Finally something had gone right. It was proof that God or some sports god or some other supernatural force didn’t hate Cleveland. If we were actually being tortured the Cavs would have wound up drafting Darko Milicic. The sun was shining on Cleveland sports fans.
What made the drafting of LeBron James so important for Cleveland was the fairytale destiny it was supposed to bring. The kid who grew up a stone’s throw from Cleveland and was dubbed “The Chosen One” in high school years before anyone knew he’d be a Cav was going to lead the city to its first championship in over 50 years. We had the next Michael Jordan. LeBron James was going to be the greatest player in the history of the NBA and he was going to be a legend. Not only for his great play, but because he was going to lift a flailing sports city to the top. As the campaign for him to stay in Cleveland after the 2010 season said LeBron was, “More than a player.”
LeBron lived up to every bit of the hype in his rookie season. He gave Cleveland a national sports identity. My brother and I were at LeBron’s first win as a Cavalier on November 8, 2003 against the Washington Wizards. I remember watching a kid only one year older than me have a difficult time finishing tough layups and making jumpers, but he still scored 17 points, and made some highlight plays. On top of that, he nearly recorded a triple double without you even noticing (he had 8 rebounds and 9 assists that night). It was obvious after the game that the 18-year old was already a good player and once he got some experience those tough finishes and jumpers would start to fall. The excitement was almost unbearable. No one could wait for him to grow up and bring a championship to Cleveland.
The team finished the 2003-04 season with a losing record, but they won twice as many games as they had in the previous season. Carlos Boozer established himself as a dominant power forward who, as beloved color man and Cavs legend in his own right Austin Carr would say, always brought his hard hat to work. It looked like LeBron and Boozer were the perfect combination for the Cavs to build around along with Veteran center, Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
The optimism of the dynamic James/Boozer duo quickly turned to anger over the summer of 2004. Boozer’s rookie contract had a team option on if for a little less the $700,000 for the 2004-05 season. In order to reward the young star, the Cavs, and this point is disputed by Boozer, with an agreement from Boozer, chose not to pick up the bargain priced extension and make him a restricted free-agent so he could sign a new contract with the team for more money. Instead of signing a new contract with the Cavs, Boozer skipped town and signed with the Utah Jazz.
It was just the latest in a long line of disappointments for Cleveland sports fans. Instead of having a strong core of two future all-stars we were down to just LeBron. The 2004 draft didn’t provide much immediate excitement either. The Cavs drafted a shooter out of Oregon, Luke Jackson, who the Cavs hoped could be deadly on kick-out threes and traded for the rights to an obscure Brazilian, Anderson Varejao. Along with Andy came Drew Gooden who was going to fills Boozer’s role.
With the anticipation of seeing LeBron’s growth from his rookie year and the addition of Gooden to replace who everyone in Ohio saw as a traitor, Carlos Boozer, there was still hope in Cleveland for the 2004-05 season.