The last time NBA All-Star Weekend was in Cleveland, an 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant won the Slam Dunk Contest. To secure the title, he defeated Michael Finley, Ray Allen, Bobby Sura, and Chris Carr. Seated courtside among the 1997 All-Stars who witnessed the high-flying bravado from young Kobe that night was Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Terrell Brandon.
Twenty-five years later — as his adopted hometown prepares to host All-Star Weekend once again — Brandon recalls the athletic display of brilliance from Bryant that culminated in a between-the-legs windmill dunk to win it. But more than the swagger and above-the-rim heroics from the budding superstar, it was a conversation that Terrell had with Kobe before the contest began that he treasures the most.
“I was so tired when I got to the Dunk Contest,” Brandon said while thinking back on the last All-Star weekend in Cleveland. “When you’re the All-Star host, you have a lot of commitments. There are a lot of interview requests, a lot of places that are pulling at you. Sponsors have events, Nike needs you to make appearances, this and that, there’s a lot of places you have to be. It was fun, but it was also exhausting.”
Terrell earned a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the second-straight season in 1997. As Cleveland’s only participant in Sunday’s game, Brandon’s SkyPager was buzzing throughout the weekend. He hosted a party on Friday for the All-Stars a few blocks away from what is now known as Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Gary Payton, Penny Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and others came through. NFL stars like Ed “Too Tall” Jones made an appearance and other celebrities like boxing great Pernell Whitaker.
While the All-Star festivities were underway, Sports Illustrated published their latest magazine issue with Terrell on the cover. The headline declared Brandon as “The Best Point Guard in the NBA.” On Saturday, he was up early to tape an episode of NBA Inside Stuff with Ahmad Rashad. Media obligations and sponsorship events filled the rest of his time from there. His chance meeting and conversation with young Kobe almost didn’t happen.
“Saturday morning, I was with the great Ahmad Rashad on NBA Inside Stuff,” Brandon said. “We filmed the segment crazy early in the morning. After that, there were so many commitments throughout the day. I was so tired when the Dunk Contest came around. But my homeboys from Portland were like, hey man; we didn’t fly out here to be in the house – let’s go.”
Brandon and his friends arrived just in time for the highly-anticipated contest featuring the Los Angeles Lakers rookie. He took a seat alongside the other NBA All-Stars behind the bench. Gassed and thirsty, Brandon decided to grab a water bottle from the Cavs locker room. While walking through the tunnel, he bumped into Kobe, who was in uniform, moments away from participating in NBA All-Star weekend for the first time.
“I went into the back to get a bottle of water right before the dunk contest started,” Brandon explained. “Kobe was walking in the tunnel, and he happened to be walking my way. I didn’t know Kobe personally at this time, and he was very young. So I walked over to introduce myself to him.
“As I introduced myself, I said, ‘Hey, what’s up, man. I’m Terrell.’
“Kobe replied, ‘What? You think I don’t know you?’”
“My bad, man,” Terrell said with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure if you did?”
Kobe shook his head to suggest, of course, he knew Terrell. Then he added, ‘Man, let me ask you a couple of questions real quick.’
The conversation continued as follows:
Bryant: “How do you come out of the University of Oregon averaging 27 points a game, and you’re only 5-11?”
Brandon says he was surprised Kobe knew his college stats. He smiled and answered the question.
Brandon: “Well, I’m a Pac 10 point guard. We play hard where I’m from, and we play with an edge. We don’t back down from anybody on the west coast. That’s the mentality I play with on the court. What’s your second question?”
Kobe nodded. Then he asked his second question.
Bryant: “What do you think about my game. How can I get better?”
Terrell remembers feeling like Kobe was asking a genuine question that someone would only ask in a situation like that if they truly wanted to be great. He offered the rookie the perspective of an NBA veteran in response.
Brandon: “I don’t know about your eating habits, but stay away from fast food. And get on the weights. The weight room is going to help you as you get older. You’re going to get more mature, and you’re going to gain weight naturally. But get on the weights in the meantime. Get in the weight room and get stronger.”
Bryant: “Man, I appreciate that.”
Brandon would sit behind Kobe and talk with him throughout the Dunk Contest. But for the moment, in the hallway outside the Cavs locker room, they went their separate ways. Terrell walked in to grab a bottle of water, and he assumed Kobe made his way out onto the court. That’s why it seemed odd when Brandon and the Cavaliers trainer, who was also in the locker room, started to hear a loud banging noise nearby.
“We were the only people in the locker room, and we heard a thud, thud, thud, like that,” Brandon said. “We thought something was going on in the ceiling or with the ventilation system. But then, when I walked out of the locker room, the noise got louder. It sounded like it was coming from the weight room. So I opened the door to the weight room, and Kobe was in there lifting weights – five minutes after I told him to start making weights part of his workout regimen.”
“That was some great advice, TB!” Kobe shouted as he curled a pair of dumbells in his Lakers uniform. “I thought I’d get started with these weights right away.”
“Hey, man,” Brandon replied with a laugh. “There’s a lot of people out there waiting on you. I didn’t mean you should start lifting weights right now.”
A couple of hours later, Kobe won the dunk contest. To celebrate the high-flying finish that sealed his victory, the young rookie who’d eventually achieve potential GOAT status stood on the baseline and flexed.
Brendan Bowers is a New York-Times Best Selling Author of the book “Cleveland Is King.” His new book “Point Gods of the 1990s” will be released later this year.