Veteran ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst is not only one of the more respected hoops writers around the league, he’s also an Akron native who’s been covering LeBron James almost from the very beginning. In many ways, their careers have run parallel. Windhorst is a St. Vincent-St. Mary alum who started on the Cavs beat while LeBron was still a high school phenom and has been closely monitoring his trajectory ever since.
After “The Decision,” he took a job at ESPN following the Miami Heat full-time, then came back to Cleveland in 2014 upon LeBron’s prodigal return to the organization where it all started. Windhorst has since become a regular on the network’s hugely-popular NBA show, The Jump with Rachel Nichols, and we recently caught up with him to reminisce about his favorite moments covering LeBron over the years.
St. Vincent-St. Mary vs. Oak Hill Academy, 2003
Windhorst: I want to say it was around December 1 or 2, 2003, he played this nationally television game on ESPN, and this is the first time where a high school’s game had been done like this. Not ESPNU, not streaming. It was on ESPN, and Bill Walton flew in and called the game. They were promoting it on ESPN throughout the day, and he had a humongous f*cking game.
Not only did he have a great game and they won, and Oak Hill was ranked No. 1 at the time, but he had three or four highlight plays that could be easily packaged into a highlight package and shown over and over, and that’s important. I’m convinced he made tens of millions of dollars that night, because had he failed or had he had an average game or whatever, which is probably why a large part of the audience tuned it, his aura around him would have faded.
Instead it only got amped up, and it only got ESPN’s other national outlets to cover him more and only made him more desired by the shoe companies. I firmly believe he made tens of millions of dollars that night. That was a huge moment in his career.
LeBron’s NBA debut vs. the Kings, 2003
Windhorst: What I remember about that game specifically is they flew him in, he’d been in Sacramento for two days, there was this huge media circus. He had to give all these interviews. There was such a buildup to it.
Then the game in front of them had gone long. It was a double-header on ESPN to open the season, first night of the season. They didn’t start it. They held the game. He was all ready to go, and then he had to hold. I remember I was at the scorers table, and he was sitting three feet from me while we were holding. He’s a ball of nerves. Then he came out and had an absolutely breathtaking first quarter.
And again, it in a way created a series of highlights that could be repeated over and over and over. For him to deliver on those two stages only helped feed who he was, because we’ve seen many, many times where athletes are hyped, and then they let us down a little bit. Very rarely does somebody exceed the hype. He had a historically high amount of hype, and he exceeded it. Him exceeding the hype was amazing.
Game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Pistons
Windhorst: Probably the first “oh my god” moment in his career was Game 5 in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. He scored 29 of 30 points. I recently watched it again, and oh my god, was the basketball terrible. It was unbearable to watch, it was so bad. But boy, in the moment, it felt like he was levitating.
It was so hot that night. It was like May 31 or June 1. I don’t think that the Palace had its air conditioning fully engaged. I remember sitting courtside, sweating, just sitting there. It was so hot in that building. He ended up doing all this. Also, as the game got closer towards the end, and he felt the moment, because they ended up 3-2 and going home, and you felt it. You felt it on your skin in that moment.
He kept delivering and scoring and scoring and scoring, basically one on five. That was the first moment where you’re like “oh my god, this is what it’s all about,” because that’s an enduring performance. That was the first year without Ben Wallace, and basically, that’s what happened. The year before, they went to seven games, and they played in Detroit in Game 7, and I think the Cavs had 61 points. Wallace just patrolled the rim, and this time, they didn’t have Ben Wallace to back them up.
LeBron’s first return to Cleveland, 2010
Windhorst: I want to say it was December 2, 2010, which is when he came back to Cleveland for the first time and had that miraculous quarter. I think it was in second quarter or third quarter. He had this quarter where he broke Cavs fans’ hearts. He just hit everything in sight. I think he might have tied the arena scoring record for the quarter. One of the best quarters he ever played in the building, and obviously he played a lot of great ones.
Again, the air in the building felt heavy. I remember walking into the bowl, and I know this doesn’t make sense. I’m not one of these people that speaks in terms like this typically, but I just remember the air feeling heavy. I felt it was because of the emotion in the room. I keep saying that the hate had a heaviness, and I just remember that feeling.
He delivered this incredible performance under the circumstances again. Wasn’t like he scored 55, but under the circumstances, it was like he scored 55, and after that night, I think that the Heat won 26 of 27, and the Cavs lost 26 in a row. It broke the Cavs and their fans’ spirit completely and bolted the Heat forward. Normally, you wouldn’t say a December game has a lot of meaning, but that game ended up defining the season for both teams.”
Game 7, 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. the Celtics
Windhorst: May of 2008, Game 7 in Boston. He has an epic duel with Paul Pierce. It’s one of the great duels. For some reason, I never see this game mentioned, I almost just forgot it now. An epic duel with Paul Pierce. I think LeBron had 45, Pierce had 41.
That was the year that the Celtics won the title, and I think P.J. Brown hit a couple of shots that won the Celtics the game, believe it or not. They signed him as a buy-off guy, and LeBron sat in his locker after the game, and he was crying. Not weeping, but there were tears in his eyes.
That was the first time he was so hurt by a loss, because the first year they made the playoffs in 2006, made the second round, that was pretty good. The second year made the playoffs, went to the Finals, and were outclassed by the Spurs, 4-0. This was the first time he hadn’t exceeded his expectations, and it really hurt him.
He actually afterwards went to the podium, and he said the Cavs had to improve their roster, and it was kind of a call to arms. They did. They traded for Mo Williams, and they made another move, and they ended up winning 66 games the next year.
Game 2, 2009 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Magic
Windhorst: What I remember about that, there’s only one second on the clock, and when he shot the ball or when he released the ball, that the horn went off. I remember being in the arena, and if you look it up on YouTube, you can hear this. As the ball was in the air, the place was dead quiet. You could hear the horn go off clear as day, because the building was dead quiet. The horn goes off, the ball goes through.
They lost the series. It was pretty clear that night that they were probably going to lose the series, but I just remember that moment. His statistics in that series were just crazy. It was like, Jerry West type stuff. He was unbelievable, but just that moment hearing the horn go off because the arena was quiet, and then half a second later hearing that wall of sound. I actually was reminded of it this week with the Vikings where the whole stadium was tense and quiet, and then they unexpectedly won and the reaction was delirious.
Game 5, 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. the Celtics
Windhorst: In the playoffs in 2011 when he beat the Celtics. He lost to the Celtics a couple times in the playoffs — it was pretty much the impetus for him changing teams — and he had a great series against Boston that year. They won in five, and I think in Game 4 in Boston, he had a huge shot, like arguably one of the biggest shots of his career other than that shot against the Magic that basically puts the game out of reach, in front of the Celtics, under all kinds of duress.
They go down to Miami, and they win in five, and after they won, he fell to his knee on the court for a moment, because it was such an event for him to get over the Celtics. They’d only beaten him twice, but it still felt huge. He’d essentially left Cleveland because he couldn’t beat the Celtics. So it was that slaying the giant moment.
He went into the post-game conference and for the first time, really apologized to Cleveland. All of that stuff that people wanted him to say for months that he never said, he finally said it, and it was so late in the year that I think the reason you probably don’t remember it is that nobody saw it that way, but it absolutely was the first time he poured his heart out that way, saying basically again, you have to look it up, but he basically was like, this is why I had to leave.
Game 7, 2013 NBA Finals vs. the Spurs
Windhorst: In 2013, Game 7 against the Spurs, he’s playing the Spurs for the first time since the 2007 Finals, and in the 2007 Finals, the Spurs totally backed off of him and totally disrespected his jumper, and he was at like 35 percent in the series. The Spurs essentially tried the exact same thing. They’d obviously just won Game 6, and in Game 7, LeBron had a huge game. He had two jumpers in the last minute, and the biggest one happened with about 20 seconds left, 18 seconds left, something like that.
With one second on the shot clock, he hit a jumper that put them forward, which essentially clinched the game. Again, with the Spurs giving him that shot, he was able to win that game by hitting a clutch jumper, again, in Game 7 of the Finals. Just a massive moment in his career, and really, I can remember a few minutes later when we was holding both trophies, they gave him the Larry O’Brien trophy and he had the Bill Russell trophy for the Finals MVP. He’s kind of like, “what are you going to say to me now?” I agreed with him. He had ascended to the top.
Game 5, 2016 NBA Finals vs. the Warriors
Windhorst: Game 5. People in both cities will say it’s because Draymond wasn’t there, but he scores 40 points in Game 5 on the road in an elimination game. Nobody’s beating the Warriors in Oakland at that time. In my mind, he plays, I don’t know if you wrap this into one or this is two, but the three games that he played in 5, 6, and 7 are the greatest of his career. They’re down 3-1, he scores 40 points in Game 5, brings it back, makes them cancel their party.
Game 7, 2016 NBA Finals, chasedown block on Andre Iguodala
Windhorst: He has a great Game 6, and then Game 7, the defining moment in his career was the block shot on Iguodala, which is so satisfying for him, because even though he’s going to go down as one of the three or four greatest scorers of all time, he really doesn’t see himself as a scorer. He really doesn’t. For him to make a defensive play like that … also it just showed his incredible athleticism. It’s the play that very few people in NBA history could’ve made. He is very proud to call that his signature moment.
For him to pull that off, to be down 3-1 and come back and win, you can count championships if you want. If you’re going to count, the conversation is over. You’re going to say okay, it’s all about the actual total number. Okay, the other guys have more. Congratulations.
But I submit that him bringing that team back to win three in a row and winning that series, it’s, if not the greatest accomplishment in NBA history, one of the greatest. And again, it was against a team that won 70 games, whatever, 73 games, and lost once on their home floor or something like that. Breaking the long curse, the long drought, all that stuff adds to the legend of the moment.
I remember him pounding his fists on the court in emotion, and then standing up and doing the interview with Doris Burke and just saying “Cleveland, this is for you!” A lot of the stuff that he says, he always says that he’s always so polished. In this particular case, I think that that was just real, genuine emotion in the moment.