Antawn Jamison led a precession of bodies down the history-laced hallway that stretches from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room to the players’ parking garage in the lower bowels of Quicken Loans Arena. Sauntering slowly, Jamison kept both thumbs tucked under the straps of the over-sized backpack which housed his personalia; his New York Yankees hat branded with an “AJ4” on the right side, pulled down close to his brow. Trailed by three close friends, Jamison approached dozens of fans waiting by the arena’s exit with hopes of getting the veteran’s autograph.
Following right behind was rookie point guard Kyrie Irving. Also surrounded by a handful of friends and family, the two players arrived to a pocket of fans who were seemingly benevolent to the fact that their team had just dropped their 44th game of a compressed season, an 11-point loss to the Washington Wizards, this one on what was dubbed Fan Appreciation Night.
Jamison and Irving took to the Wine and Gold mob with markers in hand, leaving nothing but din and smiles and stories for tomorrow’s school day in their wake. The alpha and omega of the New Expression Cavaliers.
Moments earlier, Jamison wrapped up what would be his final game as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers; a 10-point, four-rebound outing which also included a slight leg injury. Emerging from the team’s showers, Jamison took what would be his final walk to his corner locker, the one he moved into when the adjacent corners read “James” and “O’Neal.” His first move, to take a brush to his recently sprouted five-o-clock shadow while soaking in the visual of head coach Byron Scott listen in on Irving’s post-game address. Wherein Scott would carefully word responses regarding “if” the recent loss was Jamison’s last game in Cleveland, the 35-year-old quickly erased all doubt by starting his post-game thoughts with a bittersweet smirk and the words “Let’s be honest.”
“It’s time for me to move on,” Jamison said. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I definitely have a great feeling this is probably my last home game and [tonight] will be my last game as a [Cavalier].”
If it was in fact Jamison’s final game in a Cleveland jersey, he did not exactly go out on top. Playing less than 17 minutes, Jamison was the only Cleveland starter to reach double-digits, but the team lost the contest and it took the high-volume shooter eight attempts to get there. This lone game, however, was merely a blip on the radar of a season where the veteran undoubtedly gave it his all despite losing nearly 70 percent of the season’s contests. He started every game save for Byron Scott’s decision to give him the night off earlier this month, lead the team in minutes played and was bested by only Irving in the points category.
“Antawn’s an unbelievable professional basketball player and a great person,” said Byron Scott of his veteran leader. “[He] gave everything you would want on a daily basis — I can’t tell [him] enough how much I appreciate that.”
A tumultuous two-and-a-half years, the Antawn Era in Cleveland will undoubtedly be known for an early post-season exit, an epic losing streak and a lockout-shortened finale. But Jamison, in all of his good graces, focused on the positive. The fans, the coaching staff, the training staff — he experienced a season-ending finger injury in 2010-11 — and “Mr. Gilbert.”
Jamison arrived in Cleveland as the missing link, the holy grail which would serve to propel the city of Cleveland to their first championship in more than four decades. The “stretch four” who could provide offense without needing the ball in his hands at every waking moment, a shooter who could knock down the mid-range and three-point field goals when the big bodies (and bigger egos) were opposed by multiple defenders. Coveted not only for his character, but for his rare skill set for a player of his stature.
It wouldn’t be long before Antawn would be forced to change roles from “missing piece ” to the tie that bound — a veteran surrounded by inexperienced colleagues, tossed into a situation best replicated perpetual nights spent in stocks in front of a crowd armed with a litany of rotten eggs and an arsenal of verbal scorn. A lead-by-example guy, Jamison had to see his championship dreams vanish in the rear-view mirror while he took to the floor every night, hoisting up pregame shots sometimes hours before tip-off.
Starting at the free throw line, Jamison works on his charity stripe stroke as his father’s voice faintly chastises him with every miss. Then he heads to the three-point line where he takes shots from the top of the key and the locations just above the elbows. Finally, a few mid-range shots and the occasional flip shot lay-in that the 6-foot-10-inch forward has seemingly perfected. More often than not, Jamison is flanked by rookies and second-year players, learning the ropes and becoming more aware of what it takes to not only play at a high level in the NBA, but do so for 13 years and counting.
Prior to the season, and even several times throughout, Jamison remained undecided when it came to his future. While he was certain he had at least another year or two left in his professional basketball-playing tank, he remained focused on the task at hand, specifically, teaching the rookies and second-year players how to not only take care of their bodies but how to cope with unfortunate outcomes, something most had not dealt with at any stage of their playing careers.
While he would say that his dreams of obtaining an NBA championship ring were slowly becoming a thing of the past, once the final horn sounded through The Q, Jamison’s career-long goal poked it’s head back into the picture. Admitting he was grateful for all of the things which have been afforded to him over his tenure, Jamison brushed aside all individual accolades, stating that a championship is the only thing that is left for him to accomplish. The lone driving force behind his waining years. Where he lands remains to be seen, but odds are that the Larry O’Brien Trophy is within reach.
“It’s been a pleasure, peoples,” said Jamison, addressing the security staff waiting for the Cavaliers locker room to empty out. Fist-bumps were given. Hugs were had. Every team employee Jamison encountered on his final stroll was addressed. No ball boy left behind. One of the three friends who accompanied the veteran jokingly stated, “Oh, by the way…we forgot to tell you you’re under contract for one more year.” That bittersweet smirk returned as the foursome arrived to the passionate pack of supporters.
One by one, Jamison grabbed a sharpie, signing countless items. Going down the line of fans, Jamison scrawled his name. A poster. A jersey. A t-shirt. A left shoe. A fresh-faced Kyrie Irving was right behind, adding in a few high-fives for good measure.
As Jamison got to the end of the first line of fans, he signed the last item and made a 90-degree turn to his left to head through the metal detectors, through the door into the player’s garage where his vessel awaited. His three friends led the way, Jamison picking up the rear. The door quietly closed behind him.
Kyrie Irving stayed behind.
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)