The Future Is Here

By Eric Williams
Updated: April 7, 2006

PHILADELPHIA—I was sitting down last Sunday morning getting my usual early morning fix of “Sportscenter when I saw the jaw-dropping highlights of Saturday evening’s game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat.

Now, as every sports fan knows, there are those special moments in sports that come along once in a while that leave an indelible impression that can last for years – and some that even last a lifetime.

The performances of both teams’ young superstars Saturday night – Miami’s Dwayne Wade and Cleveland’s LeBron James – left just such an impression.

Not only with me either. Don’t think that David Stern isn’t sitting around somewhere grinning like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. I can just see him now – dreaming up more ways to market the league’s newest and brightest stars.

What I find both interesting and fascinating is how quickly the league has shed the negative image that has plagued it since the retirement of Michael Jordan. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that the word “NBA” brought a cringe to some people’s faces. I mean, even people who knew nothing about professional basketball knew that the majority of NBA players were over-paid and over-pampered, egomaniacal cry babies.

However, Stern and the league have quickly rebounded. The turnaround has been partly because of the team oriented, professional styles of the past two NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs, and also in part because of the wealth of new, young players who are making their own marks on the game.

David Stern should be thanking his lucky stars for James and Wade and Carmelo Anthony and of course, Steve Nash, even though he’s a little older.

The point is; the league appears as if it will be in pretty good shape at least for the next decade with James, Wade and Anthony leading the way.

And speaking of James and Wade, let me get back to the point of why I began writing this column in the first place.

Now, anyone who knows me will tell you that although I am only 40-years old, I am a huge sports historian and have a wealth of knowledge about sports that is both inherent and vast. Having said that, I have to say that, rarely have I seen a battle between two combatants that was on the level of what James and Wade displayed Saturday evening.

And the best part of the showdown – and most convincing of each player’s ability and willingness to become special players – is that both Wade and James saved their respective bests for the final period. Wade set a franchise record with 21 points in the fourth quarter on his way to a season-high 44 with nine assists and eight rebounds thrown in and James had 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting with four assists in the final period en route to a season-high 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

”I kind of committed myself to being the guy that made the plays,” Wade said of his 9-of-15 fourth quarter. “I think early I did a good job of getting my teammates involved, especially Udonis [Haslem]. In the fourth quarter, I took it upon myself to make the plays when they needed to be made. I made the majority of them and came up short on some.”

Even aging veteran Gary Payton, who is also Wade’s teammate, realized he was witnessing something special.

”That reminds you of the days when Larry Bird and Magic [Johnson] would go at it, or guys like that,” Gary Payton said.

Heat coach, Pat Riley, who has seen his share of epic battles as the coach and architect of those “Showtime” Lakers, agreed that the battle between the two budding superstars.

”Dwayne made some incredible, incredible plays, as did LeBron,” Riley said. “From that standpoint, I think people got a view of absolute greatness, back and forth. The bigger the moment, both of them stepped up even bigger and bigger. Sometimes it’s beyond description, because I’ve seen both those guys do things I haven’t seen players do in a long, long time.”

Wade commented on the epic battle and threw some praise in James’ direction.

”It was great for the game,” Wade said. “It was two young guys really trying to will their team to victory. It just so happened it was me and LeBron. It was great. I had fun. I know he had fun. Our competitive nature came out. Nobody’s playing close as good as [James] individually in the NBA right now. He has willed his team into the playoffs, and hopefully he doesn’t run out of gas. Hopefully he continues to keep willing his ballclub — when we’re not playing him.”

So, for all of you pro round ball fans out there who were worried about the tradition, integrity and appearance of the NBA as we head further into the new millennium, I say the future looks pretty good from where I’m sitting.

If Wade and James and Anthony and Bosh are any indication of what lies ahead for the future of the NBA then I am satisfied. These young players seem to realize the importance of continuing the tradition of excellence the NBA has displayed for over a half century and the appropriate professional behavior that goes along with being and NBA player and role model.

Both of these young men have shown themselves to be, not only special players on the court, but quality people off the court as well -and hey – maybe we should all be more thankful for that than what they can do on the court – especially in this day and age.