Sunday night at the Palestra I saw Chris Paul throw a perfectly placed alley-oop over the outstretched arms of Tyreke Evans and into the expectant hands of an in-stride and airborne Carmelo Anthony, who caught it and finished cleanly before getting a high-five from Lebron James.
This extraordinary sequence was, by my count, the seventh most interesting thing I witnessed at the “Battle of I-95” – a charity basketball game that drew a handful of the greatest athletes on the planet, plus Lou Williams (31 points), to the University of Pennsylvania last night. I was there too, obviously.
While there, the even more interesting things I saw were, in no particular order: Lebron James, milliseconds before the halftime buzzer sounded, reaching behind him to palm another alley-oop from Paul and, in one fluid motion, emphatically finish it one-handed; Team Philly, who had a combined zero All-Star berths and Olympic medals between them, defeat Team Baltimore, who had 15 and five, 131-122.
With a missed jumper teetering on the rim early in the final period, Lebron James leapt through traffic – I didn’t see where he jumped from, but I imagine it was around half-court – grab it, and dunk it to give Team Baltimore their first lead of the game, 99-98; Lala Vasquez, who was as pretty as I imagined her to be, Kate Fagan, who was prettier, and Colleen Dominguez, who was considerably less so; Lebron “King” James do the most Lebron James thing mathematically possible – strut self-importantly through a crowd of reporters and fans, wearing a Los Angeles “Kings” hat and ignoring people; and Chester’s Tyreke Evans effectively end the game with a devastating, ankle-breaking, crowd-titillating cross-over to layup that pushed the home lead to 12 with a minute remaining.
Here are the rest of the pertinent facts. Team Baltimore (also, and probably more accurately, known as Team Melo—the closest Lebron has ever been to Baltimore was when he sat next to Ray Lewis at the ESPYs) trotted out the ludicrous starting five of Chris Paul, Lebron, Carmelo Anthony, Gary Neal, and Josh Selby against Team Philly’s considerably less-ludicrous, but legitimately municipality-connected, Kyle Lowry, Tyreke Evans, Hakim “Skinny” Warrick, Lou Williams – who was serenaded with a chorus of “Lou”s when he was introduced – and Jason Thompson. Lebron lead all scorers with 43, Lowry scored 34, Melo and Lou both put in 31, and Tyreke Evans added 16. Hakim Warrick had 15 through three and reminded me of Kevin Garnett. Team Philly raced out to a large early lead—they were up 29-11 in the first period—eventually forfeited it when Lebron came to life, then reclaimed it when Team Baltimore wore down—they only had a three-man bench—and Lou Williams hit a quartet of threes in the fourth. Again, the final was 131-122.
The game was an exhibition, and so didn’t matter at all while revealing a great deal. Let me explain. Contrary to the common view, exhibition games are instructive: The outcome is meaningless, but the action on the court rarely is. Players play hard (“You’re out there, and yeah, you do get caught up in it,” Jason Thompson admitted to me after the game) and so there are lessons to be learned. For instance: Lebron James, when allowed to relax, have fun, and play basketball in a way that is maximally enjoyable to him, is not aggressive at all. He’s practically anti-aggressive—a paragon of placidity. He’s content to distribute, not to dominate games as much as manage them. He netted a single bucket in the first period Sunday before, almost grudgingly, turning on the jets when it ended with his team down a dozen. (Seriously, again? You’re leaving me this open again? Fine).
The King tallied 43 overall, 15 each in the second and third and 11 more in the fourth, to lead all scorers. He pretty much had no choice. While the matter of whether he’s more Jordan or Magic is debatable, what clearly isn’t up for debate is who he wantsto be. (Oh, and another thing about Lebron: you simply cannot take your eyes off of him. I mean this literally – it is beautiful to watch him move. Beautiful. It’s impossible to look at him and not be acutely aware that you’re watching the most physically talented human being on the planet. And because it’s equally impossible not to look at him, you spend the entire game in a weird state of very intense awe. The relationship between his athleticism and the athleticism of the average NBA player is, I think, roughly the relationship between my athleticism and the average NBA player’s. And it takes me ten minutes to run a mile. The fact that he gave the impression of placidity while scoring 43 and getting 23 rebounds says, I think, both a lot and not nearly enough.)
Melo on the other hand has the scorers’ head. There is no Magic/Jordan debate – he is Jordan (minus the greatness, obviously). He shot early, often, gleefully, and effectively on Sunday (Curiously, Melo excels in every basketball context but actual NBA games. Olympics, All-Star games, the NCAA Tournament – he’s great. In the NBA, as I’ve sort of controversially sketched out before, he’s mediocre. Go figure.). He was similarly aggressive in other aspects too. He bear-hugged – and as far as I could tell, not playfully – Hakim Warrick in the post on a late second period defensive set and hip-checked Mardy Collins, who he has a history with, before hitting a turnaround J in the first. While Lebron is The Guy who just wants to be one of the guys, Melo is pretty much the opposite. You get the impression Team Melo wasn’t just a name for him – it was a statement, probably more aspirational than descriptive, about the pecking order.
As for the third of the three, Chris Paul just didn’t do a whole lot. He scored six points on 3/12 shooting (and not in a sneaky-good Jason Kidd way) and was unexceptional. He looked both a little out of shape, which is understandable, and really tired, which, given that he played all 48 minutes, is also understandable. So we didn’t learn a lot about CP3.
And outstanding a night as it was, Chris Paul wasn’t the only disappointment. Kevin Durant didn’t show and Allen Iverson, who was rumored to be considering suiting up for Team Philly, didn’t either. (Though in the case of the latter, his spiritual successor in the city, Desean Jackson, came in at halftime to take in a quarter and a half.) And it was really, really hot.
These pre-game disappointments were more than offset though by what I got to do post-game: talk to Team Philly and look (gawk?) at Team Baltimore.
“With the lockout on, a lot of guys just wanted to come out here and see what they got,” said Philly center and Sacramento King Jason Thompson from the home locker room after the unlikely win. “And when it got close at the end, that’s when it got exciting not just for players, but for the fans as well.”
Thompson, who grew up in Mt. Laurel and lives on Delaware Avenue in the off-season, said the win was nice, but he was just happy to be here. “I’m not really from Philly, but close enough, just ten minutes away, so I was just happy the guys asked me to play.”
Fellow King Tyreke Evans also scored an invite.
“Melo brought a lot of guys out, and so it was a good game,” said the ’09-10 Rookie of the Year while he watched the Steelers beat the Colts on a flat screen in a room adjacent to the locker room. “With the lockout, we’re all just working hard and getting ready, cause you never know when [the season] is gonna start.”
The Team Baltimore/Melo locker room took longer to clear out than their counterparts’ (which was unfortunate because no media was allowed in it), but Chris Paul—who’s considerably shorter than I thought – eventually trickled out and signed a few hats followed by Lebron, who initialed some paper for two girls on the Penn women’s basketball team and big-timed everybody else. The team’s namesake never came out though. After a while, his wife went in after him. After another while, security let the young looking David Aldridge and old looking Colleen Dominguez in too and kicked everybody else out.
So that was that.
In the final analysis, which I performed while trying to find my poorly parked car, it was a pretty incredible night. The place was packed, the game was good, and the fans understood and appreciated it. Basketball, if only for a night, was alive again in Philly. And all it took was Lebron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyreke Evans to show up.
The game was streamed live on SI.com last night and today they have posted a highlight reel from the Battle of I-95.