The 2009-10 NBA season was one of the most memorable and surprising seasons ever. It was also my rookie season. The newly NBA expansion team, Las Vegas Icons drafted me. The team colors were gold that reflected with the glamorous casinos and hotels of the Las Vegas Strip, and the color blue that coincided with the main color of the flag. To play for a brand new team in the league full of young, energetic players thrilled me. As a team, we adopted a fast-paced offense-oriented system, which was very fun and entertaining. It was great because we were athletic, fast, and loved the three-point shot, which would eventually earned us the nickname “Bomb Squad.”
Coach Grant was a tall, bronze complexioned man with gray hair and striking features. He dressed so immaculate, and looked like he belonged on the pages of the GQ magazines. To play for Coach Grant was great because he made the game fun for the team. He allowed us to play basketball freely as long as we think team first, and played the game the correct way, which would allow the team to win many games and achieved great things.
From the start of the season, I wanted to have an immediate impact in the NBA. Standing at 6’7, and weighing 250 lbs., everyone on the team including the coaching staff knew I had great potential to become a superstar in the league. My jersey number was one, and felt I had to live up to the huge expectations. I faced the Chicago Bulls in my first NBA game, and I recorded 60 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, and 10 steals and shot 100% from the floor. I shattered Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie high of 58 points. Many basketball experts bragged about how I had the purest jump shot in the game and the most accurate 3-point and free throw shooter in the NBA. I instantly became a superstar and the leader of the Las Vegas Icon. Road victories over the NBA’s elite teams like San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic greatly enhanced the team’s reputation. We played so well for the second half of the season that we eventually went on a 15-game winning streak that set us into serious playoff contention. We ended the regular season with a 51-21 record. Our fans really believed that we could do something special in the Playoffs. We manifested their dreams, ignited their passion, and embraced them. It was such a joy making our fans happy! I averaged 37 points as rookie and earned Rookie of the Year honors. It felt like I was in a movie because it was surreal and such a whirlwind.
We began the Playoffs by facing the red-hot Phoenix Suns. A tough, exciting, up-tempo series with them I expected. They had a great All-Star point guard named Nash, and an lite All-Star power forward named Amare. They were one of the best duos in the NBA. I welcomed the challenge and could not wait to battle them. What our teams had in common was we loved to Run n’ Gun. From the start, we ran up and down the court, and drove to the basket. It had a college feel to it with all the energy and excitement. This was arguably my favorite series in the playoffs, as we shocked doubters and eliminated the Suns in five games. Most people felt it was luck, but I wanted to prove that the Las Vegas Icons was a threat to every team in our conference.
In the second round, we played against the San Antonio Spurs. The four-time NBA champion, Duncan, led them. Many experts in the league considered him as one of the greatest power forward/centers to have ever played the game. Once again, the doubters had the Spurs as the favored to win the series. We rolled passed them in a stunning 4-game sweep. The whole world expected us to lose in five games because of our inexperience, but we prove them wrong. Our confidence was extremely high. We felt like we were ready for any challengers. The next test for us was definitely the most pivotal in our Playoffs run — The Lakers.
I knew the Western Conference Finals was our toughest test of the season. We were facing the defending NBA Champions the Los Angeles Lakers. They were taller, stronger and more experience. They also had arguably the best basketball player on the planet, Kobe. Therefore, our chances of upsetting them were not only pretty slim, but a dream. This was the challenge my team needed to prove that we were for real. We were younger, athletic, and knew that one key to defeat the Lakers was to outrun them.
The Staples Center was electric for Game 1. I had the toughest assignment of guarding Kobe. I saw many similarities that both he and Michael Jordan have. They both were leaders, strong competitors, and possessed the eyes of an assassin. I enjoyed competing against great players, but importantly the best. Bryant scored 40 points in 35 minutes in the series opener, easily eclipsed my 30 points. I had a great game, but I was not victorious.
Game 2 was another exciting game. We kept the game close for the first three-quarters, but the Lakers picked up their defense the fourth quarter. My shots were not falling, which frustrated me, and some of my teammates missed easy looks. Kobe had an answer for everything we did. He just took over the game as most great players do in these situations. He had 21 points and 13 assists, the most assists by a Lakers player in a postseason game since “Magic” Johnson in 1996, and the Lakers roared away in the last minutes for a 124-116 victory to claim a series lead that seemed much more daunting than 2-0. The loss was heartbreaking because we did not steal a game from the Lakers. I only scored 15 points, and knew I could not afford to have another performance like that again in this series.
The team’s focus was to win all of our home games to make it a great series with the Lakers. I spent hours in the gym shooting the ball about five hundred times or more. I had to step my game up to the next level. Determined not to have another bad game for the rest of the season, I knew I needed to push my body to the maximum limit if I was going to beat the defending champions.
Game 3 was definitely a key game in the series. We burst quickly out of the gate like racehorses. Everything went our way in the game, and I felt myself about to heat up. Kobe tried his best to stop me, but he could not as I kept on hitting shot after shot. I was in the zone! When I completed my onslaught, I scorched the Lakers with 45 points.
In Game 4, it was the same as the previous game. We played with so much energy from the start. The bench players were the difference in the game scoring a combine of 54 points. Now it was a series, and we felt like if we continued to play with the same energy and spirit, we would win the series.
Game 5 was one of the greatest basketball games ever played. It had everything that engaged fans and had them talked about it for many years. I felt the intensity and pressure of this pivotal game. Almost immediately, the game went back and forth, with the lead changing multiple times. We faced a huge deficit in Game 5, but fought back and won in double OT. I scored 55 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. It was great! My team was up 3-2 in the series with a chance to end it in six. However, we did not complete the series in six. The Lakers blew us out by twenty points. As the leader of the Icons, I was so embarrassed to lose by that much, and disappointed that we did not end the series.
That night after Game 6, I had a vivid dream of playing Michael Jordan in a game of 21 on the West 4th Street courts in lower Manhattan. We were going at like two heavyweight champion prizefighters in their prime. Both of us trash-talked and made some unbelievable tough shots on that basketball court. We both had 20 points, and the ball was in Jordan’s hands. I nearly stole the ball from him, and Jordan was so unbalanced that he still managed to do his traditional fadeaway jumpshot. As I watched the basketball dropped inside the hoop, I woke up from the dream sweating like a nervous wreck. I prayed that the dream was not telling me something bad to happen in Game 7.
I was mentally and physically ready for Game 7. My reputation and the season were on the line. The only option was to win. I was not ready to go home and think about what I did wrong or what I should had done. I was anxious and ready to battle the Lakers one last time. The tunnel was my sanctuary before I jogged out to the court. I prayed that God gave my teammates and me the strength and mental toughness to beat the Lakers. My teammates told me we were going to win and go on to the Finals. I lived for moments like this to play against the best player in a deciding game.
The moves I did in the dream happened in the game. I made the same shots and did the same monster dunks. Kobe was being his Michael Jordan-like self with the amazing things he was doing. It felt like we reenacted my dream at the Staples Center. We both wanted it so bad, but only one of us was going to the Finals. It came down to which team was going to push harder. I made a tough three-pointer, and my team was up 99-98 with eight seconds left in the game. The Lakers called a timeout to set up a play. Everybody knew Kobe was going to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line. My job was to guard him so well and make him take a tough shot without committing a foul and sending him to the line. Kobe caught me with his fadeaway jumpshot; I thought the ball was going to go in so I just put my head down in disgust. Then suddenly, the bench players from my team screamed and ran out to the court.
I could not believe it. I looked around the arena and saw nothing but Lakers’ fans stunned and in disbelief. I jumped up and down, celebrating with my team. We upset the Los Angeles Lakers and advanced to the NBA Finals. It felt like my team was a small country and we conquered a superpower. This was one of the most incredible Cinderella stories in the history of the NBA.
The NBA Finals had arrived. My team made it to the dance. I still could not believe that we made it this far in the playoffs. We had to face the team we hated the most, The Boston Celtics. Game One was at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. As a kid, I hated all Boston sports teams. I was a New York native, and it was easy to hate Boston because of the bitter Yankees & Red Sox rivalry in baseball. The crowd was very hostile, and I made it my business to quiet them down. I marveled the role of villain in the TD Garden.
As the game went on, I not only wanted to have a huge game but also to entertained the fans like never before. I performed an array of dunks including a 360 windmill and a between the legs bounce dunk. A fiery rage burned inside of me. I knew I was in a zone. The perspiration raced down my body, and the only thing I thought of was It’s Winning Time. Every time I touched the ball, I knew I could do anything with it. I scored at will, becoming a one-man show. It did not matter how many defenders tried to guard me, I found a way to break down their defense and score. I would slash through the lane, around and through the Celtics’ best players and either dunk the ball or lay it up. The Celtic fans shook their heads and watched the game be out of reach. The horn finally squawked, and the game was over. I scored a playoff-record 66 points, taking down the Celtics in a 140-126 victory. I felt exhausted, and surprised that I was still standing.
From Game 2 to Game 6, we went back and forth, winning on each other’s home court. The games were tough, rugged, and gritty. We pounded each other, and left blood on the court. The fans loved every minute of it, because they had not seen basketball played this physical in a long time. Our games were very reminiscent to the glory days of the 1980s NBA. It was hard for any team to win back-to-back games so after six games the series was ties 3-3.
We had another grueling Game 7 to play. It was the final showdown, the winner taking the championship. It was the game that all the things I had worked on all year, I had to do it and execute it, trust, and play. If my team did not win the NBA championship, our season was a failure. It was as simple as that. Our curtain call of the season had us holding up the championship trophy.
The game was so intense from the start. It literally felt like a war out there on the court. It was very reminiscent to the days of me playing on the basketball courts against the older, bigger boys in New York. I was hit hard from defenders, but still able to make some tough shots. I felt physically and mentally exhausted, but I had dug deep inside and fought through it like a warrior. I knew how important it was to my team to have me out there on the court battling and making shots. Both teams insured we were not ready to yield. This game became a contest of pure will and determination.
I caught my fifth foul early in the fourth quarter, and had to head to the bench. I was so weary and mad, because I did not want to leave the game with my team being down by 12. As I sat, I watched my team played with so much heart and energy. They found the strength to cut the Celtics’ lead from twelve points to four. I observed the Celtics looking very fatigue as they missed consecutive shots. With less than four minutes to go, I knew it was enough time for us to finally take the lead and end this brutal series. I was ready for coach to tell me to go back into the game.
“Don’t worry about the fouls, son.” Coach Grant told me. “Do what you do best — score!”
When I checked back into the game, the only thing on my mind was to win. I smelled the championship, and I wanted the Celtics to suffer from my fury. The basketball flew to me, and I shot a three and made it bringing their lead down to one. The Celtics lost their swagger as I scored the next eight points for my team. I was percolating at the right time, completely taking over the game. I caught glimpses of Celtics fans sitting in the upper rows leaving the arena, as they felt the game being out of reach. I winked at Coach Grant and smiled at my teammates. We were seconds away of bringing the NBA championship with us to Las Vegas. The thought of it had me completely aroused and full of jubilation.
We dramatically rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 90-79 in Game 7 of the NBA finals. As the confetti started to fall to the court, it felt like it was tears from the basketball Gods. I jumped up and down, hugged all my teammates. I accomplished one of my boyhood dreams of winning an NBA championship. The Commissioner presented us the championship trophy, and he gave me the NBA Finals MVP trophy. I prayed that this was the start of a new dynasty in the NBA —