THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS commandeered the Bristol Lounge in Boston's Four Seasons Hotel to nosh on lobster tacos, New York strip steaks and crispy fried chicken wings while they monitored their NBA playoff future.
It was April 23, 2015, and the newly configured big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had just edged the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, which left the Cavs one win from a sweep.
James had retired to his room to host a small group of friends while his teammates relaxed and glanced at snippets of their next potential opponent, the Chicago Bulls, whose overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks flickered on television screens throughout the lounge.
The Cavaliers' mood was light and lively. As the clock ticked toward midnight, the Cavs turned their attention to the climax of the Golden State-New Orleans game. Irving, Iman Shumpert and James Jones whooped as the Warriors charged back from a 20-point deficit to steal an overtime victory behind a series of outlandish Steph Curry bombs. Curry checked out with 40 points, which prompted a family member of the Cleveland entourage to declare, "Maybe you guys should start paying attention to them."
Irving was having none of that. Looking ahead just one round to Chicago made him queasy enough; projecting all the way to the Finals against Golden State seemed reckless, arrogant even. Although his team was in control of the series against the Celtics -- no team in NBA history had come back from a 3-0 deficit -- Irving couldn't shake his uneasiness about finishing the job.
"We're not done here," Irving reprimanded. "[Brad] Stevens is damn smart. He's coming at us with something new, so we better be ready.''
Even though the Celtics had been beaten by an average of 9.7 points in the series, the youngest head coach in the NBA lingered in Cleveland's psyche, Irving says, because Stevens already had accomplished what every coach sets out to do when his club is outmatched: prevent the deeper, more experienced, more talented team from settling into a rhythm.
Pablo Torre, Jackie MacMullan and Baxter Holmes discuss two different sides of the retiring Lakers star: his obsession with great mentors, and how he dealt with a devastating Achilles rupture three years ago.
Antawn Jamison feared for his teammate, who was slumped over in the locker to his right, whose feet were drowning in ice water buckets, knees buried beneath ice bags. Through 14 NBA seasons, Jamison had never seen anyone so worn down, someone who, though four months shy of his 35th birthday, moved, Jamison said, like a "105-year-old woman," who sounded so exhausted that when Jamison asked, "Bro, you all right?" his teammate, who by then had played more than 54,000 total minutes -- nearly 6,000 more than any NBA player ever at that point -- could barely even speak.
Others feared too. "We gotta protect him!" Dwight Howard would plead to Lakers coaches, and the coaches tried. "You've got to come out," head coach Mike D'Antoni would beg his star at the end of every first quarter, but the star's response was always the same: "I'll tell you when I need to come out."
The toll mounted.
Jamison and guard Chris Duhon would stare at their teammate, the star, slumped over in his locker, crumbling. Game after game, the cycle repeated, and after each one, Jamison, inches away from the haggard soul packed in ice, knew it wouldn't last, knew disaster loomed. "Man," Jamison believed, "there's no way this guy is going to make it."
From Stephen Curry lapping the legends to the team lighting up the scoreboard, here are 72 reasons why Golden State is so lovable.
1. THE WARRIORS' AVERAGE OF 13.1 MADE 3s PER GAME IS THE HIGHEST IN NBA HISTORY.
2. THE STREAKS.
From April 9 to Dec. 12 of last year, the Dubs won 28 straight, the longest streak in 44 years. And their 54-game home winning streak, which was snapped by the Celtics on April 1, is the longest in NBA history.
3. THE MVP CHANNELS HIS INNER SUN TZU.
"Basketball isn't just a sport. It is an art, one that must be mastered to succeed." -- Steph Curry
4. DESPITE HIS ADDICTION, CURRY FIGHTS ON.
Let's just come right out and say it: The best player in the world suffers from a previously unreported and crippling addiction. To popcorn. The ball boys in opposing arenas know to fill his locker with a stash of it. In New Orleans back in October, he received a massive satchel of the stuff before going out and scoring 53 points. Inspiration? Probably not, as a man who once lost minutes to Acie Law needs no extra motivation. After the 53-point explosion, Curry was informed that coach Keith Smart, who'd benched Curry for Law in the dark days of 2011, had offered congratulations. "Tell him I could feel Acie Law breathing down my neck," Steph quipped.
5. CURRY IS LAPPING THE LEGENDS.
Steph is on pace to make 40 more 3s over this season and last (683) than Larry Bird did in his 13-year career (649). Curry has already hit more in that span than MJ did (581) in his 15 years.
6-8. SARCASM, BURGERS AND "BREAKING BAD." WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?!
Gruff and sardonic, Andrew Bogut isn't a fan of political correctness and traffics in an especially off-color brand of humor. Once, Festus Ezeli, who's Nigerian and Christian, couldn't find his shoes. "Oh s---, bro," Bogut said. "Boko Haram took all your s---!" Ezeli laughed at the wrongness of it all.
Once, to bring out the fire in Draymond Green, Leandro Barbosa lied about having eaten a burger from a local San Francisco spot that Green had recommended. Barbosa insisted that a burger joint closer to his house was far better. This enraged Green, who could see Barbosa was lying. "Now you back," Barbosa told him. "That's the Draymond I want to see! That's the guy I want to see!"
Nicknamed the Black Falcon, Harrison Barnes is something of a millennial cliche. He professes a love of alt comedy and "Game of Thrones," and he once wrote reviews of "Breaking Bad."
He was held scoreless in 17 minutes of action, taking six shots and missing every single one of them, in perhaps the coldest shooting performance of his career. But if you'd looked closer, you would have found that something was indeed off -- or, to be more accurate, something was missing. In each of the prior 15 games, a wearable gadget had been strapped to the wrist of Dellavedova's guiding hand. On that night, for the first time in over a month, Delly's left wrist was bare.
The device that had been occupying Dellavedova's wrist is called a Whoop, and it's built to track fancy stuff such as heart rate, body temperature and body movement during both awake and sleeping hours. Think Fitbit, but for the million-dollar athlete. (It is not, mind you, built to help a point guard's shooting, so any correlation between Dellavedova's poor showing and the absence of his Whoop is surely coincidental.)
There is, however, one problem with it: The Whoop is prohibited under league rules.
For most of March, Dellavedova wore the Whoop (pronounced like "hoop," not "whoopee cushion") without repercussion from the league office, which bans wearable technology for use in games. Ten years ago, such a rule had little impact on the game; players had no use for velcro-ing a Blackberry on their arm. But behind the scenes, more and more teams are using hi-tech, body-monitoring devices such as Catapult accelerometers -- worn underneath the jersey, and ostensibly not during the games -- to track workloads and movement in the name of injury prevention. Catapult's client list now includes 19 teams, up from 12 last season. But while devices such as Catapult and Whoop are deemed legal for practice, games are decidedly off limits.
On Thursday last week, the league office was made aware of Dellavedova's gear and informed the Cavaliers that it would not allow the health tracker to be worn during the game. Ever since, the black strap on Delly's wrist has disappeared.
It's no coincidence that a teammate of LeBron James was wearing a Whoop. The company, a Boston-based startup founded in 2012 by Harvard graduate Will Ahmed, recently hired James' longtime personal trainer Mike Mancias as an advisor. James, a four-time MVP, dons the wearable device just like Dellavedova, but not in games.
You may have seen James' Kia K900 commercial in which he tried to dispel the Internet-fueled rumors that he doesn't drive the sedan with a $49,000 sticker price. As James sits in the driver's seat during the 30-second spot and peers into the camera, you can spot a black tracker wrapped around his right wrist. Whoop, there it is.
"At the elite level," Mancias says in a recent Whoop press release, "it's no longer just about outworking your opponents to get an edge."
On Sunday, Dellavedova confirmed to ESPN.com that he has to take off his Whoop before games now, but offered no comment. Whoop, there it isn't.
Chris Paul was on the line.
Paul appeared to be on his way to Los Angeles to join Bryant in the Lakers' backcourt after the team struck a deal to acquire the MVP-caliber point guard from the New Orleans Hornets.
Bryant said the phone call lasted about 20-30 minutes, and they weren't talking about how many games they planned to win together.
"You know me. My dream isn't to win games," Bryant recalled to ESPN this week. "It's like, 'How many of these titles are we going to win [together]?' Because if we don't win, we're a failure."
"It was crazy," Paul told ESPN this week. "It was exciting. We talked about potentially being teammates and all that stuff like that. Then, in the blink of an eye, gone."
In a move that stunned the basketball landscape, then-NBA commissioner David Stern nixed the deal for "basketball reasons," a term that instantly became infamous among Lakers fans.
"WoW," Paul tweeted in response at the time.
Ultimately, Paul was traded instead to the Los Angeles Clippers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Paul and Bryant will face off for the final time this week, as the Lakers and Clippers are scheduled to play each other on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Leading up to the back-to-back, both players gave thought to what could have been and believe they would have formed a dominant backcourt duo.
"It worked for the Olympic team and stuff like that," Paul said. "I played in a lot of All-Star Games with Kobe. I don't know how many, but I remember one of them, we said, 'As long as we're both on the same team playing this game, we're not going to lose,' just because we both know how competitive we are."
"When we played together in every All-Star Game, we never f----- around," Bryant said. "It was like, 'Listen, the guys have their fun, but now let's do what we do.' I knew how competitive he was, and I knew it would be a perfect fit. We just kind of talked about what we're going to do, how we're going to scheme to get things done. Unfortunately, it never happened."
Rick Carlisle was a mere five games into his season with the New Jersey Nets when he fielded a call from head coach Bill Fitch. It was November 1989, and Carlisle, who was 30 years old and nursing a damaged shoulder, knew what was about to transpire. Roy Hinson was eligible to come off the injured list and, Carlisle said, "I was pretty sure when he came back, I'd probably be the one let go."
As he feared, the ever-direct Fitch got right to the point.
"You're waived ..." he told Carlisle, drawing out the words for emphasis.
That prompted Carlisle to embark on his rehearsed speech to thank Fitch for the opportunity, and the encouragement, and the ...
"Wait, I'm not done yet," Fitch barked.
And then -- just like that -- as Fitch snatched one job away from Carlisle, he offered him another, as an assistant coach on his staff.
Twenty-seven years later, Carlisle is one of the most respected coaches in the game, the man who steered the Dallas Mavericks to their first (and only) championship in 2011. He has earned his reputation as a superior tactician who relies on a no-nonsense, tough-minded style, much like his mentor Fitch.
Fitch retired 18 years ago with 944 career wins. He has appeared on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ballot but hasn't been chosen, mainly because of his career 1,106 losses. Carlisle insists that number is misleading, since Fitch specialized in taking over lottery teams and turning them into playoff teams, which he did in Cleveland, Boston, Houston, New Jersey and Los Angeles (Clippers).
Carlisle points to his former coach's innovative strategies and attention to detail (Fitch was a former Marine Corps drill instructor) as two of his biggest strengths.
"But Bill was also way ahead of his time in terms of video and scouting and helping players get better," Carlisle noted. "There's a reason why Larry Bird has said Bill Fitch is the best coach he's ever had."
Fitch was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2015, but was not inducted. This year, he was not among the names who advanced to the final stage.
Carlisle doesn't want to wait to see if Fitch qualifies the next time around. He wants to honor him now.