This story has been told countless times. Those of us of a certain age will tell it countless more.
It’s a story about how Wizards fans were the first to rebel against LeBron, way before it was cool. About how the Wizards — despite being a wayward franchise for decades, and a mediocre franchise even when they were supposedly good — tormented LeBron’s Cavaliers for years. About how fate, and LeBron’s greatness, and the unfairness of the universe conspired to help LeBron’s Cavaliers topple Gilbert’s Wizards three years in a row. About how the Wizards still went 13-12 against the Cavaliers during the first James Era, repeatedly beating the Cavs when they had no business doing so. About Soulja Boy and Jay-Z and DeShawn Stevenson and Mike Brown and Damon Jones and Brendan Haywood and Darius Songaila and Drew Gooden and Boobie Gibson and Delonte West and Antonio Daniels and all sorts of other names.
Anyhow, because LeBron James is a Cavalier again, I went back and looked at a lot of old Wizards-Cavaliers photos. And since I did, you might as well, too.
Okay, this one pre-dates the playoff rivalry, but it’s an amazing image, no? Here is a rookie LeBron James creating a turnover from out of Kwame Brown and Gilbert Arenas.
Fast forward a few years, to the first playoff meeting. It got physical quickly. Here’s Toni L. Sandys’s caption:
“Gilbert Arenas goes to the ground after LeBron James blocks the shot during Game 6 of the NBA first round play offs at the Verizon Center on Friday, May 5, 2006. Gilbert tried to call for the foul and was assessed a technical instead.”
“Gilbert tried to call for the foul and was assessed a technical instead” — there’s a loft of symbolic meat on that kind of brief bone.
Look at Etan Thomas!
Look at Brendan Haywood! Seriously, what is he doing? He’s just tackling LeBron.
Damon Jones ended that first playoff series. It’s one of the indelible sports moments of my life.
Now we’re in 2007.
“LeBron James goes down with a twisted ankle,” reads the caption. “He remained in the game and scored 23 points in Cleveland’s 97-82 win.”
If you didn’t live through those series, it’s probably hard to remember, but LeBron James seemed to be grievously injured often.
Jonathan Newton’s filed caption was pretty much perfect: “LeBron James takes the hand-off and drives for first half yardage.”
And now 2008, which was both the peak and the end. What were they saying? What were they thinking? What were we all thinking? Did we know what was happening? Could we imagine how far their paths would diverge?
DeShawn Stevenson and LeBron James were rivals? How could this have happened?
And why, oh why, oh why did the Wizards wear these uniforms?
Do you remember how physical those series were? These were not cheap fouls.
And Brendan Haywood was so often in the middle of it.
So, so often.
There was at least one great moment in that series, when Caron Butler improbably led Washington to a road win in Game 5, and then did his “D.C. Stand Up!” routine.
But that was just delaying the inevitable. Here is LeBron, in Game 6, which wasn’t close.
And was kind of glum-like.
And by 2009, everything was different. Look at those four guys. They’ve taken four pretty different paths since then.