You know who had a really crazy summer? Andrew Wiggins. Of all the basketball players I’ve watched over the past few months, Wiggins surprised me the most. I can imagine how he was feeling. From the excitement of being the No. 1 draft pick to the uncertainty of where he was headed, he was poised and impressive.
I know what it’s like to have your heart jump every time your phone buzzes. I know what it’s like to talk to your agent multiple times a day. I know what it’s like to read about your future from “sources” on Twitter.
I was on the other side of it. It was exhausting.
I spent most of my summer either working out or trying to escape the craziness through Netflix binge watching. I tore through more than 40 of the IMDB Top 250. That’s not even counting the TV marathons. I did every single episode of Seinfeld (holds up), Curb Your Enthusiasm (the best), Mad Menand Game of Thrones (twice). I can win any argument with you about why GOT is the best show currently on TV.
Things were especially tough because for a month before the trade was finalized, Wiggins and I were caught in NBA purgatory. Is this happening, is this not happening? With everything up in the air, I felt like I couldn’t say a proper goodbye to Minnesota. And once the trade finally went through, everything happened quickly.
So I’d like to take a moment to thank the fans of Minnesota for six great years. I still remember sitting in Madison Square Garden when I was first drafted in 2008, thinking that if I could go anywhere it would be to the Timberwolves to work with one of my childhood idols, Kevin McHale. There are so many people in Minnesota who helped to shape my game and mold me into the player I am today. I’ll always be fond of going to Manny’s Steakhouse, and the support I got from the entire Minnesota community — even in tough times — is something I’ll remember forever. (Seriously, thanks for not burning my jersey, you guys.)
I grew up a lot – personally and professionally – during my time with the Wolves. I’ll be the first to tell you that I didn’t always handle things perfectly. We are all unfinished products. It’s not easy to handle the disappointment of losing when you’re in your early twenties. There were times when I wasn’t easy to be around in the locker room. It’s hard to be a leader when you don’t have the model — and when you don’t have a blueprint for what winning in the NBA looks like.
But I make no excuses. I posted my best personal numbers last season, and we still didn’t make the playoffs. Some of the backlash was pretty hard to take — I learned that there is apparently such a thing as an “empty stat” (I’ll try to remember the importance of that the next time I am boxing out for a rebound against Tim Duncan).
In the end, I was given the opportunity to move on, and I took it. My decision was about wanting to win. When I think back to being a kid shooting on an eight-foot hoop in my Shawn Kemp jersey, I never dreamed about putting up a triple-double or signing a max contract. I dreamed about holding up a championship trophy. In order to get to that place, I knew that I needed to move on.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wondering what to expect when I got on our team plane to Rio De Janeiro last week. We were headed down to Brazil for a preseason tour, and it was the first time all my new teammates on the Cavaliers got to be together without all the cameras that descend on training camp.
I was walking down the aisles of the plane, seeing NBA champions all around — Shawn Marion, James Jones, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood, LeBron James. I was seeing all the international guys like Anderson Varejão from Brazil and Matthew Dellavedova from Australia.
As I moved to my seat, guys were making inside jokes with one another and shouting across the plane. The atmosphere was totally different than what I was used to. And at that moment, a familiar feeling came over me that anybody can relate to when he’s getting his bearings:
It felt like the first day of school.
So I did what I should’ve done on my own first day of school. I went and sat down next to the smartest kid in class, James Jones. He’s a guy who has played in 100-plus playoff games and has done the gritty, thankless jobs that don’t make SportsCenter. Just as we started talking, Mike Miller posted up in the seat behind us. He’s a guy who I think shot 44 percent from three to help the Heat win the 2013 title, and did it like it was no big deal. He even hit a huge three in the Finals without his left shoe.
Having the opportunity to talk basketball with teammates who’ve won four NBA titles among them is invaluable. James and Mike talked about the sacrifice needed to win in the playoffs, not just about sacrificing shot attempts or stats, but the stuff off the court that you might not think about, including having to shut out your friends and family at times. I thought about myself at 21, 22 years old. Hearing these guys talk about what it takes, I realized that maybe I wasn’t totally in the mindset for that level of sacrifice back then.
Once we got in the air, I expected guys to throw on the Beats and pull out iPads. That’s what I was used to. This was a 12-hour flight, and I was counting on at least seven hours of shuteye. That never happened. Drinks were poured. Guys took turns telling stories. After a whirlwind summer, it was the first real chance to let our guard down without being judged in the public eye. And the really special thing, the thing that can be rare in the NBA, was that everybody was included. Where you came from, where you went to school, what kind of neighborhood you were from — none of that mattered on this flight.
LeBron had a clear message to make. We all read the headlines. We all know what we’re going to be capable of offensively, especially in transition with the athletes we have. But we’re also very aware that we don’t have a true rim protector on the defensive end. His message was pretty clear — we’ll live and die as a unit.
“We need to work until we get to a point on defense where we can close our eyes and know where the guy behind us is going to be,” LeBron said. “You have to be able to look at the man next to you as your brother; trust that he’s going to do his job. We have to become a family.”
Everything on the plane to Rio was natural, and I felt like I could be a part of something special. It was a culture that I’m not accustomed to. After I was traded this summer, I kept hearing about how our challenge was going to be figuring out how to share the ball among LeBron, Kyrie and myself. Reporters kept asking me how I felt about it:
Are you the second wheel? Are you the third wheel? What about your stats?
To them I say: I don’t care. I’ve never played in a playoff game. I came to Cleveland because I want to win. I’ll grab a broom and sweep the floors if it gets me an NBA title.