Years before we were all witnesses, years before The Decision, years before taking the fourth quarter off, a teenage LeBron James was standing at midcourt of the Palestra in Philadelphia, playing a glorified one-on-one game as The Next Michael Jordan against The Next Wilt Chamberlain.
James’ St. Vincent-St. Mary was leading by 30 or 40 in the fourth quarter against Maureece Rice’s Strawberry Mansion in a forgettable made-for-TV exercise that had been highlighted, to that point, by the courtside appearance of Allen Iverson, who was just a year removed from his MVP season. The defenses gave up and the players got bored. The crowd, growing restless after waiting for some moment of brilliance, began to rabble dismissively.
And then it happened.
The game itself was as meaningless as James’ high school education. Part of his senior-year national hype tour, St. Vincent-St. Mary rolled into town in December of 2002 to take on Strawberry Mansion, a Public League school tucked into a forgotten, hardened pocket of north Philadelphia between the SEPTA regional rail tracks and the Schuylkill River. Best known for producing NBA journeyman Flip Murray, Mansion’s newest superstar was a pudgy, high-scoring guard named Maureece Rice.
Now, despite his reputation, Reece Rice was no Wilt Chamberlain. Generously listed at 6-1, Rice was on pace to become Philadelphia’s all-time leading scorer by surpassing Chamberlain’s record that had stood for decades (he would wind up with 2,681 points, more than 400 more than Wilt’s 2,206). But he was the anti-Wilt, a swaggering guard with a smooth outside shot and dribble penetration. Rice averaged 29.2 points per game as a senior, scored 63 points in a game as a junior, and led Mansion to two Public League titles. LeBron called him “one of the greatest guards” he had faced. His fate was far different than those of Chamberlain or James; a year of prep ball, a solid career at George Washington, and now drifting through the NBA D-League.
But none of that really mattered that night. It was the local superstar versus the ringer, center court, for all to see.
The locals, clutching their soft pretzels bought from the shopping cart outside, poured into the Palestra, a soaring old barn on Penn’s West Philadelphia campus that smells of basketball. They seemed to be there as much to jeer James (and his boisterous mother Gloria) as much as they were there just to say they had been there. Everyone at that point knew he was The One. Before blogs and Facebook and Twitter had turned every kid with a 40-point game into a phenomenon, James’ play spoke for itself well enough to sell out arenas.
I was sitting in the upper level, to the right of center court and opposite the benches. My dad was hanging off the end of the bench row, half-sprawled into the aisle. I’m crammed between him and a South Philly-looking guy who refused to take his jacket off despite the overwhelming heat in the arena. Things got more unpleasant, smellwise, as the game wore on. Down the row, some high school kid yelled into his flip phone, “Yo, the game is on the Comcast channel. Channel 8 I think. EIGHT. CHANNEL EIGHT. You gotta see it! It’s that LeBron!”
There wasn’t much to see, really. Rice went 0-for in the first quarter as SVSM built a huge lead. James and his sidekicks piled it on while crowd turned its attention towards Gloria James, who was busy handing out PTI-style masks of her son’s face on a stick to fans sitting behind the visitor’s bench. Iverson walked in from the backdoor and the place went bonkers as he did a “I’m still the biggest star in town” half lap around the floor with his posse.
As the game wore on, James and Rice started talking to each other, but largely stayed away from engaging. Eventually, the meaninglessness of the game won out, and by the fourth quarter, they knew it was time to give the fans what they had come to see. It was time to go one-on-one in front of the biggest streetball audience ever assembled.
James came upcourt to line up against Rice, and their teammates melted away. The change in mood was instantaneous. The crowd rose together in a single, fluid movement, with a growing roar rolling across the arena’s domed roof.
James popped a three. Swish. Grumble.
Rice drove, missed a shot. Grumble.
James, another long shot. Swish. Grumble.
Rice had had enough. He slowly came up court, milking the crowd. LeBron crouched over, playing two feet off the ball on the left wing at the arc, and suddenly, it happened.
Rice stepped back, crossed to the left between his legs. LeBron had no answer. His left foot went out from under him as he tried to match Rice’s momentum, and he hit the deck. The hometown hero stopped, rose, and drilled the three. Pandemonium.
LeBron had been broken.
St. Vincent-St. Mary won 85-47. LeBron continued his made-for-TV tour; Rice continued to score until he broke Chamberlain’s record not long after the game.
LeBron, of course, went #1 in the draft, led the Cavs to the NBA Finals, won a couple of MVPs, ditched town, became a super villain, and has 2.3 million Twitter followers with a virtually unlimited marketing influence.
Rice went and played a prep year, then landed at George Washington, won an A-10 title, and was dismissed before his senior year. He wound up in the D-League, and has 393 Twitter followers. He has likely never played in front of a crowd quite as charged as he did that night in West Philadelphia.
So for dinner I was making some classy bachelor chow I like to call pasta a la marinara. Boil pasta. Microwave sauce. Dump together. Consume. I’ve done this literally a thousand times.
Put the pasta in to boil, no prob. Go to get the sauce. Now, when I have one serving of sauce left in the jar, I forgo a container and just stick the jar in the microwave, let it go, and by the time the pasta is done, it’s cooked and cooled enough to be perfect. So I throw that in the microwave, 3:45 High and ACTIVATE.
I go and chill on the couch, but about two minutes later the microwave starts sounding weird. It almost sounds like the cooling fan was starting to go - it was a high-pitched whooshing sound. I go over to investigate but I can’t figure it out.
And then I realized it - I NEVER TOOK THE LID OFF THE JAR. I now have a goddamn tomato sauce bomb charging up inside my microwave. Fuck. I pull the door to stop it, then panic thinking it’ll explode in my face. So I slam the door, grab two oven mitts, and more quickly than I have ever moved before, I run it out the front door and throw it on the front lawn.
Which is where it sits, until it cools down and I can throw it in the recycling.
I estimate that, in the past year, I’ve been in a doctor’s waiting room every two weeks, on average. All sorts of different doctors - my GP, cardiologists, endocrinologists, neurologists, surgeons, and probably some others I’m forgetting. The common string among all of them is the horrifying number of obese people sucking the cream filling out of our healthcare system.
Look, I’m not a hateful or prejudiced person. But as a former fat person, I have a perspective on things that many don’t. It saddens me to see these 300+ pound Diabetties clogging doctor’s offices. It saddens me to see overweight people overwhelmingly outnumber normal-sized people in waiting rooms. It saddens me that every time I go to my GP, the exam rooms are plastered with signs about Type II diabetes and weight control and not early-warning signs for cancer or stroke or Alzheimer’s, which are the No. 2, 3, and 6 causes of death in America.
The estimated economic cost of obesity is $270 billion a year - and that’s just obesity, not counting overweightness (which is possibly a word I just now made up). And yet there is absolutely no discussion on this. Healthcare has become such a dirty word that these fuckwits in Washington have no perspective on. Hell, the Republican wanna-be darling for President in 2012 is a guy that may well weigh four bills, and then the conservative wonks turn around and criticize Michelle Obama every time she eats a cheeseburger.
It’s so beyond ridiculous, we deserve to fail.