When an individual puts their heart, sweat and soul into something for an extended period of time, it can be extremely hard letting go. On the other hand, being stuck in a position where you’re not progressing, may make a task less novel to you and consequently push you to abandon what you have invested so much of your time and energy into and try something new.
After a long tenure with one specific team, usually from Draft Day, NBA players inevitably come to that road where two paths diverge and they have to decide to either remain with their current team until retirement (i.e. John Stockton, Reggie Miller) or carve out a new path with a different team. However, the moment that player who has taken a new path and joins another organization returns to play a game against his original employer, that game takes on a whole new meaning.
With the much anticipated return of LeBron James to Cleveland only a day away, I thought it would only be fitting to look at 10 legendary players from the past 20 years who have had memorable homecomings â€“ for better or for worse â€“ to their original teams.
January 19, 2002 â€“ Washington 77, Chicago 69
It was three and a half years since MJ donned the red and white, but on January 19, 2002, a tearful Jordan finally had the opportunity to play against the team that has a statue of his likeness outside its arena. In one of his poorest performances to date, Air Jordan tallied 16 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and a career-high nine turnovers on 33.3 percent shooting, while the Bulls as a team faired even worse shooting a dismal 24.7 percent from the field in a game that was painful to watch. I’m guessing Jordan wished he would have kept his vow to never to play for a coach other than Phil Jackson.
November 21, 2008 â€“ Boston 95, Minnesota 78
After missing his first rematch at Target Center with an abdominal injury, the former Teen Wolf returned to his old stomping grounds on a new team, with some new hardware. He played with his trademark intensity, putting up 17 points and four rebounds on 66.7 percent shooting from the field in just 29 minutes. As the Celtics cruised to an easy victory against a struggling team, sporting starters such as Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Jason Collins, one couldn’t help but wonder if the gaping void that was left in the organization with KG’s departure will ever be replaced, the only real star the franchise ever had.
February 27, 2001 â€“ Seattle 92, Knicks 101
After 15 ring-less seasons with the Knicks, most of which were memorable, he returned to MSG for the first time as a visitor. The 38-year-old, who was in the twilight of his career at that point, was greeted with a long-standing ovation and put up 12 points, five rebounds and one block in a Knicks victory.
March 5, 2002 – Toronto 109, Houston 112
In a game overshadowed by Vince Carter‘s 43 points and Steve Francis‘ 35 points, one could not help but feel goosebumps when Olajuwon was given the classic “Hake-e-eem the Dre-e-eam” introduction to a long standing ovation at the start of the game. He was able to muster seven points, two assists and seven rebounds in 25 minutes – the worst statistical season of his 17-year career, which can be expected from a 39-year-old.
January 2, 2004 â€“ Los Angeles 109, Seattle 111
In a last ditch effort at a championship ring, Payton and Karl Malone joined forces with Shaq and Kobe in L.A. in hopes of attaining the one thing that eluded them both up to that point. In a stellar 24-point (season high), five-assist, five-rebound performance, it was all for naught for The Glove as Ray Allen hit a layup with 5.8 seconds left to steal his thunder and the game. Even Sonics chairman Howard Schultz, who feuded with Payton the previous season, stood to applaud for him.
March 19, 2008 â€“ Denver 113, Philadelphia 111
From the moment A.I. entered before the roaring, sell-out crowd at the Wachovia Center and bent down to kiss the 76ers logo, you knew it was going to be a special night. Everything was going his way that night as he went off for 32 points, eight assists and three steals in a game that had playoff intensity and came down to the wire. Though the Answer failed to nail a 20-footer in the final seconds to tie it up, he left his mark on the city and our hearts.
April 15, 2005 â€“ New Jersey 101, Toronto 90
It’s hard to imagine a player once so beloved in Toronto fall out of favor so quickly, but somehow Air Canada managed to do just that. Demanding a trade halfway into a six-year, $94 million contract and admitting that he didn’t always try his best were more than enough reasons for Raptor fans to boo him every time he touched the ball and even heckle him during the national anthem. Good thing the ACC hired extra security around the Nets’ bench to avoid “Brawl at the Palace Part Deux.” Somehow all the jeers seemed to motivate Vinsanity as he put up 39 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals as the Nets rode him to victory.
March 28 1993 â€“ Phoenix 110, Philadelphia 100
As pretty much the only hot ticket in Philadelphia’s schedule that year, Barkley would not disappoint his fans, who seemed to outnumber those of the Sixers. The Round Mound, who demanded a trade the previous year, was greeted with a long ovation at the introductions upon which he treated fans to 37 points and seven rebounds on 59.1 percent shooting from the field. Did I mention he won MVP that year?
January 3, 2000 â€“ Portland 88, Chicago 63
Coming from a championship team with the likes of Jordan, Harper and Kerr to a Trail Blazers or should I say “Jail Blazers” team riddled with misfits named ‘Sheed, Stoudamire and Wells is an obvious downgrade. Nevertheless, Pippen held his own with a modest 11 points, three rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block in 26 minutes in his first game as a visitor at the United Center against a then depleted Bulls team.
February 22, 1998 â€“ Orlando 96, Los Angeles 94
Shaq left Orlando on bitter terms with the organization after not being compensated adequately. In his first trip back to Orlando after signing with the Lakers after the 1995-96 season, Shaq produced 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks but was outshined that night by Nick Anderson who went off for 30 points – including the game-winning three-pointer. To add insult to injury, Anderson mocked Shaq’s celebratory dance after his big shot.
December 25, 2004 â€“ Miami 104, Los Angeles 102
In the Christmas Day matchup, O’Neal was introduced with a video tribute and a standing ovation in the first of many battles between Shaq and Kobe after having won three championships together in L.A. Kobe went off for 42 points, but O’Neal put up 24 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks (before fouling out) had the last laugh, as his Heat escaped with a victory.
*Scottie Pippen was drafted by Seattle in 1987, and then immediately traded to Chicago for Olden Polynice on Draft Day.
**I included Shaq’s return to Orlando and Los Angeles on this list because they were both very memorable games.
Note: Karl Malone didn’t get a chance to play in Utah after signing with the Lakers due to a sprained knee that kept him sidelined on January 24, 2004. The Mailman only missed 11 games his whole career (18+ seasons) prior to his initial injury that year.
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