My favorite NBA stories of 2012
To mark the passing of another eventful year of championships, triumphs and memorable moments, SI.com's writers are remembering the stories they connected to most across the sports landscape in 2012.
1. LeBron James wins Game 6 at Boston. I happened to attend Michael Jordan's 63-point game at the old Boston Garden in 1986, and those memories were brought to life by LeBron's outrageous performance at the newer building next door. The Heat were trailing 3-2 in the Eastern finals amid the dominating play of Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo when James silenced fans in Boston with 45 points and 15 rebounds. Miami's 98-79 victory on the homecourt of the rival Celtics redefined James as a leader and big-game star. "He was locked in like I've never seen him before,'' said Dwyane Wade of his teammate. "The shots he was making was unbelievable.''
The motivation had been building from months and years of booings and catcalls and ridicule. James, at 27, was arguably the most gifted player the game had ever seen, yet he was still seeking the first of the seven or more championships he had promised on behalf of Miami. In the third minute he came up from behind everyone to dunk as hard as he could; a second dunk appeared to punish the rim for all of James' big shots that had been rejected over the last couple of years. He made 12 of his first 13 shots to dash the Celtics' hopes, and most of his scoring was generated mundanely from postups or jump shots or blue-collar moves meant to draw nothing more than fouls. It was a game that James could not afford to lose; by winning it the way he did, he would change the outlook of his career. Years from now they'll be focusing on this breakthrough performance -- even more so than the championship James would clinch two weeks later. For me it will go down with Jordan's 63 points and Doug Flutie's Hail Mary as one of the most remarkable events I've ever attended.
2. U.S. wins Olympic gold medal. This was a victory of ingenuity and stubbornness. Of course the Americans were the most talented team in the field, but they were also flawed: Injuries to all of their potential centers apart from Tyson Chandler forced a new strategy upon them. They would go with a small-ball lineup of shooters around James, who at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds was the most intimidating physical presence of the tournament in London. Their last five games were all contested deep into the second half, serving as proof of how much basketball had improved internationally since the 1992 debut of the Dream Team. And the U.S.' resilience in those second halves also spoke to the players' commitment. These players may not have played together for very long, but they had grown up together in AAU and other programs and they cared sincerely for one another. Previous U.S. teams would not have been able to engage in team basketball while reinventing their style under so much pressure -- and believe me, the pressure was enormous: The U.S. was facing a golden generation of international basketball teams, opponents who had been playing together for years with stars now in their primes. Coach Mike Krzyzewski would finish his run at USA Basketball with a third straight major title and a 62-1 record overall, but he and his players celebrated like underdogs because they could not afford to lose. They won with terrific shooting, with timely defense down the stretch and with the flexible leadership of James, the most versatile star the game has seen.
3. Linsanity. Little more than an hour before a Feb. 3 game at Boston, New York coach Mike D'Antoni was admitting that the Knicks were desperate for leadership at point guard. "That's why we're going to give Jeremy Lin a shot today,'' he told me. "See what he can do.'' Lin, who played four years at Harvard and 21 games in the D-League after going undrafted, was a neglected 23-year-old guard at the end of the bench of the Knicks, his third NBA team in two professional seasons. Lin showed enough in seven minutes for D'Antoni to give him a bigger opportunity off the bench the following night against the Nets, who were beaten by his 25 points. Two nights later he was starting and scoring 28 in a win against the Jazz. He would lead the Knicks to seven straight wins, the biggest highlight being a game-winning last-second three that he bombed off the dribble in Toronto. He elevated the Knicks, who had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars over the years searching for a breakthrough star to give them hope. It was one of those amazing out-of-nowhere stories that isn't supposed to be accessible for a nobody like Lin. For two weeks he was the biggest story in the NBA and the king of New York. Then he went to Miami, where he was smothered defensively; was injured throughout the playoffs; and left New York to sign with the Rockets. There will never be another fortnight like it.
4. Heat earn championship. Two things stand out from this achievement. The first was that James developed his game in the post in order to win, which revealed a sense of humility and commitment that he hadn't shown earlier in his career. He was learning not only from his past but also from the experiences of other great players; he was doing what they had done. He was coming off a bad year, and instead of playing the victim, he responded constructively. The other piece I'll remember is that he didn't make a show of his championship celebration. In his younger days he would make a big play and let everyone know it; but in the moments after he won the championship, he was dignified. He had no interest in saying "I told you so,'' and on that night he became the kind of star that people could cheer for again.
5. David Stern announces his retirement. When I worked overseas for six years during the 1990s, I would run into David Stern routinely at the European Final Four and other international basketball events. He would travel with a small party like a kind of ambassador. In North America, where he spent most of his time, he was responsible for every NBA problem and worry, big and small; in Europe he realized the obstacles for basketball outside America were greater than any he faced in the NBA, and yet he was intrigued by the potential of expanding the game far beyond his league's borders. Traveling overseas gave him perspective that the NBA will benefit from long after Feb. 1 of next year, when Stern retires after 30 years as commissioner. When he announced the date of his retirement, I found myself thinking of the smoky arenas, the farcical press conferences and the cocktail parties where he so often appeared to be energized by the promise for his league and its sport. It is hard to imagine the NBA without Stern's domineering presence, and the inevitable growth of the league around the world will bear his fingerprints long after he is gone.
6. The Spurs-Thunder showdown. Tim Duncan's Spurs had been contending for championships since 1997, when Kevin Durant was 9 years old. By the time they met in the Western finals last May, Durant was a superstar in his own right. His NBA team in Oklahoma City was managed by Sam Presti, who had learned the business while working in the front office of the Spurs. These two franchises were built on similar values, and now only one of them would move onto the NBA Finals. The Spurs had seized a 2-0 lead when the younger Thunder elevated their defense to sweep the next four games and move past San Antonio to the NBA Finals. It was a changing of generations in a highly meaningful way, as the Spurs and the Thunder both aspire to the highest standards of teamwork in this league of superstars.
7. The Lakers' melodrama. Isn't this franchise a beautiful mess? After losing out on a trade for Chris Paul, they appeared to be in better shape than ever after acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard last summer. Then they inexplicably fire coach Mike Brown just five games into the season. They approach Phil Jackson, the winning coach of their last five championships, who also happens to be involved in a long-term relationship with the owner's daughter. However, the daughter's brother is in charge of running the team, and he doesn't like Jackson. And so Jackson gets woken up in the middle of the night to hear that the Lakers aren't interested in hiring him because they think Mike D'Antoni is better. As it turns out, D'Antoni has been unable to prove his value because all of his stars except for Kobe Bryant have been hurting. It's a beautifully dysfunctional nightmare that may yet result in a championship, believe it or not.
8. "Let's Go Celtics!'' This is what a thousand or more fans were chanting at the end of their Game 6 loss to LeBron's Heat (see above). The Boston Garden was empty apart from them, and their Celtics had been demoralized by one of the most compelling performances of all time. And yet they stood and chanted, innocently and sincerely, in blind hope that their elderly, injured and overachieving team may yet win a Game 7 at Miami. To understand the meaning of it I suppose you had to be there, and I'm glad I was.
9. The James Harden trade. I liked this deal. I liked the fact that the highly ambitious Rockets, having invested all of their resources to acquire a star, succeeded in landing Harden, an unselfish young Olympian with upside. I also liked the fact that the Thunder defined their limits. As a small-market team, they had a hierarchy that they could afford, and they weren't willing to indulge the demands of a young player in order to ruin the larger goals of the franchise. The Thunder stand for something good and promising in the NBA, and they made a hard decision that enabled them to remain in contention while maintaining their high ambitions and standards. In a strange way this was win-win.
10. Hornets stabilize around Tom Benson and Anthony Davis. Early in the year I spent several days in New Orleans to learn how the Hornets had been saved. They were in the midst of a perfect storm of negative influences: The lingering impacts of Katrina, the oil disaster of the Gulf and the Great Recession, to go along with the NBA lockout, the departure of Chris Paul and the takeover of the franchise by Stern in the absence of private ownership. Hornets management responded to this convergence of bad news by working harder than ever: Team executives went from door to door, day after day, amassing a base of more than 10,000 season-ticket holders. The fan embraced the team financially in order to keep it in New Orleans, and their commitment made it easier to understand why the NBA was unwilling to enable the franchise to move to a more lucrative market. I admit to loving New Orleans. It is my favorite of all of America's great cities, and the story of the Hornets' redemption -- finalized by the arrivals of Tom Benson as owner and Anthony Davis as the No. 1 pick overall -- spoke to the character of this unique place. The NBA has already lost Vancouver and Seattle; at least New Orleans is still on its map. If only Benson would change his mind about renaming them "The Pelicans.''