Roughly two years ago, David messaged me on GChat with a link simply saying, “You should write about this.” The link was to the 2003 Christmas Day contest between the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers.
What stands out the most obviously was on the surface it was a matchup between a then-18-year-old LeBron James and still-very-much-in-his-prime Tracy McGrady. Aside from that, both the Cavs and Magic weren’t very good as both came into the game a combined 16-41, with Orlando starting the season 1-19.
But with the NBA’s stock based largely on the attractiveness of its individual superstars under the thumb of David Stern, covering the game was a bit of a no brainer in retrospect. In December 2003, the infatuation with LeBron was still in its “new car smell” phase. T-Mac, on the other hand, was neck deep in his Orlando stint largely defined by robust stat lines and minimal team success. The Grant Hill/McGrady pipe dream never resulted in the Eastern Conference domination many pegged it would thanks in part to a wicked string of injuries to Hill that ultimately derailed what was spawning into an all-time great career. Meanwhile, with Hill sidelined, the caliber of teammates surrounding Mac during his Magic days never confused anyone for “championship caliber.”
Yet, the league struck gold on December 25, 2003, with McGrady vs. James (a matchup which had been in the making since LeBron scouted T-Mac from his court side seat during Game 1 of the Magic’s infamous first-round series versus Detroit earlier that spring). In fact, it was the ideal appetizer for the following game – Rockets vs. Lakers at 5:30.
As a senior in high school at the time, I was constantly involved in heated debates with my high school’s assistant basketball coach, Coach Hill (not Grant), over the legitimacy of LeBron’s actual talent. The previous season – when LeBron was a senior year at St. Vincent St. Mary and Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were becoming living legends on the collegiate circuit – Coach Hill had no issue reminding me in the hallways between classes or at lunch, “He’s just not that good. I’d take Melo or Wade ahead of him any day. Hell, he’s just another high school player everyone’s hyping up. You sold on Kwame Brown yet? Give me Jason Gardner over him with the No. 1 pick.”
I haven’t seen Coach Hill in roughly four or five years to witness if he’s adopting a different tune, but this Christmas Day game in particular provided us weeks worth of back-and-forth material. Orlando won 113-101 in overtime* in what proved to be the marquee game of the day. Tracy edged LeBron in the individual matchup as well posting 41 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and three steals on 51.7% shooting.
Again, keep in mind, this was during the prime of T-Mac’s scoring prowess and he’d later capture the scoring title that same season. It’d also prove to be his last in a Magic uniform as Orlando shipped McGrady to Houston for Steve Francis and landed the top overall pick in the 2004 draft which would bring them their own “fresh-out-of-high-school” prodigy in Dwight Howard.
LeBron, on the contrary, was already accustomed to the hazing process that came with receiving every star’s best punch. James more than held his own versus T-Mac by posting 34 points, six assists and two steals. His understanding of the game was preposterous, especially considering he had just attended senior prom only seven or eight months earlier. And his talent was beyond evident with Bill Walton fawning over nearly his every leap, cut and sprint. Sobriety only hit upon realizing ‘Bron was still years away from grasping the true lethalness of his Swiss Army Knife repertoire of skills – he’s still learning 10 years later – and his eight turnovers and fair-weather jumper were examples of such.
But if his grand unveiling only weeks earlier in Sacramento didn’t, Christmas 2003 solidified the learning curve for LeBron was vastly different than anyone who had come before him and, in hindsight, after him – the same learning curve making it impossible for current day studs a la Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to blossom into their own due to pop culture’s obsession of heaving comparisons on them they never once requested. LeBron was, and still is, a one-of-one.
James and McGrady would meet several more times throughout their careers with LBJ taking the head-to-head tally 10-8. The final and most recent being on a stage where McGrady had no impact on the series whatsoever, the 2013 Finals. Having said that, Christmas Day 2003 did showcase a long-since forgotten shootout in the annals of NBA history. It even forced Coach Hill to acknlowedge LeBron “balled out,” but he still wasn’t sold he was the type of guy who had the “it” factor.
Progress has always been a tedious and frustrating process.
Nevertheless, meet back here Christmas Day 2014 to revisit Shaq and Kobe’s first dance as opponents on Christmas Day 2004. Let’s just say there may have been a tad bit of animosity in Staples Center that day.
* – Ironically, it was LeBron’s future teammate, Juwan Howard, who put the game away in OT.