By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; D01
CLEVELAND -- It's been three months since he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers -- the team he once referred to as "the enemy" -- but there are still times when Antawn Jamison enters Quicken Loans Arena and has to stop himself before walking into the visitors' locker room. Sometimes, when he watches game film, Jamison sees this guy wearing No. 4 in "different colors" and doesn't realize it's him until he sees one of his "junk shots" floating through the air. Even his younger brother, Albert, has joked with him that he looks strange in a uniform that Jamison's family, friends and former Washington Wizards teammates had become conditioned to hate.
"Once it happened, it was like, 'Wow!' " said Jamison, who spent 5 1/2 seasons in Washington before his Feb. 17 trade to Cleveland. "It's kind of awkward, seeing my name in the wine and gold and Cleveland."
Jamison could not beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers in three first-round playoff battles from 2006 to 2008, but now he has joined forces with him, and Shaquille O'Neal, in a mutual pursuit of a championship ring. With Cleveland tied 2-2 in its best-of-seven series against the Boston Celtics, Jamison is two wins from reaching the conference finals for the first time in his 12-season career. But he made his ultimate goal known before this season, when he framed a picture of the Larry O'Brien Trophy and placed it in his locker room stall at Verizon Center.
"I believed it, whether it was a possibility [with the Wizards] or not," Jamison, 33, said. "That's the only thing left for me to accomplish. That was the only thing I wanted to accomplish."
Though grateful for the opportunity presented to him with the Cavaliers after Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld broke up his trio of former all-stars, Jamison remains disappointed that the Wizards didn't have more success after reaching the second round of the playoffs during his first season with the organization. The past few years in Washington had the feeling of walking on a StairMaster, with Jamison wearing himself out, going up and down -- and nowhere.
"It seemed like we never could get it done or reach our potential," he said. "It was Groundhog Day. The same thing over and over. Things happen for a reason. . . . But I don't understand why things didn't pan out the way they should've [in Washington]. I'm not saying winning a championship but at least being in contention every year."
Jamison sincerely thought the Wizards would have a breakthrough, with the hiring of Coach Flip Saunders, the return of a healthy Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood, and the additions of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. But Jamison's highly anticipated reunion with Caron Butler and Arenas was flawed from the start. Butler worried about not receiving a contract extension and was unable to adapt to Saunders's system. Arenas was looking to reassert himself as an elite player and the franchise cornerstone after missing most of the previous two seasons with injury, but he had difficulty grappling with his role as primary decision-maker on the floor.
And Jamison started the season on the shelf with a right shoulder injury, eventually returning to a team already sinking into irrelevance.
"It's tough to know if we all would've been on the same page and just bought into what Coach Flip had to say, Flip's system, it would've been different," Jamison said, adding that conflicting agendas altered the team's path. "Flip was great. He wasn't the problem. We just never could get on track."
The failure didn't change his relationship with Butler and Arenas, Jamison said.
"We had some good times and some hard times, but I love the two of those guys like they were my brothers. When we're done, we'll be on the back porch talking junk about each other. It was a great friendship and some great times, even though we didn't do what we expected to do. But I think each and every individual will learn from the past four or five years and I hope we can make the future a little bit better."
With Arenas recently released from a halfway house (part of his sentence for bringing guns into the locker room) and Butler's Dallas Mavericks eliminated in the first round, Jamison is the only one of the three in a position to make his immediate basketball future better. But he is averaging 14.3 points against the Celtics, down from his averages in the regular season and the first round against Chicago. Because Jamison never had a reputation as a defensive player, the Celtics have attacked him with Kevin Garnett, who has gotten the better of him in three out of four games.
"I'm not going to back down," said Jamison, who had a flashback moment dunk over Kendrick Perkins on Sunday. "You got to meet the challenge. This is what it's about -- trying to move on to the next round. I think the part that we play, as far as KG and myself, is going to dictate who wins this series." Game 5 is Tuesday in Cleveland.
Jamison recently put his Bethesda home on the market for more than $4 million, which will provide some closure to his time in the area. He admits that before being dealt to Cleveland, this season was more trying than any other, including going 19-63 the year before. "I was to the point that I was losing hope that anything good would come out of playing the game or whatever," said Jamison, who has two years and $23 million remaining on his contract after this season. "It was tough. I was getting to the point where it was just hard. I was enjoying myself and playing the game I wanted to play, but it seemed like that opportunity never was going to come."
Grunfeld assured him that if he decided to make changes, he would ensure that Jamison was placed in a winning situation that would put him closer to a championship ring.
"But the first time just walking into the locker room and, this is my home, it was weird. It was an adjustment. I've been accustomed to certain things over the past six years, certain teammates, certain tendencies and to come here in this situation and getting traded during the season is something that never happened to me," Jamison said. "After my first game [when Jamison scored just two points on 0-for-12 shooting] my teammates was like, 'Play your game. We want you to play your game and do the same things that you've been doing.' They made it easy for me to compete and do what I do."
He has enjoyed his time playing alongside two-time MVP James.
"It's LeBron James, probably the best player in the game, and he makes the game easy for me," he said. "This is a guy, I'm trying to take his head off for the last six years and now I got his back. I'm defending him, screening for him. All the things that happened previously was pretty much out the window. We all had the same common goal.
"I must've been living right, man, because this doesn't happen. It's good to finally get this opportunity," Jamison said. "It's one of those things, like, I knew if it didn't happen in D.C., it was going to happen somewhere else. I just never imagined it happening here, after what has happened between the two organizations in the past. But I'm not complaining."