neb. — Four swimmers here made their first U.S. Olympic team on Tuesday night, and their reactions to the moment ranged all the way from A to, well … A.

“I’m a little in shock,” Townley Haas said after winning the 200m freestyle.

“I’m in shock right now,” Olivia Smoliga said after winning the 100m backstroke.

“Super excited!” said Ryan Murphy after winning the men’s 100m backstroke.

“Super excited!” said Lilly King after winning the 100m breaststroke.

OK, so, no, there wasn’t much variety to the emotions — there never is. Words fail in the moment. Few things in sports are more touching and thrilling than watching athletes make their first Olympic team. You see them trying to process it all, try to make sense of it all. “It has always been my dream,” they say.

That’s a funny word: Dream. At first it must feel that way, at first it must feel like a fuzzy dream — every child who watches the Olympics on television will say, at one point, “That can be me!” For most people, it stays there, as a far-off dream, like being an astronaut or President or star of your own reality TV show.

Then, some begin the journey. Mom and Dad switch off taking them to practice. The whole family, including sulky brothers and sisters, sit in the stands on obscenely hot days to watch them swim or run or throw a javelin. Weeks pass. Summers pass. After a while, a few start dropping time, their bodies start developing into athlete’s bodies, muscle replaces scrawniness. And then, suddenly, the Olympics are not a dream anymore, not exactly. The Olympics become possible.

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And then the athlete enters the next phase — thousands and thousands of athletes in America have reached that place of possibility. This is when the hard work begins, the painful work, the relentless quest, all with a coach shouting just how hard all your contenders are working. This is the time when a teenager has to give up some stuff, parties, junk food and free time just looking at clouds or YouTube videos. How many times does the athlete ask himself, herself, “Is this really worth it?”

But the closer it gets, the more certain the athlete becomes. Finally, the Olympics are more than a dream, more than a possibility. The Olympics are the goal. And then a whole new pressure comes crashing down, the pressure of expectation. Many athletes will tell you that’s the worst time. Suddenly everyone EXPECTS you to make the Olympic Team. And that’s fine when you’re winning, but then you have a bad meet, a bad race, a bad performance — and the questions rush in. What happened? Are you injured? Are you worried? Is there anything wrong? 

And then, maybe, your mind starts echoing the toughest question of all: What if I did all of this and I don’t make the team? What then?

So, yes, on Tuesday night, four swimmers in Omaha touched the wall first and they became Olympians, and of course they felt the same things:

  1. They felt shock.
  2. They were super excited.

What else could they feel after all that?

And it’s a reminder: This is what the Olympics are about. This is why billions of people around the world still believe in the Olympics despite the numerous problems and crises and controversies. Over the last couple of weeks, we have watched golfer after golfer pull out of the Olympics. On Tuesday, the same day as the four U.S. Swimmers made their first team, the No. 1 player in the world, Jason Day, announced he would not go because of the Zika virus, and the No. 1 American player, Jordan Spieth, sounded very shaky about his own plans. Rory McIlroy, among others, has also withdrawn.

I have a long-nurtured opinion that a sport should only be in the Olympics if the Olympic Games represent the very pinnacle of that sport. Yes, of course, it does add prestige to the Olympics when it can showcase Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, Kevin Durant and Carli Lloyd and Ruben Neves and Diana Taurasi. But those athletes have other goals, bigger goals, than the Olympics. It isn’t the same.

And this is much more true of golf, especially men’s golf, which has the four major championships and hugely important team competitions like the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup. There seems no room in men’s golf for the Olympics (it must be noted that, so far, Lee-Anne Pace is the only top female player to have pulled out of the Games).

Jason Day said it plainly: “I never grew up thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to represent my country at the Olympics,’ because there was never an opportunity to.”

People want to blame Day and McIlroy and others for not getting in the Olympic spirit, and I get that: You wish the golfers would embrace this opportunity to put golf on the biggest sports stage in the world. But Day has his point: There are some obvious fears surrounding these Rio Games — Zika, corruption, crime — and he doesn’t want to go. He’s a golfer. He wants to win a green jacket, a Claret Jug, a fat check for winning the FedEx Cup. The reality is simple: The Olympics just don’t mean much to him.

Meanwhile, in Omaha, I can promise you that nobody is pulling out of the Olympics. Here, there is no greater hope. To see Katie Meili break down in tears after qualifying in the 100-meter breaststroke, to see Kathleen Baker overwhelmed by her own smile after making it in the 100-meter backstroke, to see that is to understand what these Olympics mean to most athletes.

“I am literally shocked,” Baker said.

“I can’t put it into words,” Meili said.

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    Pioneer spirit

    There’s a little story about Pat Summitt that I think of now. A young and nervous reporter was interviewing her one day in Knoxville back in the mid-1990s. It was after she had already become a legend. She had led Tennessee to two or three of what would eventually be eight national championships. She had been an All-American player and coached the first U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal.  She had changed the very ethos of women’s sports in America.

    And the reporter stammered a question about being a pioneer.

    “Pioneer?” Summitt asked back. “I don’t have time for that.”

    She did not have time for that; I suppose the real pioneers never do. They’re too busy living.

    You look back at the life of Pat Summitt and you see the modern history of women’s basketball right before your eyes. Her father, Richard Head, was a tough and silent old dairy and tobacco farmer, county water commissioner and general store owner in Clarksville, TN, and he believed with the Methodists’ fury that a girl could do everything as well as a boy.

    This played out in various ways. He often whipped Pat (then known as Trish), and whipped her harder if she cried. She would sometimes tell the story of being a 12-year-old, and having her father drop her off in a field of hay. He handed her a rake, and said without any further instruction: “Do it.” She would remember that days would go by where her father did not say a single word to her.

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    Pat Summitt would say that she and her father did not hug until she was 43 years old.

    But, he also built a basketball hoop on top of the hayloft, and he moved the family to nearby Henrietta because the high school in Clarksville did not have a girls basketball team. It was before Title IX, before women could earn athletic scholarships, before the NCAA took women’s basketball under its banner. Patricia Sue “Trish” Head was a fantastic high school basketball player, one of the nation’s best. The family pulled together enough money to send her to college at Tennessee-Martin.

    “I thought,” Summitt would write, “‘This needs to change.'”

    Of course, lots of people THOUGHT that. But how do you change things? Summitt had no idea; she just kept living. She became a star basketball player at Tennessee-Martin, an All-American. She built a dream of playing on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1976, a dream that seemed shattered when she blew out her anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Austin Peay her senior year. “Fix it right,” Richard Head barked at the surgeon, this in the day when no one really knew how to fix ACLs. The surgeon did the best he could, and Pat trained and rehabilitated through unspeakable agony, and she became a captain on that first Olympic team. The team won the silver medal.

    Eight years later, with Summitt coaching, they won gold.

    While she was training for the Olympic team, she suddenly and rather bizarrely became head basketball coach at Tennessee. She had been hired to be a graduate assistant coach to the successful Margaret Hutson (60-18 in her two years at the school), but then Hutson suddenly decided to take a sabbatical (she went on to be a successful volleyball coach and she founded the athletic training program at Emory and Henry). The school asked Pat Head to be head coach. She was making $250 a month. Best anyone can tell, her hire was not mentioned in a single newspaper.

    But that’s how it was for women’s basketball then. She was hired to be Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach because nobody at Tennessee cared about women’s basketball then. The year before Pat arrived, the team had sold doughnuts to raise the money to buy uniforms. She would remember that in her first years the women’s athletic budget — for all six women’s sports at Tennessee — was a robust $5,000, and on the rare occasions when her team actually stayed in a hotel on road trips, they would sleep four in each room.

    “I could have gotten angry about it,” she and her biographer Sally Jenkins wrote in the fantastic book “Reach for the Summitt,” “But getting angry wasn’t going to help. I had to work smart. Maybe I should have shouted and waved around a copy of Title IX on principle. But I genuinely felt that that would have set our cause back.”

    “Pioneer? I don’t have time for that.”

    MORE: Summitt a legendary Olympian | Never stopped striving for greatness | Summitt’s milestone moments 

    She had no idea how to be a coach — Summitt had never coached a team in her life. It was like being dropped off in the field of hay all over again. But some people are just born to lead. Her teams went 32-19 her first two years. They reached the Final Four of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament in her third year. Yes, this was STILL before the NCAA had sanctioned women’s basketball.

    The anecdotes of Summitt’s intensity are famous now. There was the time after a dreadful loss at South Carolina when she told her players to keep their uniforms rather than turn them in to the team managers to be washed. When they got back to Tennessee, Summitt told her players to put those uniforms back on. Then, they went straight from the airport to the gym, and then they practiced harder than anyone could remember. “You’re going to play 40 minutes in those uniforms,” she shouted at them. “You didn’t do it yesterday so you’re going to do it today.”

    That story about Pat Summitt is now so familiar that even if you never heard it, you’ve heard it. That is to say that Summitt’s fiery glare on the sidelines, her furious drive for perfection, her unique ability to be both uncompromising and loving have marked the times. Every player who was recruited by her or faced her team, every reporter who covered her, every coach who competed against her, every fan who crossed paths with her has something to hold on to.

    “If it’s true (that) ‘A heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others,'” ESPN’s unparalleled women’s basketball writer Mechelle Voepel tweeted out, “Pat Summitt has (an) infinity-sized heart.”

    I think that says everything. Summitt’s numbers and honors stagger the imagination — 1,098 wins, eight national titles, 16-time SEC champion, seven-time national coach of the year, Naismith coach of the 20th Century, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on and on and on.

    And to those of us lucky enough to have met Pat Summitt, to have talked with her, the honors and achievements never could sum up the power of her presence. She died on Tuesday at 64 years old, and when I heard I went back to that book, “Reach for the Summitt,” one I often turned to through the years. And I typed in a search for the words: “I believe.”

    Here’s what came back.

    “I believe,” she wrote, “you get what you deserve.”

    “I believe,” she wrote, “you press a pressing team.”

    “I believe,” she wrote, “that with practice, you can literally control your heart and pulse.”

    “I believe,” she wrote, “in calculated gambles.”

    “I believe in God,” she wrote.

    “I believe,” she wrote, “you get what you expect.”

    The great debate

    Yes, you bet we’re going to wade into the Twitter-infested waters of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James for the official title of best basketball player of all-time. Absolutely. Sharpen your social media knives. Prepare your snark weapons. But first, we must set some ground rules.

    Ground rule No. 1: All of the people who think any of the following players are getting short shrift in this argument …

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    Larry Bird

    Kobe Bryant

    Wilt Chamberlain

    Tim Duncan

    Magic Johnson

    Shaquille O’Neal

    Hakeem Olajuwon

    Oscar Robertson

    Bill Russell

    Jerry West

    … your protest has been noted and your strenuous objections have been overruled.

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    Ground rule No. 2: We must acknowledge from the start that there is no easy statistical answer to the question of MJ vs. LeBron. People like to wield stats like swords, but when it comes to Jordan-James statistics, they duel back and forth, like Inigo and the Man in Black. Jordan scores more. James rebounds and passes better. They shoot about the same, block shots about the same and are both marvelous defenders. Jordan played about 100 more regular season games than James so far and the advanced numbers look like so:

    Win Shares:

    Jordan: 214

    James: 192.5

    Value Over Replacement Player:

    James: 108.6

    Jordan: 104.4

    Player Efficiency Rating

    Jordan: 27.9 (first all time)

    James: 27.7 (second all-time)

    Let’s just say it again: There’s nothing to separate them in the statistics. It is like trying to make the statistical argument on why blue is a better color than red.

    Ground rule No. 3: Their postseason accomplishments are equally mesmerizing.

    Michael Jordan led his Bulls to six NBA Finals, and of course they won all six.

    LeBron James, so far, has led Cleveland and Miami to seven NBA Finals — including the last six in a row. His teams have won three of them.

    Now, people will try to use this stuff to support one or the other, and it’s silly. The Jordan people will often use postseason success as the tiebreaker because Jordan’s Bulls won every time they reached the Finals, while James’ teams have not even won half of their Finals appearances. It’s a dishonest argument. Jordan had one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Scottie Pippen, on all six teams. He also had Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman on two of them and likely Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc on three of them. He was coached by Phil Jackson for all six. Nobody can legitimately claim that James had anything close to that cast.

    Put it this way: When Jordan left to play baseball, the Bulls won 55 games and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Knicks.

    When LeBron James left the Cavaliers, they went 19-63.

    When James left Miami, the Heat went 37-45.

    Conversely, though, LeBron people would like to make the counter-argument that Jordan could NEVER have taken those Cleveland and Miami teams to seven Finals, and that’s a dishonest  argument, too. We have no idea what Michael Jordan would have done with those teams. The man had an icy will. He came into basketball at a time of dynasties, and he broke through and built his own. Don’t underestimate that man.

    Ground rule No. 4: Last one — it doesn’t matter if LeBron James can beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. That’s a cute little aside, thinking about James just backing Jordan down to the basket and overwhelming him in a make-it-take-it run or thinking about Jordan in a one-on-one game just racing by LeBron with the fastest first step in league history and then dunking at the rim. Fun to think about.

    That’s not the kind of basketball we’re talking about here.

    The question before the court is a simple one: If you were starting a basketball team that was playing the Devil’s All-Star team for your very soul, and you had the first pick of every player in the history of the NBA, would you take Michael or would you take LeBron?

    * * *

    To begin with: Both sides — the MJ fans and the LeBron fans — feel pretty sure that their man is supreme. But I suspect Jordan fans believe it more. Many Jordan fans (and as someone who grew up at the altar of Michael Jordan I know this) SEETHE over the very notion that James could be the legend’s equal.

    See, there are athletes that come along who transcend our previous notions of excellence. Think Willie Mays. Think Jim Brown. Think Babe Ruth. Think Bobby Orr. Think Ben Hogan. Think Sandy Koufax. Think Roger Federer. You can think of your favorites.

    These athletes and others like them so surprise and intoxicate us that we cannot imagine ever seeing anyone better. And even while those athletes fade, the intoxication grows. Most people still rank Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever, even though he played a very different game in a very different time and the only thing that’s left of him are a few grainy black and white movies and unreal statistics that mean whatever we want them to mean.

    Superior athletes position us in time and place. They make us young again. How could anyone ever seem as great to me as the running back Earl Campbell was? I was just a kid then, so new to the world, and every tackle he broke, every time he pulled away from the grasp of a defender (often losing his jersey in the process), every time he plowed over someone standing up too tall, it was like a little miracle to me. He blew up my mind over and over. Now that I close in on 50 years old, will anyone ever astonish me the way Campbell did? Probably not. No athlete can really compete with my imagination.

    The movie “Bad Teacher” was not especially good or memorable. But there was one magnificent exchange between a student named Shawn and the character player by Jason Segel:

    Segel: “You’re out of your mind. There is no way that LeBron will ever be Jordan. Nobody will ever be Jordan, OK?”

    Shawn: “OK, LeBron James (is) a better rebound AND passer.”

    Segel: “Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.”

    Kid: “Is that your only argument?”

    Segel: “IT’S THE ONLY ARGUMENT I NEED SHAWN!”

    I love that so much — it’s the truest sports argument I’ve ever seen in the movies — because that flustered, red-faced, sputtering, “It’s the only argument I need, Shawn!” bit of fury is so true to life. I mentioned above that postseason is off-limits for our discussion, but Segel is not even trying to argue that Jordan is a better basketball player. He’s not arguing that because EVEN HAVING THAT ARGUMENT is an insult. Segel, like Colonel Jessup of “A Few Good Men,” has neither the time nor the inclination to explain the unsurpassable greatness of Michael Jordan to a young kid who never even saw him play.

    Our generation comes from a time when emotion and passion drove arguments.

    That, I think, is the Jordan argument at its core.

    * * *

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    My pal Michael Schur, executive producer of “Parks and Recreation” and the upcoming show “The Good Place,” has been texting me lately about LeBron and Jordan (this, I should say, was after we inexplicably drafted Taylor Swift songs on the PosCast).

    Here is the latest stream of texts:

    “LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.”

    “LeBron and Michael have the same number of titles at age 31. LeBron has also been to way more finals. LeBron has also played on worse teams with worse coaches. LeBron also plays every position including center and defense incredibly well at all of them. LeBron also can’t hand check on defense. LeBron is taller and stronger and more powerful but also a better three-pointer shooter than Jordan. What’s the argument?”

    “He’s better than Jordan and the sooner everyone else realizes it the faster we will advance as a society.”

    Well, there’s a lot there, some of it persuasive, some of it questionable (LeBron is probably not a better 3-point shooter than Michael; you can play with the numbers and the video, but prime Jordan can be shown to be a demonstrably better outside shooter than James).

    But here’s the larger point: The LeBron argument tends to be built more on LeBron James being a more advanced version of Michael Jordan. James is bigger. James is stronger. James is a more versatile defender. James can beat you more ways. It’s an argument of logical progression.

    And this, too, speaks of the time when we live, a time of constant hardware and software updates, a time where this year’s computer has more features than last year’s computer and so it must be better, a time where people find themselves reluctant to buy stuff because the next version is just around the corner and the next version will undoubtedly be superior.

    So it seems to me that the argument for many LeBron fans comes down to this: Michael Jordan was great for his time. But LeBron James is the newest iPhone.

    * * *

    And so am I just going to bail on the question? It’s probably obvious to you by now that my theory is that the James vs. Jordan argument says more about us than it does about them. Jordan and James are, in my view, the two greatest basketball players in NBA history, and they went about their greatness in such different ways that choosing between them is a bit like choosing between your favorite book and your favorite song.

    But … I’m not going to bail. I’m going to give you an answer to mock on the social network of your choice.

    To me, the biggest difference between LeBron James and Michael Jordan is their raison d’etat — the most important reason for their brilliance.

    In my view:

    Michael Jordan was a stone-cold killer on the basketball court.

    LeBron James’ greatness, meanwhile, comes from his big basketball heart.

    That’s a difference. Jordan, I think, wanted to win so badly he would go to whatever place he had to in order to get it done. There are countless examples of this. Jordan would use whatever slight — real or imagined — whatever taunt, whatever light or dark force he could find to beat you. He was the most competitive son of a gun we’ve ever seen on any field or court. It didn’t matter if it was the Lakers or Looney Tunes villains from outer space, he was going to win. Period.

    Remember: Jordan’s first moment on the big stage was hitting the jump shot to win North Carolina and Dean Smith a national title. And his last moment — at least on the big stage — was hitting that final shot against the Utah Jazz, the one that cemented the idea that no one could ever beat Michael Jordan. If you needed someone to take the final shot in that basketball game for your soul, it would be Jordan and there’s no second place.

    LeBron, incidentally, might not even be on that list. He could hit game-winning shots and has done so, but it is only because that was what was necessary. See, LeBron is a quantifiably different player from Jordan. It amused me that some people, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s extraordinary triumph over Golden State, felt it necessary to make the point that it was Kyrie Irving and not James who hit the game-winning shot. They seemed to be making the point as a knock — Jordan would NEVER have just stepped to the side and let Irving have the stage — which just proves that they have never understood at all what LeBron James is about.

    See James’ greatness is about … generosity. He’s an extraordinarily big-hearted basketball player. Sure, he knows he’s the star because he has to be the star. He takes on that responsibility (though sometimes reluctantly). But, more, he wants to be part of great teams. That was what drove him as a young high school player in Akron. That was what frustrated him the first time in Cleveland and pushed him to help build the Super Friends in Miami. That has been the driving focus of his time in Cleveland. He wants — he NEEDS — to be part of winning families.

    Is it any wonder he watches The Godfather before games? Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking.

    See, James has not taken seven mostly so-so teams to the NBA Finals just because of his own greatness. It is also because he lifts up his teammates, he challenges them, he inspires them, he bullies them, he celebrates them, he sets them up to look good. Nobody — and I mean nobody, including Irving himself — probably got more joy out of that final shot than James did. Irving hitting that shot was EXACTLY what LeBron James wanted the Cleveland Cavaliers to be about. I bet it meant more to him than if he had hit the shot himself.

    Oh, before you get angry, yes, Jordan animated his teammates, too. He drove them and inspired them and made them better — who can forget him anticipating the double-team against Utah in the 1997 Finals and passing the ball off to a wide-open Steve Kerr (“You better be ready,” Jordan told Kerr). But it was different. Jordan understood that the game was about him. He was James Brown. They were the band.

    Jordan was singular. James is plural.

    And so, if given the choice, I would take LeBron James with the first pick. I fully appreciate that, in my play-for-my-soul scenario, the Devil would promptly take Michael Jordan, and there is nothing scarier in the history of American sports than having Michael Jordan trying to beat you. But it’s an approach-approach conflict anyway, a choice between two desirable alternatives. I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong answer.

    But in the end, I guess, I would bet on James’ power to build a team that can beat anybody.

    Birth of a Prince

    This story originally ran on CSNPhilly.com.

    The Salvation Army provided shelter for the 12-year-old boy and his father. The almost-barren room offered two beds and a pair of lamps. There was a communal bathroom down the hall, shared with over 15 people. As for the food, he’d pick at his mundane meal and drink water to curb his hunger.

    The doors closed at 10 o’clock. On the nights the boy would return late from playing with his friends, his father would step out to wait for him. Sometimes the staff let them back in. On other occasions, they could not re-enter and had to find someone to stay with for the evening. Then, there were nights they couldn’t secure anywhere to go.

    The father and son slept outside, sitting up with their backs against the wall.

    For months, this was the life of Taurean Prince. It was less than 10 years ago. Now the 6-foot-8, 21-year-old small forward is pondering where he will land in the NBA, and he’ll find out Thursday night during the draft.

     

    Sticking with Dad

    Prince’s parents divorced when he was young. For the early parts of his childhood, he lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with his mother and younger sister in San Antonio. Tamiyko Prince worked as an aging and disability officer, but the money was tight for a single parent with two young children.

    Prince grew up fast. He didn’t receive all the new toys his friends did. There were no family vacations. Most of the time he and his younger Catina sister played inside. Prince thought with an adult perspective early on and even learned how to drive by the time he was 12.

    “We had to sacrifice more than the average child would,” Prince told CSNPhilly.com two weeks after his workout with the Sixers, who hold the first, 24th and 26th picks. “Sometimes you’d have to cut up a potato and make fries out of that and just eat a plateful of fries just to get a meal. It was making ends meat anyway possible.”

    By the time Prince was approaching middle school, his father Anthony was getting things back on track. He had been in and out of jail. During middle school Prince moved from his mother’s in San Antonio to live with his dad in San Angelo.

    They stayed with his paternal grandmother, a strong family figure who kept the household in order. That stable home, though, was rocked when she succumbed to breast cancer.

    “My father was kind of lost in what to do, just like how anybody would be when they lost their mother,” Prince said. “We went to go live with my aunt. She had to move and we moved in with one of my dad’s girlfriends. They got into an argument and we had to move out of that situation. But we had nowhere to go, so we just resorted to the Salvation Army.”

    Once again, Prince packed his bags. He had been accustomed to bouncing from home to home, but nothing could prepare him for his magnitude of change. While he processed his new environment, he was comforted by believing in his father’s decisions.

    “(I felt) kind of lost, not knowing exactly why I was there,” Prince said of his first night. “But I just trusted everything my dad said. I never really questioned what he did because I knew everything was for a reason.”

    Prince didn’t know how long he would be without a consistent place to live. What he was sure of was that he was going to stick by his father regardless of where they were staying. Prince was so committed to his father that he did not reveal to his mother they were homeless. He feared that she would remove him from the situation, and he couldn’t imagine leaving his father by himself.

    “I never told my mom, not once,” he said. “I knew she would have tried to take me away from my dad and I didn’t want to leave my dad alone. I didn’t want him to be lonely, so I stuck by his side.”

     

    Another new home

    When Prince was entering the eighth grade, though, he could not stop their separation. His father was caught writing bad checks. Before Anthony turned himself in, he asked the mother of Prince’s close friend, Bowdy Thompson, if Prince could stay with them. Candina Kent (then Thompson) was a single mother of three herself, but she had an extra bedroom and was willing to take in Prince.

    The Thompsons knew that by living with them, Prince would be able to stay at the same middle school. They had no idea they were also providing him with a home. Prince never advertised his hardships. He did not reveal to his friends and classmates that he had been staying at the Salvation Army. Even when he moved in with the Thompsons, he did not speak of the things he lacked. He simply gratefully accepted what he was given.

    “I didn’t know that him and his dad were kind of homeless,” Bowdy Thompson said. “He always portrayed himself as someone who had what he needed. … Finding that out broke my heart as his friend.”

    Over 10 years later, Prince’s voice rises with happiness when recalling living with the Thompson family. The assurance of having a bed to sleep in felt like a luxury to him.

    “It was definitely one of the best feelings ever,” Prince said. “I still thank them to this day that they did that for me.”

     

    Back to Mom

    Prince returned to San Antonio to live with his mother and start high school. Two years later, his mother became pregnant with her long-term boyfriend, but tragedy struck when her boyfriend was shot and killed. Another loss, another life-change for Prince.

    Prince’s father moved in to help his mother during the remainder of her pregnancy and after the birth. Once he moved out, Prince assumed the role of man of the house to help raise his baby brother Derrick. He was 16, juggling the roles of student, athlete and dad.

    “Those years growing up in high school were just as hard as that time with my father just because you always need a father figure around, period,” Prince said. “But instead of me having one present at all times, I had to be one to my little brother and little sister in a way.”

    Life as a teenager became about family and basketball. He stayed home to care for his siblings instead of going out with his friends. Prince understood his play on the court could have far-reaching effects to better the lives of those he loves.

     

    High School

    Prince didn’t play high school basketball at Earl Warren until his sophomore year. Around that time, San Antonio Legends coach John Collins noticed him playing for another AAU team. Prince had sprouted up from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-6 and was being utilized as a five. Collins, though, saw potential in him as a perimeter player. Prince joined the Legends where he made his objectives clear to his new coach.

    “His concern was helping his mom out by getting a scholarship,” Collins said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just put in the work and I’m going to help you with the rest.’”

    Collins sensed he had found a diamond in the rough. He picked up Prince and drove him to the gym to get up extra shots. They worked on expanding his game away from the basket and developing a versatile skillset. Focused on playing in college, Prince averaged 21.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game as a high school senior.

    Prince kept looking ahead while keeping his past to himself. Just has he had done with the Thompsons, he did not share his personal struggles with Collins.

    Looking back, Collins recognizes how Prince was able to see the bigger picture given Prince’s challenges. Collins recalled a game in which Prince did not play up to his potential in front of Duke recruits. He vocalized his frustrations to the high schooler, who calmly replied with a response Collins remembers years later.

    “I’m telling myself, ‘This doesn’t even faze him,’” Collins said. “All of sudden he comes out and says, ‘You yelling at me, I understand. But I’ve been through worse.’ … I never knew anything about that until he graduated from high school. He’s the most tough-minded individual I’ve ever met.”

     

    College

    Prince signed with LIU to play college ball and transferred to Baylor after the LIU coach left for Dusquene. Prince calls it “the best decision of my life thus far” and played four years for the Bears.

    During that time he became close friends with Isaiah Austin, a projected lottery pick who had to end his basketball career when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome during the draft process. Prince changed his number to 21 to honor Austin, and learned a valuable lesson from his teammate.

    “I’m very confident, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I know it could all be stripped away any second,” Prince said.

    Prince steadily improved in college. He continued to work out with Collins and also trained at the Mo Williams Academy. Prince was a bench player his first three seasons, earning national Sixth Man of the Year honors as a junior.

    By his senior season, he became a starter and averaged 15.9 points (43.2 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from three), 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

    “One of the hardest things for bigs who have played inside most of their lives to adjust and become perimeter players. He’s put in the time and effort,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “He’s a fighter and you don’t have to worry about him competing.”

    Prince took on the mentality that “scoring wasn’t the only way to get the job done,” and focused on improving his ball-handling and decision-making. This past season Bears went 22-12 and earned the fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament but were knocked off in the first round by 12th-ranked Yale.

    “He was a late bloomer that just continues to get better,” Drew said. “Sometimes when you graduate from college, you’ve been the same player for two or three years and you’ve maxed out as a great college player but you don’t have a lot of upside. Then there’s someone like Taurean whose best basketball will be three, four, five years down the road.”

    When his college career came to a close, he ramped up his focus on the NBA. He earned his degree and left school eager to play in the pros. Once an unranked player in high school, Prince is a projected first-round pick and has moved up some draft boards into the high teens. He likens himself to DeMarre Carroll and Jae Crowder, a versatile wing player who attacks on both ends of the court.

    “(I am going to be) extremely tough physically and mentally,” he said. “(I will) always working hard, not satisfied, humble and respectful off the court.”

    Prince leans on his family during the draft process. His father is helping him on the business side, and he makes sure to text his mother every day. He has strived to reach his goal of helping his relatives, which Collins describes as the driving force of Prince’s success.

    After years of hardship, Prince is only a few weeks away from achieving his NBA aspirations. He expects to be hit by a flood of emotions when he hears his named called on June 23. Prince had kept his struggles to himself for years and now is ready to share his talents with an NBA team.

    “I know I’m going to cry,” Prince said. “Everything that I’ve been through is probably going to flash in my head a thousand seconds fast. It’s going to be something else to add to my story.”

    Man with a plan

    OAKMONT, Pa. – Everybody knows that you do not shoot 76 in the first round and then win the U.S. Open. It just doesn’t happen.

    The last person to do that – to shoot 76 and actually win – was an Iowa club pro named Jack Fleck more than 60 years ago. And, you probably know, that was nuts, a once-in-a-century kind of fluke. Fleck shot 7 over par at Olympic and somehow that was good enough to force a playoff with Ben Hogan. Fleck then won that playoff in one of the great upsets in golf – and sports – history.

    All of which reiterates the point: You don’t shoot 76 in the opening round and then win the U.S. Open.

    Still, when a player – especially an accomplished one – does shoot a 76 (or thereabouts) in the opening round, he will always talk about trying to get back into it. He will have a plan, and it’s always the same plan.

    1. Shoot under par the next day (just to make the cut).

    2. Go low on Saturday.

    3. Count on the brutal U.S. Open conditions to wilt the leaders and bring you back into play.

    4. Win on Sunday.

    It’s actually a reasonable-sounding plan … except nobody can do it. Rickie Fowler shot 76 in his opening round and followed with a 75. Rory McIlroy shot a 77 and, after briefly thrilling the gallery with a run of birdies, collapsed and missed the cut. This is how it usually goes. The comeback plan rarely even makes it past Step 1.

    Only don’t look now – there’s world No. 1 Jason Day trying to scale the impossible wall. Day shot his disappointing 76, and it sure seemed like he was done.

    Then, he shot a nice solid 69 in Round 2 and made the cut. That built his confidence. Then, he went out and absolutely blistered the front nine at Oakmont. He made four birdies in his first seven holes, eagled a hole and actually got all the way back to par. He did limp in, but he managed to shoot a dazzling 66 to pull into eighth place, six shots behind leader Shane Lowry.

    Now, he needs Step 3 and Step 4 to pull off this crazy, impossible comeback.

    “I just want it to play hard and fast for (Sunday),” he said. “And I think the harder the better like a normal U.S. Open Sunday should be. I think it would be fun for everyone.”

    Well, actually, it wouldn’t be fun for everyone, which is exactly what Day is counting on. Yes, he’s still six back, and yes there are some terrific players in front of him. But he does have a couple of pretty sweet advantages going into Sunday.

    One, he finished his round. Among the players in the top 10, only Day, Branden Grace and Bryson DeChambeau have finished their third rounds. That means the rest of the contenders have 5 a.m. wakeup calls and 7 a.m. tee times. Lowry probably has an hour or so of golf to play.

    The second advantage – none of the seven players in front of Day have won major championships. Leader: Lowry has never been in full-blooded contention before.

    Second place: Andrew Landry has never even played in a major championship before.

    Third place (tied): Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia all have very sad country songs to sing about their major championship heartbreak.

    This is not to say they will all fold under the heat of a U.S. Open Sunday. But, let’s not kid anybody: Wouldn’t you rather be chasing players that have not yet endured the pressure and taken the trophy?

    “It depends on how they look at it,” said Day, who ended his own sad major championship country song at the PGA Championship last year. “If they want to go out there and think they’re ready to win a major, then it’s obviously going to be tougher (for me) because they’re going to be focused and ready.”

    Now, look, six shots is a lot to overcome, and Lowry has looked very solid all week. Landry has already quieted those who thought he would disappear from the leaderboard long ago. And the trio tied at 2 under are three of the most accomplished players of the last decade. So, the odds are still stacked heavily against Jason Day. But the best player in the world has put himself on the leaderboard where everyone can see him.

    Finding his way

    OAKMONT, Pa. – The first Avengers has this glorious exchange between the villain, Loki, and Shield agent Phil Coulson. You will remember the scene: Things are at their bleakest for the Avengers, not least because Coulson is about to die.

    “You’re going to lose,” Agent Coulson says.

    “Am I?” Loki says. “Your heroes are scattered. Your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?”

    “You lack conviction,” Coulson says.

    Rory McIlroy probably has the best A-game in golf today. That is to say: If every single player on earth played their very best for one major championship tournament – with the caveat that we have no idea what Tiger Woods’ best would even look like – Rory McIlroy would probably win. In fact, he would probably win convincingly. Yes, of course, there are others who have blinding A games. Jason Day can overpower golf courses. Dustin Johnson can make the game look ridiculously easy (and did just that in the first round of the U.S. Open). Jordan Spieth can go for stretches where he never misses a putt.

    But McIlroy … it’s almost surreal how good he is when he’s right. We’ve all seen it. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2011 U.S. Open. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2012 PGA Championship. The guy shot 17 under to win the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, and he shot 22 under to win in Dubai and he once shot 62 in the final round to win at Quail Hollow. When he is locked in, truly locked in, he is the one guy out there who can make you think about vintage Woods or vintage Jack Nicklaus, the player who was so much better than anyone else that there was almost no point in even trying.

    But, there’s the rub. What made Tiger Tiger, what made Jack Jack, were not those days when they striped the ball down the heart of every fairway and knocked down flagsticks with their approach shots and made all the putts. What made those guys so great was that they won most of the time without their A games.

    “How many of your 18 major championships would you say that you were not playing well?” I asked Nicklaus.

    “At least a dozen of them,” he said.

    This is the part McIlroy can’t quite get. When he’s on, forget it. And when he’s off, well, forget it. Since 2010, he’s won four major championships. He’s missed the cut at four major championships. He’s finished top 10 another seven times. He’s finished 25th or worse another five times. He’s on. He’s off. He’s dazzling. He’s lost. It’s a wicked ride with Rory McIlroy.

    And more and more you get this sense that, yes, he lacks conviction.

    Take this week. McIlroy came to the U.S. Open at Oakmont with a vivid plan to win at one of the world’s toughest golf courses. “You have to be so disciplined,” he said.

    He talked about always hitting the ball to the proper spots. “You could go a whole round here without hitting at any pin,” he said.

    He talked about being conservative. “I’m an aggressive player … there’s just going to be times where I’m going to have to rein it back a little.”

    He talked about how much he has learned from experience. He’s not a kid anymore. “I think with experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day,” he says. “Or, if you’re not playing so well, [you learn] how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score. And I feel like just over the years I’ve learned how to do that a little bit better.”

    And then, in the first round, under admittedly irritating conditions – starts and stops, weather delays, etc. – McIlroy shot a miserable 77. It was the eighth time he has shot 77 or worse at a major championship. His plan for scaling things back and hitting fairways and greens was, to put it mildly, a disaster. “I think I hit five fairways and eight greens out there,” he said despondently after the round. “Which, obviously, isn’t going to do anything.”

    Then he said this: “With the way the golf course is, with it being so soft, I might just go out there in the second round and hit a lot of drivers and try to be as aggressive as I possibly can.”

    OK, do you see that? Four days earlier, he went on about pulling back his aggression, reining things back, grinding it out. And then, after a bad round, he talked about cracking drivers and hoping for the best. Conviction. It seems to be the overwhelming hurdle for McIlroy.

    Before the Masters began, he talked about how he eager he was to rise up to the challenge of the emerging Jordan Spieth. “It’s my job” he said of Spieth, “and Jason’s [Day] job and everyone else’s job to stop [Spieth] from dominating.” Then, when he was actually paired with the leader Spieth, he talked about how “I don’t even look at the names to the left of the leaderboard.”

    A couple of years ago, he talked about wanting to insert some of Woods’ intensity into his own game. Then, shortly after that, he talked about how he did not want to be like Woods; he needed to be himself.

    This is a common thing, of course, a young person trying to find what they are about. And, it’s easy to forget, McIlroy is a young man who just turned 27. Still: Golf is a game of conviction. It is a game of belief. Ask anyone: One of the things that made Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Woods and others the very best in the world is that they believed it more deeply than anyone else. They felt destined to win because, hey, seriously, who could beat them?

    But where do you get that sort of conviction? How do you build it? After the miserable first round, McIlroy went out to the driving range and worked on his swing for a long time.

    “I think for me,” he says, “the toughest thing is just trying to stay positive and not get too down on myself and try to go out there … and try to play well and make it into the weekend. Yeah, I think right now I’m just trying to stay as positive as I can.”

    Titles and tears

    Hey, kid, I see you’re out delivering newspapers. The Cleveland Press! I loved this paper. What’s the date, there? Its 1981, huh? Well, the Press won’t be around much longer; it shuts down in 1982. How do I know that? It’s complicated, kid. It’s complicated.

    Mind if I walk with you for a few minutes? Yeah, I know, it’s five degrees below zero, and that Cleveland wind is blowing ice picks at us. It’s OK. Here, what you do on days like this: You walk backward into the wind. That blunts the force of the cold. Oh, you learned that already.  Well, of course you have. You’ve lived in Cleveland all your life. You learn that trick young.

    There’s a lot of stuff I’d love to tell you, kid. Invest in Google. Invent Facebook. Write a series of books about a school for young wizards. Oh yeah, I forgot, you don’t like writing yet. You’re just 14 years old. You think that you’re going to play second base for the Cleveland Indians. Well, I can’t promise that’s going to happen for you. But I can promise you one thing:

    Someday, kid, Cleveland is going to win a championship.

    Sure, sure, you believe that now. But your faith will be tested. There will be times — a hundred times, a thousand times, a million — when you will wonder if maybe this sprawling, ambitious, struggling, messy, bighearted city where you grow up is cursed. Or doomed. In those moments, you’ll shake your fist at the sky, and you’ll think about all the things you love about this place: The corned beef sandwiches at Corky’s and Lenny’s; the exotic sounds and smells of the West Side Market; the hard-hat factory workers like your dad who bowl on the weekends and mow their own lawns and rub your head at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when the Indians score a run.

    You’ll think about the bountiful and wonderful Higbee’s department store downtown, the one with the thin escalators, where your mom and dad take you every now and again when they want to show you that you live someplace grand. They will close that Higbee’s down some day, kid. They will close a lot of places down, even Randall Park Mall, the one they call the world’s largest shopping center.

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    I don’t even want to tell you what happens to your Cleveland Browns. Brace yourself.

    You’ll think about the suburbs and sections of town — Parma and Willowick and East Cleveland and Brooklyn and Rocky River and Euclid and all the Heights — and how they’re all little towns, all their own, but they’re Cleveland too. You’ll think about how the baked bread smells in Little Italy and all those old men playing chess over at the Arabica coffee place in Coventry and the chocolate dipped ice cream cone at Cream-o-Freeze that you get after your little league team wins a game.

    It will happen, kid. Cleveland’s going to win. Now, I’m not going to lie to you because I can’t lie to you — it won’t happen soon. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak coming between now and then, some of it for you, much more of it for your city. Bigger stuff than sports will haunt Cleveland, stuff you can’t get your 14-year-old mind around. Heck, you’ll have to move. Jobs are drying up. Factories are closing down. Your dad will have to take the family South because that’s where the work is. Get ready for something called sweet tea.

    But here’s the good news: When it does happen, when Cleveland does win that championship, it will be spectacular. And you will feel it down to your Cleveland bones. There’s this guy, well, he hasn’t been born yet. But he will be soon, down in Akron. His name will be LeBron James.

    And LeBron James will take you and this city on the craziest, wildest, angriest and happiest journey. James will be a basketball player, but not like one you’ve ever imagined. OK, think about Magic Johnson, only even stronger and more physical. No, wait, think of Julius Erving, only a more ferocious rebounder and even better passer. No, that’s not it. Think of Larry Bird but way faster and more explosive. No, think of Michael Jordan … oh, wait, you don’t know about Jordan yet.

    Forget it. Just think of a player only just beyond your imagination.

    MORE: LeBron cements historic legacy | J.R. Smith breaks down talking about family | Heat dig propelled LeBron

    The greatest skill of LeBron James, you will find, is something that you will never be able to describe. He will develop an ability to see the game down-tempo. That is, the game will not just slow down for him, it will open up for him. Sometimes, you will swear, he jumps up with the ball, and as he jumps he has no idea what he will do. Shoot? Maybe. Pass? Maybe. Write an opera? Maybe.

    Then, at his apex, he will look around and still not know what to do. There will seem no options. Everyone is covered, his view to the basket blocked. So he will just wait, and wait, dangling in air, scanning the scene, waiting, until, yes, at the very last possible millisecond, with his feet a fraction of an inch above the ground, he will fire a pass to someone underneath the basket who did not even know himself that he was open. He will do this thing so many times and yet it will never cease to amaze.

    Transcendent, this LeBron, and when Cleveland drafts him with the first pick you will think: FINALLY. Cleveland has its first transcendent player since Jim Brown. And Cleveland will finally get its championship.

    But it won’t be that easy, kid. You know already: Nothing is that easy in Cleveland.

    * * *

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    Right now, I happen to know that you’re utterly shattered because you just saw Brian Sipe throw that horrifying interception against Oakland in the playoffs. Red Right 88. That’s the name of the play, Red Right 88. I promise you will never forget it. There will be other heart-crushing plays that you will never forget.

    But what you don’t know is that you’ll never forget any of the good stuff, either. Cleveland will climb inside your soul and stay there no matter where you move. Yes, you will move around, and you will find another city that you love, another bighearted city with great barbecue, and you will get married there, have a couple of kids, and that city will become home. But Cleveland will stay with you, too. That’s what Cleveland does.

    You will always think about that cranky and unconquerable television journalist Dorothy Fuldheim. You’ll think about Superhost, that guy who dresses up in a superhero costume and hosts the Saturday Monster movies on Channel 43. The jingle for 1220-AM (1220 … WGAR!)  will play in your head sometimes when you try to sleep and so will that commercial for home improvement (Garfield 1, 2323, Garfield 1, 2323). You will get emotional thinking about the Cleveland Orchestra, even if you don’t like getting dragged downtown to see them. Some day, you’ll appreciate they’re one of the best in the world.

    You will get emotional thinking about stuff that doesn’t seem all that special now, stuff like ol’ Herb Score, the pitcher and Indians announcer, who, no matter the weather, would say, “It’s a beautiful day for baseball.” You’ll get emotional thinking about Joe Tait, the best basketball announcer going, and the rhythmic way he used to say, just as a player drove to the basket: “The line, the lane, the shot, it drops!”

    You’ll even get emotional and nostalgic thinking about the smoke pouring out of the factory chimneys and the grayness of the sky and the potholes in the road and the way the telephone lines snake and meander over the city’s streets and all those dreadful Cleveland jokes that they tell around the country. You’ll remember, I promise you, the hopeful way Clevelanders would call in to sports radio pioneer Pete Franklin.

    “I think this is the year for the Cavaliers, Pete!” they would say.

    “You,” Pete would respond gently, “are an idiot.”

    This city, this place, gets inside you. Believe it or not, that’s what makes all the difference. See, this LeBron James I was telling you about, his first time around in Cleveland will not go too well. Oh sure, he will play supreme basketball, incomparable basketball, and he will lead the team to many victories. But he will not quite lead Cleveland to a championship. And the longer that goes on, the harder the feelings between the city and the man.

    Cleveland will wonder: How can this near-perfect basketball Hercules, who was obviously sent to us from Olympus, not, finally, after all these years, bring a title home?

    And James will wonder: How can this city with so much hunger and wanting not understand that I’m just one man, and I can’t fill all their pain all by myself?

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    He will leave on national television. He will leave and go down to Miami, the same place where many Clevelanders flee after the winters chill them numb. James will win a couple of championships for a city that already has everything. Cleveland will take it pretty hard — I can see you’re already taking it hard, kid. People will burn his jersey. They will tear his posters from their walls, pull his name from their restaurant menus, yank down his face from the billboards. From Willoughby down to Elyria, from Avon Lake to Chagrin Falls, they will curse his name. And Cleveland sports will die again.

    And then … at the very lowest moment … he’ll come back.

    Why does he come back? I don’t know any better than anyone else, but I think it’s just because this place gets inside you. I think James feels that silent but powerful tug of Northeast Ohio, and he comes to realize that the greatest thing he can do in sports, and maybe even beyond sports, is make Cleveland a champion, just once.

    The second time around with LeBron isn’t easy either. Yes, this time, James will get some help. He will have a marvelous little teammate named Kyrie Irving, a guard with a special talent for needling a basketball through a gauntlet of flailing arms and into the basket. He will have another teammate, a tireless Canadian forward named Tristan Thompson, who will loiter around the basket and obstinately pull rebounds away from opponents who lack conviction. There will be others.

    Still, LeBron’s labor will not be easy because just as he is trying to bring a championship home, a superteam forms in Oakland. The Golden State Warriors will set records. More, you will love watching the Warriors play. Everyone will. They are like a symphony of switching defenses and quick passes and long jump shots that swish. That team will beat Cleveland in one NBA Finals. And in the next, they will take a 3-1 lead in games and everyone in America will turn away, knowing the series is over.

    And then … well I want you to see it. LeBron James goes supernova. I guess that’s the only way I can describe it. He takes over three basketball games in a way that I suspect no player has ever taken over games before. He will launch his already towering game into space. He will score at will. He will rebound with fury. He will pass through walls. He will steal the ball again and again. He will block shots that — let’s just say that one of those blocked shots will blow up your mind.

    And this Golden State team, this record-breaking team that will re-imagine how basketball can be played, they cannot stay with him. They cannot match his altitude.

    When that Game 7 comes so many years from now, kid, you will be a whole different person. But you will be the same too. Everybody will tell you later that it is a great game, an all-time NBA classic, but you won’t see it that way because your stomach will be in your throat and your heart will be in your shoes and you will be so nervous and so thrilled that none of it will really make much sense.

    But it will happen. Believe it. The last game will come down to the final seconds, and Kyrie Irving will not throw away his shot, and Golden State’s magnificent Stephen Curry will miss his, and it will happen.

    Yes, someday it will happen, the city that never leaves you will have its grand moment, its moment on top of the world, and these big, plump tears will drop from your eyes as you see LeBron James cry, as you see video of people dancing and hugging and running madly through downtown Cleveland, as you think about all your friends and all your family and those Cleveland people all over the world, people you don’t even know but love just the same.

    And then what happens after that? Well, then you’ll end up right here, walking this paper route on Warrendale Road, delivering the Cleveland Press door-to-door in a winter storm. I know it’s cold, kid. Just turn your back to the wind.

    The Warriors’ King

    The most absurd thing happened Thursday night in Cleveland: LeBron James broke the Golden State Warriors. Now, to be clear, I do not use the word “broke” in a grand sense, do not mean that he broke the Warriors’ will, broke their spirit or even broke their season. None of that is true. There is a Game 7 to be played Sunday in Oakland, and the smart money is still on the Warriors to finish the job and take home their second straight championship.

    No, I simply mean that LeBron James broke the Warriors the way the protagonist finally breaks the enemy robot in the movies, you know, with sparks spitting and flickering and battery acid leaking out the side and a stream of unrelated words and stutters releasing in an ever slower rhythm.

    What the heck happened? The delightful First Couple of Sports, Stephen and Ayesha Curry, both melted down, with Steph flinging his ubiquitous mouthpiece toward the crowd and Ayesha Twitter-burping something about the vast corruption of the NBA. Draymond Green nearly lost his mind again, even with another suspension dangerously lurking. Harrison Barnes simply seems to be malfunctioning — he can’t make a shot. Andre Iguodala’s back went out. Even Steve Kerr, the ultra-polished coach who always seems to know exactly what to say in every moment, rambled about the officiating, suggesting along the way that calling six fouls on Curry is simply no way to treat the league MVP.

    This team-wide nervous breakdown was prompted by many different things, but it was CAUSED by LeBron Raymone James, the Chosen One, Bron-Bron, LBJ, the King. You would think after 13 seasons of surpassing greatness, there would be no place left for James to go, no heights left for him to scale. Who can forget that Game 6 in Boston in 2012 when, with his Miami Heat on the brink, he scored 45 and grabbed 15 boards and essentially beat the Celtics all by himself? Who can forget Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals against San Antonio, when he scored 37 and made the shots down the stretch to make sure that his Heat won the title? Go back some years and who can forget the way the young, still raw LeBron James carried and willed a ragtag group of Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals by basically doing everything?

    And yet, Thursday was LeBron James’ crescendo. He came back to Cleveland a couple of years ago, came back to a city where his jersey had been burned in effigy, came back to an NBA owner who had ranted against him in a public letter, came back to a team that had been in absolute free fall since he left.

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    James came back, he explained, to do the thing so many people believed him destined to do: Lead Cleveland to a championship after a half-century drought. He knew it would not be easy but, I suspect, he did not realize just how hard it would be. That is to say he did not foresee the dawn of the Golden State Warriors, this wonderful and free-flowing team that buries opponents with a high-energy blur of 3-pointers and Rubik’s Cube switching defense.

    That Warriors team wrecked his beat-up Cavaliers in Year 1 of The Return. And this year, well, it was a fait accompli that Golden State, winners of a record 73 regular-season games, would steamroll the Cavaliers in the Finals. Golden State beat Cleveland with ease during the season. The teams played the first four Finals games and Golden State won three of them by an average of 19 points.

    Then, in Game 5, the Cavaliers caught a break; the Warriors’ versatile big man Draymond Green was suspended after one-too-many shots to an opponent’s groin. Golden State looked off-balance all game long, James and teammate Kyrie Irving were magnificent, and the series was extended. Game 6 on Thursday was back in Cleveland, where Cavaliers fans cheered and screamed at record decibels, at least in part to drown out the shrieks of the city’s sports heartbreak past.

    And LeBron was transcendent. The numbers are the numbers — 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks, just one turnover — and they do put a nice frame around this performance. But the numbers do not capture it nor explain it. Memory struggles to remember a time when one player so thoroughly controlled a team game.

    The Cavaliers, riding the emotion of the crowd, jumped to a gigantic lead, 8-0 after a few moments, 31-11 after the first quarter. Everyone knew, though, that the Warriors would regain their balance and charge up the hill and make this a game. Everyone knew it.

    And LeBron James, all by himself, held them off. In the third and fourth quarter, when his No. 2, Kyrie Irving, faltered, while the commercial star, Kevin Love, seemed lost in a fog, James wrote, directed, produced and starred. From the five-minute mark in the third quarter until there were three minutes left — 14 minutes of basketball — the Cavaliers scored 13 field goals. James either scored or assisted on every one of them. During one stretch, he scored 18 consecutive Cleveland points.

    When the stretch began, Cleveland led by 15 over a desperate Warriors team throwing everything it had against the Cavaliers. When it ended, Cleveland led by 20, Steph Curry had been ejected, Draymond Green was being held back by his coach and the seemingly unbreakable Warriors were in pieces.

    MORE: LeBron delivers transcendent performance | Warriors lose control | Kerr, Curry fined

    Yes, Warriors fans will make their points about the officiating being one-sided and to Cleveland’s liking, and there might be a point to that. Or not. Who really knows? NBA officiating, like modern art, means whatever you want it to mean. The larger point is that on one of the biggest nights in Cleveland sports history, LeBron James rose up and played such divine basketball that some Cavaliers fans were left weeping in sheer joy and awe.

    Now it goes to Game 7 in Oakland, where the energy will be very different, where the storylines roar. Will Golden State cap off the greatest season in NBA history? Will LeBron James bring home a trophy to Cleveland? Will the Warriors, like the 16-0 Patriots, crash just before the finish line? Will Cleveland suffer yet another heartbreak to pile on top of the Drive and the Fumble and the Shot and the rest?

    This series has given us absolutely no hint to the answers. The Cavaliers and Warriors have played six games, and on three of those nights Golden State was clearly the better team. On the other three, Cleveland was clearly the better team. There has not been a close game. There has not been one suspenseful finish. Six games, and not one game has had the starters for both teams on the floor at the finish. So who knows?

    On the one hand, Golden State has been almost unbeatable in Oakland and after two dud performances, including the embarrassing breakdown in Game 6, you would expect the defending champions to come out and play with blinding excellence.

    On the other hand, Golden State now understands just how high LeBron James can fly.

    For Pete’s Sake

    Pete Rose in 2009 (to me): “And Ichiro … he can have the hits he got in Japan and he’s still not breaking the record.”

    Pete Rose in 2013 (to USA Today): “Hey, if we’re counting professional hits then add my 427 in the minors. I was a professional then too!”

    Pete Rose in 2016 (to USA Today): “I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he’s had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know you’ll be counting his high school hits.”

    * * *

    Well, OK, magnanimity isn’t exactly Pete Rose’s strong suit. Back when Ichiro Suzuki was several hundred hits away from Rose, he was happy to be big-hearted. Sure! Ichiro can count his hits in Japan! Why not? He’s still not catching the Hit King (trademarked)!

    Then, in 2013, when Ichiro reached 4,000 total hits between Japan and the U.S. and started getting a little attention for it, well, the collar started getting a little tighter and the Hit King (trademarked) started getting a little grumpier about things. Wait, if he can count his hits in Japan, well, what about my 427 minor-league hits (and how about Pete Rose KNOWING that he had 427 minor-league hits)?

    And now, yes, there are all sorts of alarm bells going off in the mind of the Hit King (trademarked). Ichiro just got his 4,257th international hit. That is one more than the 4,256 Major League hits of Pete Rose. And so, yes, out comes the jab about high school hits. Like I say, magnanimity is not exactly Pete Rose’s strong suit.

    And it’s a shame too because this would have been a great time for Pete Rose to be magnanimous, to celebrate Ichiro’s grand achievement without reservation. Here’s why: Ichiro’s achievement isn’t just a celebration of Ichiro. It isn’t just a celebration of baseball. It’s a celebration of Pete Rose.

    I’ve written this before: If Ichiro Suzuki had started his career in Major League Baseball, I think he would have actually broken Pete Rose’s record. You’ve probably seen this:

    Ichiro from age 27-42: .314/.357/.405, 2,979 hits.

    Rose from age 27-42: .309/.383/.418, 3,091 hits.

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    So that’s pretty similar, especially by the time this season ends. The question with Ichiro is, could he have gotten the 899 hits that Rose got before he turned 27 years old and the 266 hits Rose got after age 42.

    The 899 hits before 27 — I have no doubt whatsoever that if Ichiro had started in the United States he would have had gone way past 899 hits by age 27. Two reasons to believe that:

    1. He got 1,278 hits in Japan in shorter seasons. He was one of the country’s great stars by the time he was 19 years old.

    2. In his rookie year in the majors at age 27, he led the league with a .350 batting average and he had 242 hits. You imagine he would have put up similar numbers at age 26, age 25, age 24, maybe age 23 — going all the way back to when he was 20 years old. It’s all guesswork, but it’s pretty easy to imagine Ichiro with 1,000 to 1,200 hits by the time he turns 27. That would put him right in line with catching Rose.

    But this gets to the point: None of this happened. Ichiro’s hit total is an extraordinary achievement, and Ichiro himself is one of the true wonders of sport. But Pete Rose’s hit record is secure. We don’t count Japanese statistics when talking about Major League records. We don’t consider Hideo Nomo to have 3,000 strikeouts  We don’t think of Hideki Matsui having 509 career home runs. They did, but we have always separated Japanese and Major League statistics. Sadaharu Oh hitting 868 home runs is mind-boggling. But it doesn’t diminish Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. It accentuates their numbers.

    And Ichiro’s international hit total accentuates the marvelous career of Pete Rose. If you got to the Major Leagues at age 20 and got 200 hits a year for 21 consecutive years — every year until you were 41 —  you STILL would not get to Pete Rose’s hit total. For Rose to get to 4,256 took a single-mindedness that boggles the mind.

    He was not considered a prospect. He was just a Cincinnati kid who signed with his hometown team. He willed his way through three minor-league seasons (427 minor-league hits!) and bulled his way onto the Major League club when almost nobody wanted him there. He won the Rookie of the Year award by playing insane, all-out baseball (which, according to legend, led Mickey Mantle to give him his nickname during spring training by saying in disgust: “Oh look at Charlie Hustle out there”). And he never stopped playing that sort of on-the-edge baseball.

    Between age 30 and 39, Rose’s teams played 1,613 games. Rose played in 1,607 of them. He simply refused rest, refused to take a day off, refused to give up his fifth plate appearance of the day. He led the league in plate appearances six times during that span. Fifteen times in his career, Rose got more than 700 plate appearances in a season, far and away the record.

    This was his unwavering dedication to compile hits, to always add to the total, and when he stopped hitting in one city, he moved to the next. When he needed to become a player-manager to keep going, he became a player-manager. He is an obsessive man, of course — we all can name the many obsessions of Pete Rose. Getting hits was the greatest obsession of his life.

    And that obsession led to 4,256. It’s his Sistine Chapel.

    Ichiro Suzuki’s two-continent journey is every bit as amazing in its own way, but it is a different journey. Ichiro is a different player from Rose. While Rose was a grinder and a line-drive machine, Ichiro is a flash of lightning who is halfway down the first base line by the time he connects with the ball. Rose stretched singles into doubles and doubles into triples on sheer gall (Rose hit about 200 more doubles and triples than Ichiro). Ichiro stole 500 bases in his Major League career (and more than 700 in total) and threw like Roberto Clemente from right field. Rose was a physical presence, pounding into catchers and breaking up double plays. Ichiro, at his best, seemed light as air.

    Everybody has an opinion about Pete Rose. There are people who think he should be in the Hall of Fame, people who think he should never be allowed near the Hall of Fame, and people who think he should only go into the Hall of Fame after he dies. There are people who think he has paid way too steep a price for gambling on baseball, people who think he has gotten off light, and people who never want to hear another word about him.

    Whatever the opinion, though, Rose did knock those 4,256 hits. That’s on the books. It’s the Major League record, and it probably will be for the next 50 years. Ichiro is a once-in-a-generation player, and if circumstances had been different he might have challenged that record. Instead, he had a career uniquely his own. Pete Rose as the Hit King (trademarked) should be able to say, “Heck of a job, Ichiro. You’ve got your own kingdom.”

    Coming of age story

    Kyrie Irving hits more ridiculous shots than just about anyone in the NBA. Four or five times in just about every game he plays, Irving will make some sort of ludicrous, twisting, turning, fall-away, stuck-in-traffic, living-on-a-prayer shot that leaves everyone gasping for air and wondering, “Come on, how lucky can a guy be?”

    Then, a few minutes later, he will make one even crazier.

    The thing is, all those miraculous shots have never quite painted the picture of a great player. Irving has been like, say, Gael Monfils, the incomparable French tennis star who runs down 10 balls a match nobody else can reach and hits 10 shots a match that nobody else can hit. But Monfils doesn’t quite get past the quarterfinals, doesn’t quite get higher than 10th in the world, because … something. Irving has been one of the dozen or so best players on Earth for a couple of years now. But he’s never quite pushed past that.

    Youth has something to do with it, sure. Injuries, sure. Irving’s defensive reputation precedes him, and not in a good way. But whatever the reason, Irving has been one of those players whose sum has never quite balanced with his parts, whose extraordinary and perhaps even unmatched talents as a finisher have never quite convinced people that he is a transcendent player. This series is changing that, though.

    Yes, Game 5 of the NBA Finals was a weird one. Golden State’s Draymond Green was absent either (depending on who you ask) because of his infuriating or his inadvertent habit of connecting with other players’ groins. The one-game suspension put Oracle Arena in a dark mood long before the game ever started — they blamed LeBron James for being a crybaby. Or something. Fans brought out convoluted signs* and booed persistently and with as much venom as they could muster (and, it’s sometimes forgotten, many of these people are the same ones who go to Oakland Raiders games, so there’s venom to spare).

    The malice did not prevent James from scoring 41 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, dishing seven assists, blocking three shots and so on. Of course it didn’t. LeBron is LeBron.

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    *While many people focused on the bizarre and surprisingly long-winded signs that questioned James’ ruggedness in the face of name-calling, my favorite sign was held up by a woman. She had come up with an acronym for the word CLE: “Cleveland Loses Everytime.” In addition to the questionable grammar, it just seems kind of a cruel thing to celebrate in a sign, no? What, it’s not enough fun JUST being a Golden State Warriors fan? This seems to me like winning the lottery and then making a sign ripping all those people who lost.

    While there was much talk about what the loss of Green might mean emotionally, his absence actually had a much more tangible effect on the Warriors: Their defense went to hell. Green is, of course, a fantastic defender — he has twice finished as the runner-up to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard for Devensive Player of the Year — but the effect was even greater than his own defense. There’s a wonderful episode of “The Office” where Dwight — the overbearing assistant to the regional manager —  is fired. Shortly afterward, the manager, Michael, finds that for some reason all the office plants are dying and the toys on his desk aren’t arranged neatly when he arrives at the office. Michael simply didn’t realize all the little things that Dwight did.

    So it is with the Warriors and Green. It’s easy to simply miss out on the million ways Green switches, chases and fixes someone else’s blunders. Monday, James and Irving slashed freely to the basket. In the first half, Cleveland had 61 points but only five assists. Golden State coach Steve Kerr saw this as a good sign — the Cavaliers were playing one-on-one ball and that is usually not good enough to match Golden State. But with Draymond Green out, it turns out, one-on-one basketball was more than good enough because James and Irving took one-on-one to new heights. They became the first teammates to score 40-plus points in an NBA Finals game.

    As with the rest of the series — as with the rest of the playoffs — it’s all but impossible to tell what carries over from this game to the next. Every game in this series has had a double-digit margin. We have not had a single NBA playoff game with a margin of five points or less in more than a month. Each game is its own self-contained story. The Warriors have beaten Cleveland by 15, 33 and 11. Cleveland has beaten the Warriors by 30 and 15. It’s an interesting series without any interesting games.

    But one thing we can take away from this series regardless is the full-throated arrival of Kyrie Irving. He has now scored 30-plus points in each of the last three games and just about everyone who has watched him slip and slide between defenders and push up improbable shots through a web of arms has been reminded of the same person: Isiah.

    When Isiah Thomas was at his best, he was more than a great basketball player. He was a minor miracle, night after night. Thomas was not a particularly great shooter. He shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range in his career. He was, instead, a magical passer and scorer, a 6-foot-1 whirlwind who would decide, every now and again (and especially in the playoffs) that the game belonged to him, that the rim belonged to him, and there wasn’t a single thing anybody else could do about it.

    That was Irving on Monday. He added a few 3-pointers to get his 41 points, but most of the work he did was around the basket, against taller defenders, and the Warriors were helpless to stop him.

    When the Cavaliers drafted Irving with the first pick in the 2011 draft (and what a draft that was with Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, the other Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, etc.), the idea was that he would be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new star after LeBron James left. The whole franchise was riding on him, the ball was his to control, and he put up impressive numbers right away, began hitting his supernatural shots right away. But it wasn’t clear how those numbers or those shots made the Cavs any better.

    Then James came back, and the new question was: How did Irving fit? He is, by definition, the team’s point guard, but the offense goes through LeBron James. He is certainly not a shooting guard, not with J.R. Smith on the team. The Cavaliers also acquired Kevin Love, a young man used to being the star. What would Kyrie Irving become?

    The last three games have given a hint — Irving and James, at their best, are like a great professional wrestling tag team, pulling the defenses away from each other, taking turns at smashing their way to the basket. They are co-stars. Yes, this is LeBron James’ team, and it is his vision and power and intensity that drives the Cavaliers. But it is Irving who can break the spirit of a defense by making these crazy shots even when the defense is perfect. In Game 5, the two of them basically beat the Warriors by themselves, “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” style.

    This doesn’t change the daunting challenge the Cavaliers face. Yes, Game 6 is in Cleveland, but Draymond Green returns, fully charged and with a chip the size of Rhode Island on his shoulder. It’s unlikely that Steph Curry will again miss nine of the 14 3-pointers he takes, and unlikely that Harrison Barnes will go 2 for 14 on basically wide-open shots, and, yes, it’s unlikely that James and Irving will make 60 percent of their 3-point shots.

    Still, Kyrie Irving’s emergence, as much as anything else, has at least given us a Game 6 and given Cleveland a reason to hope. When this series began, few people expected even that.