So I’m sitting on the team plane, and I’m legitimately about to get emotional.
This isn’t even Game 7.
Listen, this isn’t even the NBA Finals.
This is Toronto.
This is still the Eastern Conference Finals.
I’m a 36-year-old grown-ass man, and I’m about to start crying on the plane coming back from Game 4.
That’s how bad I want it.
I want it so, so, so, so bad.
The series is 2–2, the plane is taking off, and my mind is spiraling out of control. I’m like, “We cannot lose in Cleveland. If we go back to Toronto down 3–2, it’s over. I can’t go through this again. I can’t get this close again and not hold that trophy in my arms. I literally cannot handle it.”
It meant so damn much to me. It’s funny, because to this day, people will be like, “Man, that Cavs run must have been so much fun.”
And I’ll tell them straight up, “Hell no it wasn’t fun.”
There wasn’t a single second of it that was fun. It was misery until the moment the buzzer went off in Game 7. Even after we took down Toronto and made it to the Finals, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was out of my mind.
I’m telling you, the gear you have to hit to win an NBA title is not human.
I did not believe for a single second that we were going to win.
Not when we were down 0–1.
Definitely not when we were down 0–2.
Definitely, definitely, definitely not when we were down 1–3.
We were dead. It was over.
It took me 13 years to make it back to the NBA Finals.
Thirteen years, seven teams, 916 games. Imagine that.
I don’t know if that’s impressive, or sad, or insane, or what it is. All I know is that I wasn’t the same person. When you survive in this league for as long as I did, people start looking at you like you’re some kind of monk or something. But I’ll be honest with you, when I came into the NBA, I was not one of those guys who you would’ve predicted was going to be around for 17 years.
If we won on Friday night? We’re going out.
If we lost on Friday night? We’re going out, but responsibly.
I was enjoying the life.
I basically felt like I was playing with house money. I was born in South Central L.A. in the early ’80s when things were pretty much at rock bottom. Sometimes people ask me, “Richard, what was it like in South Central back then? People only know the cliche.”
And I tell them, “Honestly? It was the cliche.”
I remember drive-bys and murders and drug dealers and all of that. Those were some of my first memories. My father had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol, which was a pretty common thing, if you know the history of the drugs that were being flooded into our community at that time. But I was extremely lucky, because I had a big extended family around me that protected me. And my mom, being the incredible woman that she is, knew that she had to get me and my two brothers out of that environment, at whatever cost.
She gave up her whole life for us.
One day — I’m not even exaggerating — it was like half our neighborhood got on a Greyhound bus and got out of South Central. All these families literally just packed up some bags with whatever they could carry and got on the bus to Phoenix. One-way ticket. That was it.
There wasn’t really even a reason for Phoenix. It was just a growing city. It was a place of opportunity.
My mom was doing everything she could to get us off welfare, trying to raise four boys all alone in a new city. But the awesome thing for me was that now I could play outside. All I could do in South Central was beat Super Mario Brothers for the 10,000th time. But in Phoenix, I could run around and do whatever and feel safe. That was almost mind-blowing to me, coming from South Central. So that’s how I discovered my love for basketball, by playing at Cave Creek Park every single day and night, basically just trying to be Sidney Deane from White Men Can’t Jump.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
I didn’t even really play any organized basketball until I was 15. And I never thought about playing in the NBA — I’m dead serious. The only thing I thought about was playing at the park and talking wild trash.
Even when I hit a growth spurt and I started playing high school ball, it was funny because my mom was so oblivious to everything. She was going to school and working and just trying to get us to a better place in life, so she had absolutely no concept of AAU or college ball or anything.
She came to one of my games during my junior year and my coach came up to her afterward and was like, “Hey, you know … Richard is like really good.”
And my mom was like, “Oh, that’s nice.”
And the coach was like, “No, I don’t think you understand. He’s like really good.”
And my sweet mom goes, “Yeah, he’s out there playing at the park every day!”
Finally, my coach was like, “No, ma’am, I really don’t think you understand. This could be a career.”
It was pretty amazing, because I was the first person in my family to go straight to college. Basketball did that for us. But there was no master plan, you know what I mean? Nowadays, these kids are so mature and so professional by the age of 17, it’s incredible. But when I arrived on campus at the University of Arizona, I was not like these young phenoms you see out here now.I was an idiot surrounded by idiots.
I was not media trained.
I was an idiot.
I was an idiot surrounded by idiots.
Remember, these were different times. I don’t mean that in the grumpy old NBA player way. I really mean it was different. The whole culture was different. This was 1999. The Internet had just come out. You had to walk to the computer lab if you wanted to go online.
You’d be walking across campus and a dude would be like, “Where you going?”
And you’d be like, “I’m going online.”
You went online back then. It was like, I’m going in.
Maui Jim Maui Invitational
Anyway, I’m just setting the scene for you. Because when I say that every single player on that Arizona Wildcats squad was an idiot, I want you to really understand what I’m saying. I don’t want you thinking about Instagram and Snapchat and all that. It’s easy to be an idiot now. You’re just a couple DMs away from being an idiot.
Back in 1999, it was hard work to be an idiot. You had to be really creative.
My roommate, Luke Walton. Great guy. Great, great guy. Back then? Idiot!
Michael Wright? Amazing person. Idiot!
Do you want a Gilbert Arenas story?
I got you.
The thing is, there’s so many Gilbert stories that I could hit you with. Like 97% of them I can’t really tell without having the HBO Parental Advisory warning pop up on the screen.
But I don’t just want to give you the cliche version of Gilbert. There’s a lot more to him than that.
He was an evil genius.
The infamous Family Weekend 2001. This is where Gilbert really shined.
Let’s set the scene.
It’s a beautiful afternoon in Tucson. You’ve got proud moms and dads and grandparents and dogs and children all over the campus. It’s a real wholesome afternoon.
There’s a bunch of us hanging out in our apartment, and at some point, I get hungry and I say I’m gonna go to the student union for some food.
Gilbert says, “I’ll drive you.”
And he’s got that mischievous grin. That mad-scientist grin. I should’ve known. I should’ve saved myself. But I let him drive me.
Now, remember, this was 2001. And in 2001, the big thing was to have the sound system with the ridiculous subwoofers, and the ridiculous rims, and of course you gotta have the portable DVD player in the dash.
Very unsafe. Very, very unsafe. But this was the MTV CRIBS era. So naturally Gilbert had the loudest sound system in the country, and he had like three portable DVD players hooked up to the dash. So we start cruising down East University Boulevard with all the windows down, and we’re killing it at this point. We’re in the midst of our Final Four season, and everybody on campus knows it’s Gilbert Arenas rolling by in his ridiculous car. Students, moms, grandmas — everybody knows.
He’s bumping The Chronic 2001 or whatever, and the bass is rattling the street. It’s rattling my whole face. And it’s sunny. And it’s Family Weekend. And we’re on top of the world, right?
So then out of nowhere, Gilbert is like, “Hold up. Lemme switch this up real quick. You’re gonna like this.”
And he reaches for the 100-strong CD sleeve. Remember those? He slides something into the DVD player, and this movie starts to play.
This movie starts to play ridiculously loud, with full bass, over his ridiculous stereo system.
It was … how do I say this?
Let’s just say this movie was … adult in nature.
It was very adult. It was NSFW. It was WTF.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Man, it felt like the entire University of Arizona campus turned toward the car. It was louder than whatever you’re imagining. It was stupid, dumb loud. It was 2001 loud.
I was so embarrassed that I fully reclined the passenger seat and curled up into the fetal position.
But Gilbert had an enormous smile on his face. He was waving to everyone. Grandpas, children, professors. He was waving like a presidential candidate.
He was so proud.
He was a true evil genius.
You know what’s crazy? He was a good guy. Everybody on that team was a good guy. I don’t know if it was just the era, or the fact that the Internet was still pretty new, or what it was — but we were kids, man.
We weren’t ready for the league. We weren’t prepared for the money and the lifestyle and the pressure. We were a bunch of damn idiots. Maybe now you believe me.
Honestly. I was totally unprepared to make it through the grind of one NBA season, let alone 17. Even when David Stern walked up to that podium and called my name at the NBA Draft, I remember I had my eyes closed, and my first thought was, “Well, I guess I’m going to be in the NBA.”
You think it’s gonna be what’s it’s always been — that it’s just basketball. But it’s not just basketball. You have no idea all the things that are going to come at you. That’s not just a basketball thing — that’s life. But I just happened to live through one of the most surreal, heartbreaking rookie seasons ever.
Everybody can remember where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was at an elementary school, of all places. It’s so weird in retrospect, because I actually happened to be doing the exact same thing that President Bush was doing that morning. Me and a few other Nets players had just finished reading to a whole class of second graders. When we got out to the car to head back to the practice facility, we heard the news come over the radio.
“Plane hits World Trade Center.”
It was really vague at first.
And it’s one of those things where you go, Oh my God, that’s terrible. Must’ve been one of those Cessnas or something.
Couple minutes passed, and then we heard …
“Reports now of a second plane hitting the towers.”
Hearing the news was one thing … but really seeing it was another thing.
Anyone who was in New York City or New Jersey on 9/11 remembers the feeling of looking up — or looking across the river at the skyline — and seeing the smoke. It didn’t seem like real life. It still doesn’t seem like real life. When we got back to the practice facility, there was still so much confusion about what was going on that the coaches had us do our workout.
Jeff Zelevansky/Icon Sportswire
They didn’t know what else to do.
We were inside the gym when the towers fell.
Everything after that is kind of a blur.
But I’ll never forget trying to get back home, and seeing all the cars on the highway heading to Manhattan just totally abandoned on the side of the road. They had shut the whole city down. I mean, New York. Shut down. Something about that still gives me chills.
If you weren’t in New York or New Jersey during that time, it’s impossible explain the emotions of what it was like. Before our first home game that October, they brought out a bunch of the firefighters and police and first responders who lived in New Jersey, and there was a minute of silence, and it was one of the most overwhelming moments of my life.
When it was over, it was like, We’re really going to play basketball?
But that’s what the city needed. Even in the moment, I didn’t totally understand it. But now I get it. Between us making our run and the Yankees making their run, everybody in New York and New Jersey had something to take their minds off things for a few hours every night. I know that sounds like a cliche, but having lived through that time, I really believe that sports can be a powerful escape.
I lived it.
I’m still living it. It still helps me.
A few weeks ago, I’m out to dinner in Los Angeles, and I’m standing around afterward waiting for my car, and this other guy is standing there waiting for his car, and he looks really familiar. The guy turns around, and I realize it’s Pete Davidson from Saturday Night Live.
So just instinctively, I’m like, “Oh hey, man, I’m a big fan. I love what you do.”
I didn’t even know if he’d recognize me or anything. I was just genuinely a fan of him. But then he’s like, “Oh, damn, Richard Jefferson! I’m a big fan of yours, too, man. You and Kerry Kittles came to talk to me when I was a kid. You remember that?”
I’m looking at him, like, No way.
I knew that Pete’s father was firefighter who died on 9/11, and I vividly remember visiting kids who had lost family members in the attacks, but I had no idea that Pete was one of the kids.
I had chills.
He was like, “Man, that was really cool that you guys did that. You probably don’t know how much that meant. I loved those Nets teams.”
Manny Millan/SI/Icon Sportswire
We talked for a little bit, and then our cars came, and that was it. But it was just a really cool moment, because I was going through some really hard times myself. My father had been killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles the week prior, and obviously I knew that Pete was going through a public breakup. But in that random moment, we were just two guys reminiscing about basketball for a minute.
It still crushes me that we didn’t deliver New Jersey that title in the wake of 9/11.
I swear the early 2000s Nets have been almost lost to history. People don’t remember how raw and aggressive we were. If you really go back and watch us, we were one of the last true run-and-dunk teams. Nobody could shoot. But we could play D, and we could get to the rim, and we could fight.
Dudes now don’t really wanna fight. I mean, I love you, Draymond. You’re my brother. But I would say it to your face — you don’t really wanna fight.
Kenyon Martin, though? He was ready.
He wasn’t about to be held back by a 190-pound shooting guard, you know what I mean? He was born ready. I know, because I fought him right in the Nets locker room. That’s just how it was! My rookie year, we were losing to Detroit or someone, just getting our asses kicked, and the problem with me is that I never shut up.
So I’m bitching, complaining.
And Kenyon is sitting there at his locker, not saying s***, just looking at me like, Really, my guy?
So I said something to him.
Then he said something to me, or he probably just stood up, and Aaron Williams saw that Kenyon was about to kill me, so he ran up on Kenyon and tried to grab him from behind …
… and I swear it was like one of those classic WWE situations.
I go to hit Kenyon with the haymaker, and he ducks and I end up hitting Aaron in the face. Straight in the nose. He goes down like Bobby the Brain Heenan. He’s bleeding. Now Kenyon’s swinging on me, and it’s pandemonium.
We had like a fight fight.
And what’s crazy is, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even a story. Nobody leaked anything. Nobody said s***. Nowadays, it would be a whole thing.
Kent Horner/NBAE/Getty Images
But this is the real 100% truth: Winning teams fight. Maybe it’s not the superstars. But it’s definitely somebody. Every winning team I’ve ever been on has had one or two brawls just to clear the air.
From the night we threw down, Kenyon was my brother. It was just different after that. We had each other’s respect, and we didn’t hold back at all, because he knew I wanted to win, and I knew he wanted to win.That’s all this league is. Win or f***ing die.
That’s all this league is. Win or f***ing die.
One thing I can say from being in the league 17 years is that the average person truly has no idea how insanely competitive you have to be to get to an NBA Finals. Whatever image you have in your head of what it’s like, you still don’t get it. It’s an inhuman competitiveness that you have to channel to get to the Finals. And to win it? It’s honestly sick. It takes you past the breaking point of what’s healthy — mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
When we went to that first Finals in 2002 and we lost to the Lakers, I was broken.
Then we got back to the Finals in 2003 and we lost to the Spurs, and I was beyond broken.
But I was thinking, Hey, I’ll get back next year. This is gonna happen again.
And I didn’t get the chance for another 13 years.
I didn’t get that chance until I got to Cleveland.
Mel Evans/AP Images
Of all places for a last ride … Cleveland.
People say, “Oh Richard, you were ring chasing.”
And I say, “Hell yes I was ring chasing.”
I played all this basketball, and I put in all this work, and I had all these crazy memories, but I didn’t have the most important thing in the world, man.
I didn’t have that ring.
So that’s why, when I was on that plane coming back from Toronto after Game 4, I was absolutely losing my s***.
We survived that series, and our reward was to play one of the most stacked teams in NBA history.
But looking back on it, I really feel lucky, because I feel like 100 years from now, people will still be talking about the 2016 Finals.100 years from now, people will still be talking about the 2016 Finals.
No matter what basketball evolves to.
No matter what happens to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No matter what happens to the state of Ohio.
No matter if the Warriors wins four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 more titles. (Sorry, Draymond!)
One thing will never change.
You can never take away 1–3.
We were dead. My story was over. Sad ending. Everybody go home. It was a good run.
Then, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James happened.
Greg Nelson/SI/Getty Images
Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James.
Forty-one and 41. On the road.
On. The. Road.
We go back to Cleveland for Game 6, and Lebron goes for 41 again?
Inhuman. Dumb. Nonsense.
Game 7. Back in the Bay. Are you kidding me?
Listen, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m retired now, so who cares? I was in the locker room at halftime of Game 7, sitting there just staring at the floor, thinking about the gravity of the moment, and I genuinely had to stop myself from crying right there in the damn locker room.
I wanted it more than words can express.
I know that I’m biased as hell, but for me, that 4th quarter had three of the greatest plays in NBA Finals history.
I was sitting five feet from the hoop when LeBron blocked Iggy. I have played thousands of games of basketball in my life, and I have never seen anything close to that on a court. It’s impossible. I saw the fast-break developing in real time, and I said, “They’re gone. F***. We’re down.”
I’m watching Iggy go up for the layup, and then I just see this black blur. It was like Superman swooping down in the movies. I’m dead serious. It was just a blur. I’ve seen crazy things on an NBA court. All kinds of freakish athleticism. But I’ve never seen anything like that. Lebron broke the laws of physics.
I was actually on the floor for Kyrie’s dagger three-pointer with a minute left, and that was one of the only times in my career that I felt like I was a fan watching on TV.
I’m standing in the corner, and I see him do the quick hesi, and I’m like,
… He’s gonna …
… wait, is he gonna?
… Oh f*** he’s really gonna.
… Oh f*** that went in!!!!!!!
That was one of the gutsiest shots I’ve ever seen, on that stage, in that moment.
And then you have Kevin Love.
Kevin Love, man.
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Kevin Love, one-on-one in space with Steph Curry, with the NBA Finals on the line. With the weight of history on his shoulders.
What he did will never get enough credit. Kevin stops Steph not just once, but twice, and forces an impossible shot.
For me, that play is the essence of basketball. Forget everything that came before that moment. The whole game. The whole series. The whole season. The whole 50-plus years that Cleveland was waiting for their title.
All that matters is that 10 seconds.
Steph was trying to get open like his life was on the line.
And Kevin was playing defense like his life was on the line.
(I asked Kevin about that moment afterward, and he says he blacked out.)
When the buzzer went off, and we were champions, I just sat there and started sobbing. I couldn’t even move. It was just too much.
My wife still teases me about it. She’s like, “I don’t understand. You didn’t even cry like that at our wedding! You didn’t cry like that when our kids were born!”
And I tell her the truth.
Any idiot can get married. Any idiot can be a father. An NBA title? That’s work. That’s worth crying over.
You know what’s sick? Even after all that, it genuinely pisses me off that we didn’t repeat as champions. I should have two rings.
( F***ing Kevin Durant, man!!!)
Still, it was a hell of a run.
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
In 17 years in this league, I made a lot of memories. I made a lot of great friends. I drank a lot of great beers. And I can honestly say that I grew from an immature kid into a semi-functioning adult with a family and a sense of peace.
That all means a lot.
But there’s one thing that means the most to me, and honestly I think there’s only a handful of guys in the history of the NBA who have experienced this specific feeling.
From time to time, someone will come up to me on the street, or in an airport, and they won’t ask for a selfie. They won’t ask for an autograph. They won’t even want to talk basketball.
They’ll just come up and shake my hand and say, “Thank you. Thank you guys for what you did for us.”
Just thank you.
And I know exactly where they’re from, and I know exactly what they mean.
I helped bring a championship to the city of Cleveland. A lot of guys got rings — but how many guys can say that?
So, yeah, maybe we only got one. But we got THE one.
Some titles……. they just mean more than other titles. That’s just the truth. I know it. You know it. Golden State knows it.
And Cleveland definitely knows it.
Some titles mean the world.
So let me just say, before I hit the road ….
Thank you, Ohio.