As a bona fide New Jerseyan, I always sensed some strange kismet connection between the state and the City of Cleveland. On the macro level, the city and state share this space in America’s conscious as the butt of all jokes. Also, on the micro level, my dad’s older brother, who is one year older and looks like his twin, moved straight outta college to Cleveland.
The recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Believeland brought back memories of my uncles being Jim Brown fans and visiting, before its demolition, an aged Municipal Stadium. However, the documentary’s raison d'etre was to highlight the unheralded boomtown and championship city it once was, but that is now defined by urban fatigue and the fatalism of its sports fans that haven’t enjoyed a title in over 50 years.
This reminded me of New Jersey’s uncelebrated basketball history that has seemingly been more recently clouded with a curse. The first professional basketball game was held in Trenton, NJ.
The first high school player drafted directly to the NBA was Bill Willoughby from Englewood. Two of the three primary high school basketball coaches in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame did it in Jersey gyms (Ernest Blood and Bob Hurley, Sr.).
But bad luck has visited.
Bobby Hurley, Jr. from St. Anthony’s in Jersey City had his career truncated by a near fatal car accident early in his rookie season that he never fully recovered from. Jay Williams who played at St. Josephs in Metuchen, NJ, after an All-Rookie selection with the Chicago Bulls crashed his motorcycle and never played another NBA minute. And DaJuan Wagner from Camden, NJ, drafted sixth overall by the Cavs, the same year as Williams, after a productive first season had to have his colon removed, which effectively ended his career.
But, perhaps, similar to mathematical principles that stipulate a negative times a negative equals a positive, or how Biggie announced he went from negative to positive and that his crew “sip champagne when we thirst-ay”, realizing that 3/5th of the Cavs starting lineup have their schoolboy roots in the Garden State, maybe together, I thought, Cleveland and New Jersey can win a NBA championship.
You likely may be aware that Kyrie Irving was born in Australia but he’s Jersey-bred like sweet Jersey corn. Down-under just happened to be the place where his parents were living at the time of his birth as his dad pursued his professional basketball career. Uncle Drew (Irving’s middle name is Andrew) was reared in West Orange, NJ and played at two schools in New Jersey, initially at Montclair Kimberly Academy (Montclair, NJ) and more widely-known at St. Patrick’s (Elizabeth, NJ).
Earl Joseph “J.R.” Smith was born in Freehold, NJ and had a peripatetic path taking him from Lakewood High School (Lakewood, NJ) to two schools in suburban Trenton that he actually never suited up for (Steinert and McCorristin Catholic which is now Trenton Catholic) before he graduated from St. Benedict’s in Newark.
Tristan Thompson hails from Toronto but also found his way to Jersey, playing his sophomore and half of his junior year also at St. Benedict’s before a disagreement with then coach and another Hurley, Danny, prompted him to transfer to Findlay Prep (Las Vegas), joining fellow Canadian and AAU teammate Cory Joseph, who happens to play now for their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, the Toronto Raptors.
Also, in the role of bench agitator is Dahntay Jones, who was born in Trenton and played at Steinert before playing collegiately in the state at Rutgers until transferring to Duke. The journeyman has played for seven NBA teams and most recently in the D-League prior to the call up right before the playoffs in time to give Bismack Biyombo the business.
But hold on, there’s more.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The King himself was anointed on the hardwood floors of New Jersey.
As a rising junior at the popular and prestigious ABCD basketball camp in Teaneck, NJ, LeBron dominated the rising senior Lenny Cooke (Northern Valley Regional, Old Tappan, NJ), who was ranked at the time as the number one schoolboy player in the nation. LeBron outplayed Cooke all game and stunned the gym with a winning three-pointer at the buzzer, leaving Cooke dazed and on the basketball road to perdition.
For a Jersey encore, in the first game following his controversial suspension by athletic officials in Ohio for accepting two throwback jerseys, LeBron, at the Primetime Shootout in Trenton, lit up Westchester High School (Los Angeles) and Trevor Ariza for 52 points.
Former Cleveland head coach David Blatt played college ball at Princeton.
Well, maybe the Cavs didn’t want to push their luck.