How LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul Linked Up to Play in the Legendary Battle of I-95 Game
On Sunday, September 25, 2011, the entire basketball universe was paying attention to what was happening in West Philadelphia.
The NBA lockout was in full effect and there was no end in sight. Inside the legendary Palestra, players were gathering for the love of the game in front of their adoring fans. The players included a two-time NBA MVP, two top-10 all-time leading NBA scorers,
one top-five all-time NBA assists leader, one NBA Rookie of the Year, three NBA and NCAA champions and four Olympic Gold medalists. The Nike mantra of “Basketball Never Stops” was alive and on full display.
The summer/fall of 2011 was like getting multiple releases on the Snkrs app for a basketball fan—a remarkable, rare occurrence. While the owners and players union were debating over finances, the stars of the League made sure they filled their fans’ thirst for affordable, high-level action across the country in DC, L.A., Baltimore, Oklahoma, New York and Philadelphia.
“That is what made the lockout games so great,” says Jamar Smiley, Director of Player Relations for BDA Sports Management. “The everyday fan was able to see [the stars] play without sacrificing a day’s pay.”
The idea for the game in West Philadelphia started with some territorial trash talk between Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick about which city, Baltimore or Philly, had better players. The two were teammates on Syracuse in 2003, when the program won a national championship.
The vision started to become a reality on the night of Saturday, August 20, on the drive home from watching The Capital Punishment game in DC, where the Goodman League, led by Kevin Durant and John Wall, faced off against the Drew League, featuring James Harden and DeMar DeRozan.
I contacted Skinny [Hakim Warrick] via Facebook messenger, who then put me in touch with Smiley. Smiley and I spoke, and roles began to be defined. I would handle the logistics of the game, Skinny and Melo would be team captains and oversee coordination with the players, and Smiley would be my day-to-day contact.
Once the team captains committed and the $25,000 contribution to their designated charities was confirmed, it was time to get to work. We had to secure the venue and an insurance policy, get product for the players and advertise for the game.
The first task was locking down the historical Palestra arena, which sits on the Ivy League campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Palestra is considered the Cathedral of College Basketball, and legendary players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have all stepped foot on its court.
“From our first conversation, the game had to be at The Palestra; there was no second option,” Warrick says. “Plus, it is right around the corner from where I grew up in the Bottom West Philly.”
I called Philadelphia basketball icon, two-time Ivy League Player of the Year and UPenn head coach Jerome Allen, who has known Skinny and I since we were both young.
Allen arranged for a series of meetings between the Palestra’s facility director, UPenn’s athletic director and myself. Penn administration met the idea of the game with skepticism, due to the uncertainty of when the lockout would end. I assured them the game would happen because there was no end in sight for the lockout. I was confident, since I had daily communication with Smiley, who worked for one of the most prominent NBA agents in Bill Duffy, who represented numerous NBA stars including Steve Nash and Yao Ming.
Other parts were moving outside of the UPenn meetings. Nike had confirmed that they would be the official product sponsor for the game, outfitting all the players. Urban retail store DTLR Sneaker Villa would pay for all the radio advertisements, along with acquiring the insurance policy. Ten days after the initial meeting with Penn’s administrators, a deal was put in place for the Palestra to host the game.
Once these parts were solidified, the announcement to the public was made, and interest for the game exceeded all of our expectations.
Streaming is a standard tool of viewership nowadays, but back in 2011, it was something new. The Basketball Channel, a new company, approached me about the idea of streaming the event via the internet using their partnership with Sports Illustrated. The event was now going global.
“The game became bigger than what we expected,” says Warrick, a 13-year NBA vet and the Team Philly captain. “This was before the explosion of social media. Between the venue and streaming, this wasn’t no pickup game at the rec.”
The date and time were picked based on the fact that the hometown Philadelphia Eagles were playing their NFC East rival New York Giants that afternoon at 1 pm. Our game was scheduled to start at 6. I knew this would be a dream sports day for Philly fans. The Eagles versus the Giants at 1. The lockout game at 6 at the Palestra. It doesn’t get any better.
It was a warm, fall day, with temperatures in the 60s, but inside, the Palestra was humid and hot like a summer barbeque in the middle of the afternoon. “You had a three-piece suit on,” Smiley says, laughing, remembering the day. “I don’t know how you did it; I had to take my rugby shirt off.”
Members of the Philly team started to arrive around 4:30. As Hakim Warrick, Lou Williams, Kyle Lowry, Flip Murray, Wayne Ellington, Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson, Mark Tyndale, Mardy Collins, Dionte Christmas and Aaron Owens began to take the court to warm up, a buzz started growing. Only three members of Team Melo were on the court: Donte Greene, Josh Selby and Gary Forbes.
The remaining players were still nowhere to be seen or found as it approached 30 minutes before tip-off. Fans were beginning to worry if the game was even going to happen.
I wasn’t worried at all. I was in contact with Worldwide Wes [William Wesley, current Executive Vice President for the New York Knicks] the entire time. Melo, Bron and CP3 were at the Eagles-Giants game, and Wes had arranged for them to have a police escort to the arena.
At 5:45 pm, my BlackBerry rang. It was Worldwide Wes asking, “Where do we pull up at?” I instructed them to go through the back entrance. A fleet of black SUVs pulled up. First Chris Paul jumped out, then Carmelo, then LeBron. All three of them entered the Palestra and walked under the stands to the locker room. When the fans caught a glimpse of the trio, the arena erupted.
Finally, as the clock hit 6:15, legendary Philadelphia referee Keith “Showtime” Saunders tossed the ball up for the opening tip. Players on both teams competed as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals, with Team Philly winning, 131-122. But to basketball fans, there were no losers.
For those lucky few who got inside the hallowed halls of the Palestra, watching all of those future Hall of Famers—watching history—it was a once in a lifetime event.
Rahim Thompson is the founder of The Chosen League, the Philadelphia-based high school summer basketball league whose alumni include Kyle Lowry, Gerald Henderson and Kyle Kuzma. His book, Choose Wisely, is available at nomattertheodds.com.
Photos courtesy of Michelle Hunter/The Chosen League.