It was exactly 10 years ago today. And when I talk about it, which I have done an awful lot in these 10 years, I typically get one of two responses.
For those who weren’t there, it’s a response along the lines of, “Are you serious? That really happened?”
And for those who were, not a single one remembers it as anything other than the most magical night they’ve experienced as a sports fan in Baltimore. Now 23-year-old Jordan House was only 13 when he was able to get in (thanks to a certain relationship with a local police officer). Jordan is now part of our broadcast crew for Loyola Athletics and when I mentioned the anniversary of the event was coming up, he needed all of two seconds to find pictures from that night on his phone.
He was in middle school. I was nearly 30 years old. And yet when we started talking it, the goosebumps we shared were the exact same. We remembered how the crowd came rushing down on the athletes even before the game had started. We remembered how not only did no one sit down for the entirety of the game, they couldn’t have even if they wanted to because the building was so overfilled that there wasn’t more than an inch or two of space for everyone to operate with to our left or right.
You see, when someone asked me what my favorite Baltimore sports experience has been, my answer tends to surprise them. As fun as Delmon Young clearing the bases was and as significant as it was to be on the field at the Superdome as the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII and as unique as it was even just this weekend to spend time with my father (and randomly one of the greatest musicians on the planet, Citizen Cope) at the BMW Championship, none could possibly compare to that night 10 years ago at Morgan State.
And it wasn’t a playoff game. It was an exhibition game. And unlike exhibition NFL games, which are horrendous, this one was magical.
“That was amazing. To be able to get that much talent on a basketball floor and competing and playing at a high level, that was amazing to be a part of that,” Calvert Hall basketball coach Gary Neal told me recently while reminiscing about the anniversary.
Neal was with the San Antonio Spurs at the time and played alongside Towson Catholic alum Carmelo Anthony in a summer basketball game that was loosely a matchup of Anthony’s “Melo League” All-Stars against Kevin Durant’s D.C.-based “Goodman League” All-Stars. Anthony just happened to call upon some of his most famous friends — LeBron James and Chris Paul — to improve his odds.
The game was moved to Hill Field House in order to hold the expected large audience. It didn’t come remotely close to that. The old building has a listed capacity of 4,250 but I promise you there were far more than that inside the building and even more who were turned away at the door.
The game itself was highly competitive. While no team defense was played, the one-on-one defending was real and was tough. It did nothing to stop Durant, who went off for 59 points in the midst of a spectacular barnstorming summer while the NBA was in the midst of a lockout.
Less than a year later, James’ Miami Heat were battling Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. The same LeBron-KD matchups that captivated an audience of just a few thousand fans in Baltimore were now thrilling millions of fans around the globe. And a decade later, these players continue to dominate the pro basketball landscape, with Durant, James and Paul being in the NBA Finals in each of the last three seasons respectively.
“The fans lost their minds after every dunk,” House remembered accurately. Truthfully the fans lost their minds after literally everything that happened from start to finish. The game had to be delayed, first because Durant arrived late and then again because fans rushed the court before the game even began. They did so again when the game was over.
And yet for as wildly overcrowded and at times unruly the crowd was, there was never a sense of danger. Those in attendance were there for a celebration. They were there to appreciate a group of transcendent basketball players who descended upon a small court in a city that hasn’t hosted a regular-season NBA game since the now-Wizards stopped playing occasional games in their former home in 1997. That’s what made the whole thing so unbelievably special.
I wouldn’t have been there myself had it not been for a friend in a high place. Then Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman had to sneak me in one of the building’s side doors to make sure I could witness the spectacle. And the players themselves had a strange appreciation for the circumstances, which offered far less protection than they experience in the NBA.
“I think it’s great, you know, got a high school feel to it,” James told ESPN at the time. Paul told reporters it was “one of the most fun games I’ve been a part of in a long time … a lot of people got an opportunity to see us up close and personal who may not get the chance to see us at other times.”
For a Baltimore native like Neal, that was what made the night so special.
“What a lot of people don’t really understand about that is the NBA games, they come on TV, but the ticket prices for an NBA game are high,” Neal said. “So that gave kids from the Baltimore area an opportunity to walk up and touch a LeBron James or touch a Kevin Durant or touch a Chris Paul or a Gary Neal, NBA players. For me, that was a big success because it gave access to the kids that maybe wouldn’t be able to afford that access or wouldn’t be afforded that opportunity to watch NBA players in person and touch them and sign autographs and things like that. So that was the big win for me.”
House was one of those kids. And he’ll never forget it. I was nearly 30 years old and I assure you, I’ll never forget about it, either.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Jordan House