BOSTON — Inside the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room, players celebrated their victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals with whoops and applause. Someone turned on music, and even coaches and General Manager Koby Altman swayed and rapped along to the lyrics.
Hidden in the corner of this rowdy space, Jeff Green sat in silence. He leaned forward and rested with his hands together almost as if he were praying. But Green never closed his eyes. After scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the most important game of his career, Green wanted to savor the moment.
“I’ve worked my [butt] off each day since January 9, 2012, to get back on this court and now compete for a championship,” Green told reporters during a contemplative interview session following the Cavaliers’ 87-79 series-clinching win over the Boston Celtics.
In the prime of his career, Green, who grew up in Hyattsville and played at Georgetown, underwent open-heart surgery to repair an aortic root aneurysm. Green, the No. 5 pick of the 2007 draft, was only 25 years old at the time, but the condition forced him to miss the 2011-12 season and sowed seeds of doubt.
“Honestly, at that point, no, I wasn’t concerned with the Finals. My concern was health and getting back on the floor,” Green said when asked if reaching this pinnacle was part of his motivation then. “I mean, I almost lost it all, and now to sit here in front of you guys, to talk about the NBA Finals and playing in it, I mean, I’ve been truly blessed to be able to step foot on this court, to play this game.”
Green’s career comeback was not lost on his teammates. On Sunday, after Green had fulfilled the role of unlikely wingman while stepping in for the injured Kevin Love, a team official had to retrieve him for his featured interview. His teammates whooped again.
“Jeff Green going to the podium!” several players echoed.
Later, as LeBron James conducted his own interview, he recognized Green’s big night in broader terms.
“This guy had open-heart surgery a few years ago. The game was basically taken away from him, and they said it’s possible you’ll never play the game of basketball again,” James said. “The fact that he can put on a uniform every day and do the things that he does out on the floor — for him personally, it’s the cherry on top because the game was taken away from him.”
Although Green, 31, claims he is not much of a talker, he commanded the postgame dais with charisma while sharing thoughtful stories about his past and present. During the game, Green controlled the huddles with vocal leadership as the Cavaliers navigated a 12-point deficit inside an unfriendly environment.
James, who performed a 48-minute masterpiece, needed every second he could get to sit and regain his composure. So while James rested, Green’s voice rang out.
“This is the moment. It’s the moment. I mean, I give everything to this game,” Green said. “To have the opportunity, playing a Game 7, go to the Finals in the Garden. I spent four years [with the Celtics], and the opportunity was right there, and I wanted it bad. You know, I mean, I talk, but [Sunday] was just one of those days where my voice needed to be heard. When I talk, it’s meaningful. It’s useful. I don’t just talk to talk. I wanted it. I just voiced my opinion in certain timeouts and got back on the floor and had fun and had joy with the game.”
Green also had something to say about the perception surrounding James’s supporting cast.
Green, who signed a one-year deal last summer, just might be a member of the most slandered Finals team in league history. The 2017-18 Cavaliers have been portrayed as mere tambourine players backing up the one-man show known as LeBron James, and they have been given little credit for the team’s advancement.
“Honestly, I ignore it, because I know what our team is capable of. Like I said, everybody is going to have their opinion of what LeBron has around him. We lose, we have a terrible team. We win, oh, we knew they could do it,” Green said. “We keep all the negative energy out and we continue to stay positive.”
Back inside the lively visitors’ locker room, Green finally snapped out of his frozen pose when the shiny, silver trophy was passed his way. His new conference champions hat flipped backward atop his head, Green held the award and pulled out his phone. The photo captured a moment that has been years in the making. A moment that almost never came to be.
“Each day I give it my all, whether good or bad. I live with the results. But I am enjoying it, every single moment of this,” Green said. “I don’t take nothing for granted. Nothing.”