Everybody knew that LeBron James was going to be good. He was the most highly-regarded NBA prospect of his generation. The only question upon his selection as the number one overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was whether or not he'd be able to single-handedly bring relevance to a franchise that had essentially been without meaning or purpose for years.
Right from the beginning, it became fairly obvious that he would indeed be able to do just that. The Cleveland Cavaliers, after winning just 17 games the year prior, found themselves in a battle for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as LeBron's rookie season neared its conclusion.
Considering the success that awaited the franchise in future seasons, a battle for the eighth seed looks somewhat trivial in retrospect. But at the time, for fans who'd had nothing to root for since the team last made the playoffs in 1998, it meant everything.
My mom was able to get her hands on a couple of tickets to a game between the 31-40 Cavs and the 42-29 New Jersey Nets on March 27, 2004. I was just 16 years old at the time, and had only been to a couple of Cavs games before. Because my mom was only given two tickets by a friend, she let me and my younger brother go alone to the game. And we had amazing seats: first row, right behind the Fox Sports Ohio crew.
Since it was a decade ago, I don't remember a lot of the specifics from the game (other than the fact that the Cavs won and LeBron did some amazing things). After looking up the box score today, I realized just how amazing he was that night: 41 points on 15-29 shooting and 13 assists. With 1:49 left in the game, the Cavs trailed 100-97. LeBron then scored the team's final 10 points to lift Cleveland to a 107-104 victory.
His final basket of the night came on a fast-break dunk to seal the victory in the final seconds. When I watched the replayed broadcast of the game the next day, I could clearly see myself on TV, in a blue polo shirt, rising in unison with the rest of the crowd as we celebrated our new hero.
While I've forgotten many of those details, what I do remember, quite vividly, is the feeling that I left the arena with that night. It really felt as though there were no limits to how good this player, and by extension his team, could be. All of that miserable stuff that young people like me had heard about while growing up in Cleveland -- The Drive, The Fumble, etc. -- didn't seem to matter anymore. The past had no impact on this incredible future that was suddenly sprawling out in front of us. Anything was possible.
That Cavs team ultimately missed the playoffs. And of course, six years later, LeBron left. When he did, he pretty much took all of that hope about the future with him. Suddenly, Cleveland once again had nothing to cling to but its devastating sports history.
When this summer's news about LeBron's return began to sink in, I had a feeling very similar to the one I had back on that night in 2004. The future is suddenly sprawling once again.