LeBron James strolled into Hill Field House on Morgan State's campus Tuesday night wearing a white Nike T-shirt with words "Basketball Never Stops" stenciled on the front. He had a deathly serious look on his face. He handed out a few hugs, traded a series of low-key high-fives with acquaintances, but he didn't appear to be in the mood for conversation. After less than a minute, he drifted toward the floor and began silently shooting jumpers.
Kevin Durant had a similar steely-eyed focus when he arrived 20 minutes later. He bumped a few knuckles, bobbed his head to the music thumping through the gym speakers, and casually took off his backpack. He tracked down a loose ball and began launching 3-pointers.
The two superstars did not go out of their way to acknowledge each other, but when it was time to play ball, the two best players on the planet made it perfectly clear they would be guarding each other. It might not have been personal, but it certainly felt serious. Over the next 40 minutes, the pair exchanged a series of backboard-rattling dunks, 3-pointers and even the occasional glare. It wasn't always great basketball, but it was often great theater. Durant scored 59 points to James' 38, but James team, the Melo League All-Stars, held on for a 149-141 victory over Durant's Goodman League All-Stars.
James and Durant weren't the only players on the court, of course. It just felt like it at times. The game between their two teams — played in front of a sellout crowd of about 4,500 — featured a wealth of NBA talent. James' good friend Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) lured New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul to Baltimore along with James to play on his summer league team, figuring he would need the help if he was going to knock off Durant's summer league squad. Anthony figured it would be a fun way to raise a little money for charity and stay sharp during theNBA lockout. He also wanted to lift the spirits of his hometown after Hurricane Irene swept through this week.
"I think Baltimore needed this," Anthony said. "I think they definitely needed this, just to bring the morale of the city back up. The fans haven't seen seen something like this in a long, long time, so we just want to keep it going."
Anthony chipped in 27 points to help defend his hometown pride, but James and Durant clearly stole the show. It was like watching two gunslingers stare one another down in a live-action Western, and it wasn't clear who was supposed to be the villain. Durant would bury a jumper in James' face, and James would answer with a spin move and a dunk. James would execute an ankle-bending crossover dribble, then hit a long step-back jumper, and Durant would respond by flashing past James into the lane and laying the ball up softly with his left hand.
"It's kind of fun to see where you're at," Durant said after the game. "Playing against the best is the only way you can get better, so that's what I tried to do. It's only about trying to improve."
At one point in the first quarter, James isolated Durant three times and hit three straight jump shots in his face. But by the fourth quarter, Durant was clearly getting the best of James. He even toyed with him on one possession, daring James to reach and then blowing by him for a dunk.
"I have so much respect for LeBron," Durant said. "He'll go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. To have this opportunity against him, I'm just working on what I've been working on all summer. I had to take advantage of that. It was fun. He's a great defender and a great scorer. I try to play my hardest on defense against him. I try to be as aggressive as I can offensively."
The event — promoted only through word-of-mouth — didn't exactly go off without a hitch. The initial plan was to hold it at St. Frances, which seats only 1,000, but once word got out, organizers said they knew that wasn't possible.
"I knew if people couldn't get in, there was going to be a riot," said Kurk Lee, who runs the Melo Athletic Center and put together the event. "Luckily, Morgan opened their doors to me."
But the last-minute change still had everyone scrambling. The gym was packed to the point where fans were practically spilling onto the court. The game was supposed to tip off around 7 p.m., but it didn't get going until around 7:45. With no assigned seats and only a handful of police officers around to mediate arguments between grumpy patrons, the potential for chaos loomed throughout the game. At the final buzzer, most of the crowd surrounding the court spilled onto the floor and quickly surrounded James, Durant, Paul and Anthony. It felt a bit like a college game where the student body storms the court after a last-second upset.
But the atmosphere, in the end, was mostly festive. As the horn went off, James and Durant even smiled at each other and exchanged a warm hug.
"Kevin is a great player," James said after the game before he was whisked away by security. "We're all fans of the game, and that's the most important thing. I think we all just love basketball. I love to play. I play every day, and this was fun."
It was a night of fierce competition, with nothing decided or conceded, but something both men appeared to need. Because lockout or no, for players such as James and Durant, it's more than a slogan on a T-shirt: Basketball truly never stops.